It was early August 2017, and I was just starting the two-week session of the summer camp I’ve attended for the past three years. A dozen or so lucky campers had gathered inside our camp’s art building. The Meeting House — as it is creatively known thanks to its origins as a Quaker meeting house — was sunny and stuffed to the gills with fading collages, curled-edged watercolor paints, fraying friendship bracelets, and yes, glitter. Glitter gleamed in the cracks between floorboards despite numerous sweepings, flashing in the bright summer sunlight that snuck past the teetering shelves of art supplies and forgotten projects.
Most importantly, the Meeting House was also home to three pottery wheels and one kiln. The kiln, a cylindrical, metal-wrapped furnace used specially for “firing” pottery (baking until it hardens), was strictly off limits to campers. It was generally left to smolder in a back shed like a sleeping dragon behind layers of signs declaring DANGER and HOT and STAY AWAY (we mean it) in bold letters, except for the few times it rumbled to fiery life.
The pottery wheels, however, were open for use to campers during the highly coveted ceramics program. Despite the fact that the wheels were old-fashioned and powered by foot pedals instead of electricity (which required both the ability to multitask and the ability not to confuse the ringing noise of the wheel for the lunch bell), the ceramics program was one of the hardest to get into due to its popularity.
And yet, by some luck, my slip of paper had been sorted into the pile designating me as a member of the program for that week’s art sessions alongside other would-be potters.
Before this class, the most experience with ceramics I’d ever had was a class I took in preschool. It was less skillful art and more “keep the kids from tasting glaze and/or smearing clay in their hair,” so you can probably imagine how comprehensive my knowledge about using a potter’s wheel was when I stepped through the door of the Meeting House.
The first thing I learned about working with clay? There’s a lot that has to happen before you can actually work with it. High school ceramics classes or professional potters might get processed, air-bubble-free clay that lets them skip straight to forming, but we were attending the last session of a busy summer camp, so we got clay scraps full of air bubbles. Before we could even get kicking at the wheels, we had to spend a laborious half hour wedging (rolling and squashing the clay) to get out any possible pockets of air. If even one air bubble was left when the piece went into the kiln, it would cause the piece to explode. Other pieces might even be damaged in the blast.
Yeah, you could say that pottery is more violent than you might think. One bad piece could potentially take down a whole batch.
The trouble with air bubbles is that you can’t exactly see them inside a piece of clay. The best you can do is wedge your clay as firmly as possible — 10, 20, I’ve even heard up to 80 times — and pray for the best once you’re done.
Then, after all that hard work, it surely must get easier? All that’s left is to shape the clay into something passably symmetrical, and that can’t be supremely hard, can it?
Here’s a confession: I suck at multitasking. I can’t rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time, and any attempt to do more than one thing at once usually ends with neither thing being done and something dropped on the floor. As a genius ten-year-old, I once tried to cook my mother an omelet while making a Mother’s Day card at the counter, and the results had to be scraped out of the pan with a bristle brush when I forgot about the meal. So, keeping a wheel in motion while also shaping the clay? Not so easy for me.
The clay felt like a living thing — rising and falling under my hand with a whim of its own. Thinning the sides pulled it dangerously high, and attempting to stop its wobbling journey upwards only caused the sides to buckle. My hands were tense the whole time, elbows locked and knees taut as I spun the wheel. I clenched the clay too tight, leaving dents from my fingers. My attempts to force it back into a normal shape only furthered the collapse, until I was looking at a puddle of muddy water and something that had once been kind of round. I could see the perfect piece in my head — the upwards-sloping, symmetrical sides, the even thickness of the walls — but all I had to show for that vision was something that would go back into the scraps bin.
At the end of the session, I had one collapsed maybe-bowl, crescents of clay beneath my fingernails, and a sense of failure to show for it all.
It wasn’t until two days later that I found myself at the potter’s wheel again, after having watched the others successfully slide their pieces off and set them aside to dry. I breathed in deep, slammed my clay onto the metal surface, wet my hands, and started again. This time, I kept my grip firm, but not tense, and let the clay move beneath my hands in a more controlled way. The piece went tall and skinny instead of wide and squat, but I gently let it do its thing rather than forcing a shape that would destroy it. I mostly went off cautious instinct rather than skill or experience, occasionally testing the thickness of an edge with a finger and cautiously pulling it up and out, afraid of pushing too hard. I now knew from experience that it would be hard to change the shape of a piece into something skinnier or shorter, and I didn’t want to overwork it to the point where it collapsed again. I had to be firm, but not so hard that I left dents or crushed the shape of it.
It was tricky to form the clay into a desired shape without crushing it or stretching it too thin, so I tried to take my time and control the clay from automatically blooming outwards. I lost myself in a timeless world where all that existed was the smooth metal of the potter’s wheel and the clay whirling between my fingers.
And then I stopped.
One of the most important parts of throwing (shaping clay on a wheel) is knowing when to let go — when working the piece more would just make it structurally unsound or collapse. Sometimes you get what you get. An ugly piece you can fix with glaze or trimming is better than no piece at all. And really, every moment with your hands on the potter’s wheel, good or bad, hones your control of the clay for future times. So I let it be, even though it wasn’t what I had pictured. Maybe I couldn’t make something that would match the image in my head, but I could still make something.
So when I had a shape that seemed structurally sound and had sides of relatively even thickness (uneven sides would cause the piece to dry out at different rates, possibly trapping water inside the clay that could cause it to explode in the kiln), I slowed the wheel and carefully removed my piece. It was short and squat, too narrow to be a bowl, but too small to be a cup. The rim was bumpy, dipping up and down like mountain ridges. The sides were a little too thick, the bottom even more so. It crouched on the drying shelf like a goblin, all warty and lopsided.
But it was mine. However lumpy and amateur it looked, it gave me something to work on later.
Something important about throwing on the potter’s wheel is that it isn’t anything close to the last step in creating a piece of pottery. While the piece is drying, you can carve away the clay, either to create texture or to reshape the entire piece. And then, of course, there’s the glazing.
The day after I threw my crooked little pot, I spent the entire period carving away at the shape of it. The rim became purposefully uneven, rising and falling in smooth dips like ocean waves. I whittled away at the form until the bottom was a more acceptable thickness. When I was done with that, I whittled away even more clay from around the middle so it became less stout and more hourglass shaped, like an old-fashioned goblet.
When my piece had dried enough and I was certain there couldn’t be water trapped inside the clay, it was placed inside the kiln and fired alongside the others. When it came out, it was rock-hard. I spent another period carefully layering on dark blue glaze until it was ready for another firing.
When my little goblet-pot emerged from its second firing, the glaze had morphed from a muddy gray into a brilliant dark blue that glowed like a sapphire in the summer sunlight. I held it, tracing one finger over the curving rim, and thought that it was beautiful.
If I had kept trying to form the piece into my desired shape on the potter’s wheel, it might have simply collapsed. My insistence at perfection would have ensured I had nothing to work with at all. The first time, I had tried to make the perfect piece and ended up with a blob of mud instead. But by accepting something less than perfection—even for only one step in the long process—I had given myself the chance to improve later on, rather than permanently trapping myself in the initial stages of throwing. Sometimes you need to fail, to give up the desire for utterly planned perfection, and see where your hands can take you. There was no way that I was going to create a modern masterpiece that summer, but I could at least learn and enjoy myself while doing so.
And the glitter? Yeah, some guy got a speck in his clay and his bowl exploded. Ruthless, that glitter.
Lulu Rasor is a 16-year-old lean, mean, book-reading machine from Yarmouth, Maine. When not reading or learning strange facts about history and science, she enjoys swimming, writing, and talking about herself in the third person.
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