By Susan Lee, written as a part of Debby Gaines' Community-Based Writing class.
For me, sitting at a pottery wheel realigns my senses. The spin of the wheel along with the soft gentle feel of the clay, soothe my being. When I throw clay, I prepare, very intentionally, for the full experience. I start with selecting my wardrobe. What I wear has to be loose, it has to move when I move, and it has to tolerate damp oozing clay. I do my nails. To really become adept at working with clay, nails have to be strong and just the right length. Finally, I gather my accessories. The essential accessories for me are sponges to wet the clay, pin tools to gauge depth, and ribs to shape the clay. Now I’m ready to select a clay body and feel my stressful day melt away.
I teach wheelthrown pottery on Sundays. More often than not, my class is a parent/child activity. Usually Moms with their teen daughters building new bonds. The youngest student, so far, was a little girl who took the class with her Dad. That was unusual, but it taught me a really good lesson about the abilities of special children. She threw some nice pots for a beginner and had a discriminating eye for style.
Without fail, the first day of a new class, someone brings the movie Ghost into the conversation. Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze were in a scene that was clearly erotic. The vessel she had on the wheel, tall, slender, and very wet, was quick to collapse when he began to touch her. I have a guilty confession, that’s why I went to my first class. The reason I stayed, I discovered the metaphor of clay. Humanity!
First and foremost, there’s the clay. Humans were created from it. Like human bodies, there are infinite possibilities for the clay bodies. That means each clay has different characteristics and different elemental makeups. Porcelain fires really hot, raku clay has some flexible thermal properties, and the reds make for good sculpture and can tolerate throwing. And then, there are a few million or so more.
Porcelain is to clay bodies like well-oiled skin is to chapped hands. There’s a delicate, smooth nature to porcelain, yet it’s the one that can withstand the highest heat without sagging. It takes a really light touch to handle this body. There’s something very sensual about throwing with it. Like a good relationship, it takes time to build the piece, patience to overcome challenges, and the ability to step into a sort of Zen with the wheel as the piece grows, moving past the bumps in the spiral.
Raku has a lot of grit in it. Grit gives this body the flexibility to resist breakups. Those happen after fast heating, then a rapid quench. This body is made specifically for that very thing. Red hot vessels come out of the kiln and are doused immediately. Other bodies would experience shock and simply break up. This one isn’t fazed. I worked this body on the wheel once, it was like working concrete. My fingertips had to heal before I could throw again. It’s not a bad body, it’s just not the body for me.
The reds have a lot of iron in them. They are well suited for sculpture, but will work on the wheel. These bodies leach out into whatever they touch. If you’re familiar with the changes, and are accepting, this might be the body for you. Just plan for it. This one is OK for a while, but if you want to maintain control, eventually you must move on.
Most potters use a mix of different clays. Ours is a mix of porcelain and smooth raku created by the potters at the studio. This body has a soft, smooth feel, can perform using a variety of techniques, tools, and sometimes toys. When finished, it has a pristine, classy appearance. We decided that we all want to be able to switch from fast, hot bodies, to slow ramp ups with a gentle slow cool off, to a body that quenches as soon as it reaches a heated peak. This body gives us that and much more. It took some work, some failures, but we finally found the one that works for all of our needs, especially our classes.
Teaching others to throw clay is a personal endeavor. Every teacher has little secrets and hints to the process. Some share more than others. We all agree on one thing, any piece that comes off the wheel starts as a mound of clay that needs to be worked. This process is the first time you get to touch your body. The first time you actually feel the soft smooth texture. This is the first experience of knowing you are sliding down a path to total gratification. It’s the first moment of contact, aligning your body with the clay body. It’s a bit like a massage for your clay, you work the knots out. It’s like kneading bread, but there is some finesse to the act of handling this soft damp mound.
You find your piece of clay. Soon it will be rhythmically worked on the tabletop. The cadence of the process is not to be rushed, not if you want to be satisfied in the end. At the wheel, centering and pulling walls, while fundamental to creating a vessel, won’t be fluid without those initial strokes. This technique is called wedging. It’s hard to learn, hard to master, most things we desire are.
After the wedging is over, your piece of clay that’s just right, needs to be centered on the wheelhead. Settling in at the wheel, you start the very intimate process of throwing. Take your clay and forcefully throw it on the wheelhead. Try to hit the center spot, at least get close to it. This is the time to move very quickly. Get the wheel spinning fast, keep your piece slippery wet and brace yourself for the centering process.
First, position yourself hovering over the clay body. Use your hands and fingers to coax the slippery clay to a smooth spinning mound. Once there, move on, shaping the clay carefully with your fingers, into a tall, narrow, stiff column. At the peak, take the column and let it wind down on itself, then quickly open the smooth disc of clay as the rhythmic motion of the wheel literally pulls your fingers in. You’re not finished yet, this early penetration, simply provides access to the real beginning of the vessel. While inside, gently stroke the clay away from the center until you feel the span of the bottom you were anticipating. While doing that, create an undercut you will use to take the pot up.
Keeping the clay lubricated is crucial at this part of the experience. Go back inside your wet piece, slow the spin, and take your time. Slowly and purposefully pull up with your fingertips as the wheel spins, over and over again until you have the piece where you want it. You now have the sides of your vessel pulled up.
Now, your piece can come to fruition. Begin to shape your vessel by gently touching the sides as it spins. There will be times when you will press in from the outside, other times you must press out from inside. Many times, you will use both hands to hold the body and each hand will move in tandem as the piece changes shape to satisfy your intent.
The finished piece, still wet and delicate, now must rest until the next round. Once leather hard, the piece can be carved, trimmed, or paddled as desired. Once again, your piece must rest. This time until bone dry. It’s time to get hot. The clay gets fired twice, once on low fire, to prepare for glazing, next on high fire to let the glaze slowly ooze over the piece and come to completion. Finally, you can step back and gaze at your creation. Admire the curves and lines that your mind envisioned and your hands created. Then take your piece home and have it to appreciate for years to come.
Being a potter, and teaching eager newcomers has many rewards. Teaching adults the difference between their right hand and their left hand is not one of them. I find myself reminding them repeatedly that they should use their “other” left hand. Or, saying, “You need to be wetter.” Likewise, the rhythms of the process are hard for beginners. First times are always a mystery. I remind students that there are many ways to reach the same end. Explore.
I always demo the throwing process before they sit down at the wheel for the first time. By the time I get to centering, and create the “column”, I’m always observing reactions. Watching the connection register in their eager faces is priceless. Most often it’s a very slight flicker of an eyelid, or eyes that open a bit wider. Moms are more stoic than their teen daughters. Harder to read. The daughters just giggle silently, thinking no one gets it but them. They arrived expecting a family bonding moment, they got one.