As someone both artistic and practical by nature, I’m drawn to art with utility. Therefore, I thought a class in pottery would suit me. I wanted to make something with purpose and find out what nature’s most useful mud feels like between my fingers. Also, I confess, I have romantic visions of clay, thanks to the movie “Ghost”.
I guess you could say I had big plans. I wanted to make a cup.
At $435, for a weeklong pottery class at the famous Campbell School of Folk Arts in North Carolina (plus the cost of materials and lunches) mine would be an expensive cup. To justify the investment, I announced to my husband that I was making the cup for him. This gave me incentive to produce something presentable. I was determined.
My husband took a class in woodcarving at the school the same week. He was making a hand-hewn bowl and spoon, something that looks like a caveman would use for his Cheerios in the morning. The wood studio was conveniently located right beside the potter’s studio, so he could stop by throughout the day to say hello and lend encouraging advice. When I needed a break, I’d go to his class to watch him chipping away at his log (no advice from me, since I know less about woodcarving than I know about pottery.) While we were not together in these endeavors, it felt as if we were, for each lunch we came together in the big, family style lunchroom to share our experiences of the day. The week felt like one huge, art exploring date.
When we were not together, I was meeting new people. The other students in my class were all enthusiastic, non-competitive, art-loving beginner potters too, and they spent as much energy “oohing” and “awing” other’s attempts, showing sweet unconditional support, as they did wiggling their nose at their own work. I fit right in, surprisingly at home when playing in the mud with my new friends.
You wouldn’t think I’d feel fondly towards an art form that strips a gal of her glamour, but I took to pottery immediately. Not only are you muddy and wet throughout, but alas, your nails have to go. Ghastly! It’s not that I’m pampered or spoiled, but losing my nails makes me feel like I have Fred Flintstone’s fingers when typing. I was working on a non-fiction piece for my MFA in the evenings, and let me just say, for once, the typos in my paper were legitimate. My hands were raw and sore from the friction of the mud spinning on the wheel all day long and the absence of my hard protective nails made me so sensitive to touch that each time I hit the keys of my computer, it was like hitting miniature funny bones hidden on the ends of my digits. Nevertheless, the joy of seeing improvement in my pottery each day kept me grinding away at the wheel.
I’ve discovered I love the feeling of the wet clay under my fingertips. I love experiencing how subtle pressure makes huge adjustments in what I’m creating as I draw the clay from the base up the sides of a cylinder. I like how the pressure of my foot against the pedal controls the speed of the spinning, allowing me to determine how force and gravity will shade my creation. I even love the various implements and tools used to fix imperfections or decorate a piece in artistic ways.
I now know how to wedge and center clay. I can make cylinders and bowls. I even practiced carving my initials in the bottom of my very own creations and came up with a pretty flourish of my initials to make my mark.
The goop of clay is sensual. Sometimes, I found myself sitting, just focusing on the glorious sensation under my fingertips rather than remembering to work on my project. I’d feel the sticky mud seep into the tiny cracks and lifelines on my palm, massaging the pads of my fingers with forgiving pressure, the hands-on contact with art both earthy and satisfying. Pottery is natural, clay extracted from the earth, molded by man to make a finished product that is at once useful and striking. I was thrilled to be a part of that wonder.
I practiced eight hours a day, then went home exhausted, continuing to feel the wheel spinning under my hands, not unlike the sensation of getting off a treadmill where, even though you know you are standing still, it seems as if everything around you is racing. I felt out of time sync with the exterior world, however, my inner world, my artistic soul, was satiated.
My teacher, Andrew Stephenson, is a professional potter with a MFA who also served two two-year apprentice terms with world-renowned potters. Another artist who works in the medium of wood and pottery, Matt, assisted him. Both are great teachers, demonstrating and explaining in detail what we have to do to successfully create a piece, then showing us what happens due to the natural errors beginners tend to make.
First, they’d observed us trying each new skill, then they’d squat beside us, taking our hands and guiding them to adapt the correct pressure, angle and touch required to make something beautiful. On breaks, we viewed slides of their artwork found in galleries, and saw films about famous potters. We learned the history, culture and technique of pottery. All of this made the class much more than a lesson in how to make a cup. The teachers were not only attentive and caring during the class; but they woke in the middle of the night, scurrying through the cold to the pottery studio, to load and unload the kilns, making it possible to fit several firings into the single week. There commitment came across as encouragement, inspiring us all to stay focused.
Producing pottery is a complicated process. Your creation can go belly up anytime during the many stages required to make a finished product. Once you master the art of forming the piece on the wheel, it still has to survive the trimming stage, the drying process and the first firing. If it doesn’t explode at this time, due to air bubbles or cracks, it has a second chance to go bust in the second firing. Then, having survived this half of the journey, your creation is now subject to luck with glazes and another go in the kiln. The chemicals react differently determined by the level of heat, cooling, and application and the result is always a surprise. A great potter is not just a visual artist, but a chemist, a baker and logician. Pottery is complex, creative, and experimental all at once. And fun.
I made seven owls, and two cups. I inspected each piece as it came out of the final firing, marveling at the differences in the glazes, how each one reacted differently dependant upon where the piece was placed in the kiln. It’s like each piece of clay, once molded, has a unique personality, modified and exaggerated by heat.
I presented my slightly lopsided, thick, caveman style cup to my husband on Friday with no small amount of pride. It’s his favorite cup (or so he claims, as a dutiful husband must.) My pieces are clearly a beginner’s attempt. They aren’t great, but they’re mine, precious tokens of a wonderful experience
North Carolina and Georgia is home to the country’s most renowned potters. People come from all over the world to study here. Galleries, festivals and shops feature displays with everything from traditional folk pottery to Terra Sitillata, Porcelain, or Raku. I now have a new understanding of pottery and can pick up a piece in a shop and imagine just how the clay felt under the artist’s hands. I even recognize many of the techniques and different glazing styles used. I’m filled with a new appreciation for the craftsmanship involved, and will never again question the cost of handmade pottery, knowing how much talent, time and effort is required to make beautiful, artful, handmade containers.
One week is only enough to get a taste of the art of pottery, so I will no doubt take another class someday, perhaps hand building, or glazing techniques. My husband, once a hobbyist potter, tells me that if I get “into” pottery, we can buy a wheel and kiln and build a small pottery shed by his woodworking shop. He’d like that, not only for me, but because he might visit and whip out a carafe or bowl on occasion, too. I guess pottery is an art that seeps into your soul. Even when you move on to a different art, you never forget the compelling feel of that sensuous mud between your fingers. I told him I might take him up on the offer someday, but for now, there are other interests I want to explore. The truth is, I’m not ready to live with Fred Flintstone fingers on a permanent basis.
Thanks to my positive experience in the class Mud Made Fun: Getting a Spin on the Potter’s Wheel, I may not become a great potter, but I am a new supporter of the art. I want to go to kiln openings and start collecting a few prime pieces in which to serve my ongoing “experimental” cooking. I’m convinced food will taste better from a container made with care. Beautiful handmade bowls will inspire me to make dishes worthy of the art that holds them and I look forward to setting a table that is also a work of art.
The class is over, and I have put pottery behind me for now, while I go back to the demands of my everyday life. But, if I close my eyes, I can still feel the smooth, cool clay between my palms. Mud is simple. Magical. And therapeutic.
Occasionally, I even borrow my husband’s cup, just so I can sip my coffee from something made by my very own hands and remember pottery’s greatest lesson. Making a mess can be good for the soul.