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...