Ora Sterling, center, teaches a a mask-making class using ceramics to Santiago Torres, 13, left, Romario Alvarez, 11, and Ana Frutos, 12, right, at the Sawdust Art Festival on Tuesday. The students were with Project Access within the Warwick Center, a housing community in Santa Ana. (SCOTT SMELTZER, Coastline Pilot / July 30, 2013)

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The sculpting table that Ora Sterling oversees at the Sawdust Art Festival features an abundance of riches — artistic riches, that is, not the monetary kind.

But some of the tools the kids use to shape their clay masks might indicate otherwise.

"I've collected credit cards for 20 years, just to use in clay," the veteran Sawdust artist explained Tuesday as a dozen or so teenagers wielded cards along with meat skewers, sponges and other implements of creation.

Step into the raised patio where Sterling holds her summer art class, and that anything-goes vibe pervades everything from the tools to the sample artworks to the inspirational props. On one table is a mask painted on half a coconut shell; Sterling gives her pupils potential ideas with a book on Mexican masks and a wall calendar featuring photos of cats.

As for the masks left drying in the adjoining room? One features a cat with a fish extended between its ears, which an adult artist might call surrealism. To Sterling, though, it just shows a lack of inhibition — her main goal in educating kids who may have far less exposure to arts than the typical Laguna Beach resident.

"I tell them they can't make mistakes," Sterling said. "I tell them clay is not dirty."

For the second year in a row, the Sawdust Art Enrichment Fund is hosting a group of students from the Project Access Family Resource Center at Warwick Square Apartments, a low-income area in Santa Ana. The teens, divided into elementary- and secondary-age groups, visit the grounds twice: once to shape their masks and again to decorate them when they're out of the oven.

Tuesday was shaping day for the older group, and Sterling, along with trustees from the Sawdust Art Enrichment Fund, milled about as various animals emerged from mounds of gray clay. Yuliza Sanchez, 13, said the experience was her first in a sculpting class. Her animal of choice was a rabbit, which she chose on a whim.

"I'm going to take it to my house and put it on the wall," said Yuliza, who attends Villa Fundamental Intermediate School.

Any chance she can wear it?

"It's too small," she said.