Friday, September 10, 2010

Watch this potter at work!

This is the same Yorkshire potter who did the centering demo on the YouTube link in my previous blog post. In this one he demonstrates how fast he can whip out seven small bowls without stopping. The William Tell Overture played in the background adds a special touch.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The light touch

During the following week, I toyed with the idea of never going back to another pottery lesson.

Perhaps I'm just not cut out to be a potter; I just don't have whatever knack is needed. Perhaps, in my case, it's like juggling, which I've been trying to learn, on and off, for the past eight or ten years. Perhaps I don't need to add another skill to my handcraft repertoire. And besides (and this was definitely a mere side issue) it's embarrassing trying to do something and failing, miserably and in public.

On the other hand, Ed had said he thought I just needed to lighten up a bit. Perhaps it was worth ONE more effort.

So the next Tuesday found me heading to Bristol once again. Ed greeted me in his usual cordial way, then pointed to a different wheel than the one I'd used before.

"That's a much more expensive and better one. Try it," he suggested. I found an apron, filled a bucket of fresh water, chose several of the more essential tools from a large bin, picked up a cube of clay that Ed had sawed from the main block with a piece of wire, and settled in for another couple of what I hoped would not be frustrating hours.

Press hard to center it. With the wheel spinning, I dipped my hands in the water bucket and pressed down hard on my clay. The irregular contours tossed me back and forth as the clay revolved, resisting my efforts to get it all lined up in the exact center of the wheel. Press harder. Bits of slippery, wet clay sheared off from the lump and worked their way in between my fingers. I shook them off into the scrap bucket. Anchor your arms on the edge of the wheel frame. I bent in and tightened my grip.

It will fight you, but you're gonna win in the end. The words of my first pottery teacher, demonstrating the use of the wheel for the class at the seniors' center, came back to me. Hmmm. Is this what the prophet Jeremiah was talking about?

From across the room, over the chatter of the other students, my second pottery teacher addressed me.

"Looking good over there, Barbara."

"Um, I think it's still a bit off-center," I replied, staring at the cone-shaped object going around and around in front of me. I thought I could detect the merest hint of a visual "wobble."
How near perfection is "good enough"?

"Once it's off the wheel," he said, "no one will ever know." Really? That's an interesting thought. I bent over the wheel and stuck my thumbs into the middle of the now-well-enough-centered lump of clay, "opening" it as I pressed down and outward to create a hole.

Remember, light touch. Gently, I drew the hollowed object upward, then eased it outward, enlarging it. I dipped my hands in water again and again to smooth the clay's surface. Water ran down and pooled in the bottom of the pot. Don't let water remain in the bottom of the pot. The clay will absorb too much and then crack during the drying period. I soaked up the puddle with a sponge, then dipped my hands in the water bucket again. The lump of clay was beginning to look like a bowl.

By the end of that class, there were three newly-turned objects on the shelf with my initials scratched on the bottom.

Here's a YouTube video of a Yorkshire potter showing (repeatedly) how to center the clay on the potter's wheel. When I watched this video, I re-learned something my first teacher had taught us but which I'd forgotten: Always take your hands slowly off the clay. Moving quickly can throw it off-center and you'll have to do the whole thing over again.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The potter's wheel

Recently I was able to start taking some "throwing" lessons in a potter's studio, One of a Kind Gallery of Bristol, Tennessee.

I'd been able to play around a bit with a potter's wheel in a community seniors' centre class in Kingsport, a couple of years ago, but (even with basic instruction and a demo from the Clay Class teacher) had never really produced anything much more than a few lumps of soggy clay--all of which, after half an hour or so of being pounded and smoothed with wet hands, were considerably smaller, though not noticeably shapelier, than they had been before I began working with them. This was disappointing. I'm an artist, right? I should be able to conquer the potter's wheel! Besides, think of all the gifts I could make for friends and family! And--stranger things have happened--I might even be able to sell my work someday!

I mulled over my failure to learn pot-throwing quickly and easily, while the huge block of raw clay I'd paid for at the Seniors' Centre sat quietly and unused on its shelf in the Clay Room for so long that they finally moved it to a permanent storage spot in the closet.

Then I met One of a Kind Gallery shop owner/potter Ed Lockett at a craftsmen's fair last Christmas. Admiring his hand-thrown coffee mugs, I asked casually whether he ever gave pottery lessons. Yes, he did. He had a classroom setup in the back of his shop, where he could accommodate six or seven students at a time. He gave me schedules and prices. It didn't sound too impossible, though I'd probably have to wait a few months till I'd sold a few more portraits and dolls.

Ever since, I've been nourishing this secret hope that a few "real" (structured) classes in this art would make a potter of me, or at least a slightly more advanced student-practitioner.

This fall, it looked as though my secret hope might be fulfilled. When I called Ed to ask about when the current season's classes would be starting, I learned that he had one slot left in the Tuesday evening group. The class had already had the first of five lessons in the series, but it appeared that one of the pre-registered students wasn't going to be able to make it. This meant there was one wheel just sitting there, unused. I could come for the last four classes and then make up the one I'd missed when the next series started. Did I want to come just to observe and see if it was something I'd like to be part of? Did I!

Circumstances intervened; I showed up for the next week's class an hour late, wondering if this was going to work after all. However, within minutes I found myself wrapped in a clay-stained apron, seated in front of a wheel, one foot on a speed-control power pedal, the other propped on a brick, as I tried to center a lump of clay on the spinning surface before me.

I produced a small bowl during that first half-lesson, although since I had neglected to mark it and didn't remember exactly what it looked like, we weren't able to locate it later on. The next week I came back ready to try again. This time, I failed to produce a single pot, cup, bowl or plate, or, in fact, any recognizable object whatsoever. All that was left of two hours of unceasing effort was a pile of damp clay scraps, a bucket of muddy water, and enough clay splashed on my face and arms to give evidence of my activities that evening.

"I'm just not getting this," I told Ed, throwing my clay-caked apron in the studio's laundry bin as I prepared to leave. "I don't know why it's so hard. I've worked with clay before, you know."

"I was watching you," he told me unexpectedly, "and I think you're pushing too hard. The only time you need to use strength is when you're actually centering the clay on the wheel. After that, only a very light touch is needed."

more later...