I’ve been dreaming about getting my hands in clay for years. I imagined the feel of the pliant clay running through my fingers as I shaped the soft block into a useful container of my choosing. In my daydreams, I envisioned hours spent calm and centered before the wheel. I was inspired to register for a class at my local art center last fall. The first night, I walked into the unfamiliar space eyeing the wheels set up in two rows facing a center shelf. We gathered around the glazing table and quickly received the basic instruction. We needed clay, which came in 25-pound bags and we needed tools, a small sponge, wire cutter, and various wooden and metal hand tools. The smell of clay filled the space.
Within minutes, we were selecting our spinning wheels and our teacher, an accomplished young potter in residence, was showing us how to make a cylinder. Her hands were confident and her space was spotless when she produced a perfect vase. When she cut it in half for us to see the cross-section, we saw that the walls and the floor of the vessel were exactly the same size. She put her clay away and nodded for us to begin.
I quickly learned that there is a fine line between mud and clay. It’s all about the water content. For the next few weeks, I would begin with clay and end up with mud spinning around the wheel, on to the floor, my clothes, and occasionally my neighbor. The idea of pottery hit the reality of pottery head on. At the end of the first night, I had spun my bit of clay/mud so violently around the wheel the side of my hand was actually sanded off. I wore my wounds proudly. I didn’t know what I was doing yet, but I was doing it.
Week after week we showed up to class. We learned additional techniques like how to make a bowl, how to trim your piece, and how to pull a handle for a cup. Our instructor was patient and understanding. She would show up to help us decide… is it centered? Can it be released from the wheel? What happens when you trim right through the bottom? (Answer: it becomes a flower pot). She played 70’s music, even though she was clearly born in the 1990’s. We laughed and played in the mud.
At first, I was afraid I would never learn. So, I kept all the crooked pieces I was able to free from the wheel. I let them dry on a shelf with my name scrawled on duct tape, while I practiced on another lump from my bag. Finally, I let go of some of my first attempts as I began to get the feel of the clay/mud and turned out a few pieces I felt proud of. At the end of the first session, I felt like I was beginning to understand what I was supposed to be doing, so I signed up for the same class again.
At the end of three months, I had eight pieces I felt proud to bring home. They are remarkably smaller than I envisioned them to be when I formed them on the wheel. Heat does that to clay. I only began to explore glazes. I didn’t really spend much time thinking about decoration. I concentrated on making bowls. My goal was to make a cereal bowl for each of my kids (who always complain that mine are too small). When Christmas rolled around, I had six bowls but they are all smaller than the ones in my cupboard. No one got a bowl for Christmas.
But man did I have a good time! It was fun/frustrating to learn something from the beginning. There were nights when I would slip on my “play clothes” and head down the road feeling dead tired from working all day. But the smell of the clay, the fun of trying again, and the growing sense of confidence that I really could learn this all helped propel me forward. It is good for me to be a beginner, to embrace not knowing. I don’t really enjoy it, but I know I need to keep at it. It’s so easy to let that fun/frustration of learning slip away as you settle into familiar routines. I want to be a lifelong learner, even if sometimes I want to throw things while I’m learning.
There are some other things I will take away from this experience…
- The potter, not the clay is supposed to decide what it will be. Too often I found myself being pushed around by the clay, bending to its will rather than making it bend to mine.
- The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know. One night our class walked through an exhibit of potters’ cups. Dozens and dozens of artisans’ work were displayed showing a variety that was staggering. You could spend your whole life exploring this medium.
- New skills come when you put in the time, attention and practice. I have no doubt I can continue to learn the potter’s wheel and develop my skills. The question in my mind is how much time do I have to devote to this and what will I have to give up to do it.
- Sometimes, it’s okay to just play in the mud. Even if I never become a potter. Even if I never take another class. The experience of learning, of creating, and of enjoying the process was definitely worth the price of admission.
So, the winter classes started without me, but I am still thinking about the wheel. I’m not sure what opportunities lay ahead, but I am so grateful for the chance to learn, to play, to ponder, and to grow. Making pottery, learning new skills, and being a beginner are all part of what makes life grand. So, what are you learning? Where are you stepping out of your familiar life and embracing the fun/frustration of learning something new?
This is one of my 50 before 50 experiences. Want to know more? Click here to follow along.