December 22, 2017
Pottery Wheel Wisdom
What form this piece is going to take, I don’t yet know.
A soothing whir fills the studio as I press the foot pedal and the wheel hums to life. I grab a sponge and squeeze a generous splash of water over my ball of clay. Then, I close my hands over it and feel it turning between my palms, rough, gritty, but smoothing as I go. The slick, rust-colored clay coats my fingers and nails.
As a beginner, the pieces I make are not perfect or particularly elaborate. Still, I thoroughly enjoy the experience of crafting with my own hands. The more I do, the more ways I realize that pottery parallels life, and that a special kind of strength can be found in each piece of clay. Here are the lessons I’ve taken away from my time at the pottery wheel.
When I attended my first pottery class, I was full of ideas for what kind of pieces I wanted to make and exactly how I wanted them to look. As I started to throw clay, however, I realized that my ambitions were significantly more advanced than my skills were.
It didn’t take long for me to see I needed to let go of my original ideas and simply follow where my work took me. This was a big weight off my shoulders. With no pressure to follow a predetermined plan, the process became more enjoyable and interesting.
After that, imperfections were no longer a big deal. Surprises happened. The first plate I made was originally intended to be a pot. Trying to make a tall cylinder, I ended up making a round bud vase with a dramatic tapered top. Often, the pieces did not turn out how I expected them to, but actually turned out better than I could have planned.
Lesson: In life, don’t get attached to a certain outcome. Go with the flow and enjoy the process.
Stay Centered and Be Patient
When you first put a wedge of raw clay onto the wheel, you have to “center” it before you can turn it into something beautiful. This means working the initial lump into a clean, symmetrical circle. If you skip this crucial step, it will be nearly impossible to make a proportional, balanced finished piece, since you’re continually turning it in a circle on the wheel.
Confession time: I usually lose my patience before I finish this process. As a result, a lot of my pieces turn out, well, lumpy. Whenever I look at someone else’s smooth, clean-looking bowls, I’m always amazed at the level of patience it takes to make something so simple. In the end, the patience is always worth it.
Lesson 1: Being centered is the best vantage point.
Lesson 2: Don’t cut corners, or it will be obvious later. Take the time to do things right the first time.
Imperfect is Perfect
There are as many different styles of pottery as there are artists, but when boiled down, most pieces fit within one of two categories: polished or rustic. With my lumpy bowls you can guess which category I love accidently belonging to.
But truly, there is something a rustic, handmade-looking pot has that a perfectly polished piece doesn’t. There’s a magical quality that emanates off something that you know was born from somebody’s bare hands. There’s a certain charm that a factory-perfect piece could never have. For instance, I love when you can see round arches in the bottom of a piece’s glaze, left by someone’s fingers as they simply grabbed their piece and dunked it into the glaze bucket. The fingerprints playfully hint back to the person who created it, connecting artist with creation.
Lesson: There’s inherent beauty in imperfection.
Walking Through Fire Makes You Stronger
After a piece is coated in glaze, it’s put in the kiln to be fired, which solidifies the piece and makes it waterproof. The kiln reaches unfathomably hot temperatures of almost 2,000° F. This process is what makes ceramic pieces so durable. Have you noticed how much pottery from ancient, bygone eras still exists today? I’ve read that the oldest known pieces are up to 20,000 years old. The kiln strengthens the raw material, allowing it to endure.
People are the same way. While arduous circumstances can damage us, they can also teach us lessons that make us stronger after we’ve healed.
Lesson: Tough situations or conditions have the potential to make us more durable.
Stability Gives Strength
If you shape a ball of clay one way, then try to shape it a different way, it will be resistant to change. Clay holds memories and wants to retain its original shape. This stability is what gives it strength.
Lesson: Don’t be swayed by the winds. Embrace your original wholeness and just be yourself.
What lessons have you learned while practicing an art or a craft? Is there something special your favorite creative activity has taught you? Share a comment below!