Lessons from the Clay

I’ve been potting for about a year now and boy, have I learned a lot. I think any new venture comes with a learning curve. Pottery is no exception. The question is: Do I have what it takes to get around the curve?  Can I hang in there long enough to get to the place where I am comfortable instead of always feeling out of sorts? For me, the creative journey is what makes it worth sticking around. Every throw on the wheel is an experiment. Every different technique is a curiosity I have to follow to the end. I feel like Alice in Wonderland, exploring an unknown world, always a little off kilter. Yet, it is an amazing adventure and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

First and foremost, it is therapy. A few hours each week to put all else out of my mind and focus on what is right in front of me. That is the first lesson. If I am not intensely focused, I will never get the clay centered. I have to pay attention to the pressure in my hands on the clay and how the clay responds. I have to make sure my breathing isn’t too shallow. I have to relax my shoulders. I have to use enough water that the clay doesn’t drag and twist. I have to be patient. For me, that is the hardest part. Letting go of the need to move on quickly. When I come in after a challenging day, it takes longer to get myself centered. The clay will not cooperate if I am not centered. Taking a few moments to do some deep breathing always helps let go of the day, so I am ready. Getting prepared to throw is like stretching out before a race, if you don’t do it things will go terribly wrong.

The second lesson is to let go of the need to control. For those of us who like to be in control this is difficult. If you are used to being in charge, this form of art will be a challenge. While I am technically in charge of the clay, it is not a submissive medium. It has its own memory and way of moving. Sometimes it feels as if it is mocking me. Admitting what I don’t know is humbling. It is kind of a conversation between me and the clay, and it knows what I don’t know better than I do. It is a teacher if I let it be. Instead of demanding it conform, if I think about how to apply the pressure where I need it to go gently, I get better results. Perfectionism will hinder getting any piece completed.

It seemed like it should be so easy. Once I got the feel and hang of the wheel and the clay, I felt I was ready to go and should be able to create whatever piece I wanted to over and over again. Not so. Even once I got familiar with the process, I learned the process changes with every hump I put on the wheel. Not the core of what I do, but how I do it each time varies with the feel of the clay. In this way, it is intuitive. Which is great, but learning intuition with clay takes lots and lots of practice. It doesn’t come naturally, like I want it to. So, lesson number 3 is that clay will show you all your insecurities. When I cannot get it “right” I want to give up. It can be frustrating. I feel out of my element. I feel insecure, like I don’t belong in a pottery studio. Like, what am I even doing here? But, if I can push past that feeling, and let the insecurities be what they are, I will find my way to improvement. I will be humbled every time a pot collapses. Every time I have a piece fly off the wheel while trimming I will learn to laugh and try again.

Mistakes will become opportunities to get creative is lesson number 4. Some of my best work comes when I change what I was trying to make into something entirely different. I let the clay be what it wants instead of forcing it. I fill in the dents with sculptural elements. I glaze over imperfections. I put a face on a mug that didn’t center properly. One of the reasons pottery is so appealing to so many people is the uniqueness of every single pot. The shapes, the colors…even when I try to make something the exact same…it comes out differently. It is magical in that sense. The alchemy is part of the appeal of the art form. You never really know, and potters regularly say, “I have done what I can do, now it is in the hands of the kiln gods” and it is kind of true. The heat of the kiln is where the rubber meets the road. If my work can survive the heat, it is transformed into something beautiful. It is worth every mistake. To actually see the transformation of something, I created with mud and my own hands, into a beautiful glass vessel…is magical to me. Truly.

Facing the fact that I am not good at every part of the process is actually freeing, once I get past the “embarrassment” of it. No one ever learned to be good at something without all the beginner lessons. Lesson number 5 is that insecurity is normal when trying something new. There is no shame in not knowing what I am doing. No shame in asking for help from someone who has done it longer than me. I have found the more lessons I get from other potters the more I hone my own skills. Every person who does pottery does it slightly differently, and each one of them has nuggets of treasure to share. When I let go of the insecurity, I can learn from anyone. It makes the learning progress faster when I am willing to be teachable. I can visibly see my improvement as I go.

One year. And these are only a few of the lessons I have learned. So much growth as an artist, but more so as a person. All of this in an effort to maintain my mental health; to take some time for self-care while spinning all the plates of my life. It has been worth every minute. It is safe to say I am obsessed. I have fallen in love with the long process of creating something beautiful out of mud. A metaphor for life, to be sure. I haven’t even touched on the spiritual lessons of the potter and the clay. Maybe I’ll have to do a Lessons from the Clay part 2….

2 thoughts on “Lessons from the Clay

  1. I love this. I found myself thinking of the image of God as the potter and us as the clay – and was moved by the idea of the attention it requires from Him to mold us into something beautiful. (And also thought of the parallels between us and clay that doesn’t always do what we want it to.)

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