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Dana Anderson and Fletcher Rickabaugh put the finishing touches on their terra cotta warrior. For more photos of the project, see gallery at bottom of this article. Photo by Erin Frey

By Laurelle Walsh

Freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors studying ceramics and Chinese at Liberty Bell High School joined forces last month to begin work on four clay sculptures modeled in the style of China’s 2,000-year-old Terracotta Warriors.

“Eveline Wathen and I have done collaborative work previously at Liberty Bell … and this year we thought it would be fun to bring two of our high school classes together to produce a permanent art piece for the school,” said art teacher Robin Nelson-Wicks.

When finished later this spring, the clay warriors will be on display in the Liberty Bell High School lobby. Each warrior will receive a Chinese name, and an interpretive sign will give viewers an overview of the history and processes involved in building them, said Wathen.

To prepare for the project, students in Wathen’s second-year Chinese class researched and presented information to the ceramics students about the historical significance of the original Terracotta Warriors and the culture that created them.

Liberty Bell’s warriors are based on China’s Terracotta Army, discovered buried in pits near Xi’an in Shaanxi province in 1974. More than 8,000 life-size soldiers, chariots and horses were manufactured and buried in the late third century BC as funerary art intended to protect China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, in the afterlife, it is believed. Katherine Tannehill, a Liberty Bell senior who spent a semester in China last year, viewed the actual Terracotta Army in Xi’an while on a weekend break from her studies in Beijing.

“It was impressive, but sad,” said Tannehill. “I was blown away by the sheer number of Warriors, but a lot of them still haven’t been excavated because of the tourists flocking to the site.” Due to the tourist dollars, the Chinese government has put off unearthing the rest indefinitely, Tannehill said.

She got close to some of the sculptures that were behind glass, and said each appeared unique. “We were told that each was modeled on a real person, who was then killed,” Tannehill said.

Tannehill is a ceramics student, and is doing independent study in Chinese with Wathen. She said the collaborative project did not surprise her because “we’re good at integrating different subjects at Liberty Bell.”

“We looked at the warriors and initially considered producing them to scale,” said Nelson-Wicks. “However, the size of the school kiln and our time frame helped us to make a wise size adjustment just prior to the beginning of construction.

“We modeled our four warriors on the quarter-size warrior that is made today in China for the tourist market. Robert and Charlotte Nelson [Nelson-Wicks’ parents] graciously loaned me their warrior so the students could see the 3-D warrior form,” she said.

Students in the ceramics class learned to use coil construction methods to sculpt the human form and learned how to sculpt a realistic proportional face, Nelson-Wicks said. They then taught those techniques to the Chinese students and spent two weeks together working on the warriors.

Freshman Carter Dornfeld, a student in the Chinese 2 class, mostly helped with rolling clay coils and putting the forms together, he said.

Most interested in the fields of technology, engineering and design, Dornfeld said that building the sculptures and researching how the original Terracotta Warriors were made helped him “realize it’s really hard to make that kind of sculpture with the technology that was available in China at the time.”

“The collaborative process worked really well,” said Wathen. “It’s really fun when you can exchange skills and knowledge,” which is also one of the learning standards for the language curriculum, she said.

Each warrior is constructed in three sections — the head, the torso, and the legs — which, when finished will be assembled using rebar and plywood for internal support, according to Nelson-Wicks.

The pieces are built thick in order to support the weight of the form, and must dry very slowly to prevent cracking before being kiln-fired in late February, Nelson-Wicks said.

After the sculptures are fired, the two classes will get together once again for the final step of painting their warriors in colors that “art conservationists agreed were on the original Warriors before they were unearthed and became oxidized,” said Nelson-Wicks.