I was a potter. More accurately, I am a potter who isn’t making pottery. A potter on hiatus while I care of my two young children. It’s not something I talk about often. I miss it so.
I began making pottery in 1992 in an adult education class in Boston. I wanted to use a potter’s wheel, and so I did not allow myself to hand-build until I learned to use the wheel. A year later, I was completely enamoured with the wheel. I started to intentionally alter wheelthrown pieces to make them asymmetric in an attempt to channel the forms of nature.
I found a pottery studio in Boston that had individual studios on the main floor and a large throwing room with big kilns in the basement. I was hooked on the vibrancy of a large potter’s community and the pluripotent nature of clay.
As science led me across the United States, I worked at other studios, all of which lacked a sense of collective ownership and cohesiveness. I took a class or two and left.
It wasn’t until 2001 that I found a pottery studio that felt like home. It was in San Diego, an open air studio built around trees instead of cutting the trees down. There were holes in the roof to allow the treetops to pass through (rainstorms were interesting, but infrequent).
It was in the San Diego studio that I found a throwing mentor. Some weekends, I had the freedom to spend 14 hour days at the wheel. I barely stopped to eat. My pots became large and proud and I refined my style.
One of my favorite things to create was hollow, closed spheres that I would lift off the wheel. The air trapped inside gave the normally smushy sphere enough structural integrity so that it could be manipulated. I would shape the spheres while internalizing natural forms, emulating goards, eggs, peppers and tears. I would apply texture to the form, then open it with a free, flowing movement to create a unique, asymmetric jar, what I call sphere-jars. I altered thrown pieces to create anemone-vases.
Eventually, I removed myself from the wheel long enough to take a handbuilding class. I made a Japanese garden lantern.
I learned how to make a tile mold; I created a sun-moon motif:
I loved making vases. Tall vases with extreme, pot-bellied tops and dramatically small openings. Vases that adhered to Greek dimensions. Vases that were buoyant and heavily textured. Vases that were more about form than function (although they were also functional). Vases that looked like they were built up from mud that sprung from a garden or uncovered in the sea.
I became part of the potter’s community there, and developed special, dear friendships with other potters whom I still miss. One of my treasured friends there was a Japanese woman who did not speak a word of English. We spent long weekends together working at our wheels side-by-side, pointing and “commenting” on each other’s work. When I eventually left the studio to move back east, we exchanged some of our signature pieces and indicated that we would miss our camaraderie.
A few of us formed a little potter’s collective in the studio. We did kiln firings, supported and helped each other. We shared our collective knowledge and became wonderful friends. I had other special friendships in which we understood each other and fed from each other’s excitement and creativity. Dear friends and fellow artists, now many miles and years away.
Most of the time I know what the piece will look like before I put the clay on the wheel, but sometimes I let the clay tell me what shapes hide within. It’s hard to explain, but Michelangelo described the feeling so well: “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” I love the throwing sessions that feel like a collaboration with the mud.
Don’t talk to me while I’m throwing. I probably won’t hear you as I listen to the clay whisper its form to me. Regardless of whether a throwing session produces a desired result, wheelthrowing is always highly sensual, centering and cathartic.
I practiced a type of circular breathing for wheelthrowing. I can’t explain it more than to say that it feels like I’m breathing in and out at the same time. Breathing in this special way helps me to prevent my breathing from causing an inconsistent pull along a long clay wall which would weaken the wall or knock the wall off center as it spins on the wheel. The circular breathing does wonderful things for me that I can’t understand or explain, but it’s powerful.
An interesting collaboration with the mud occurred when I was doing a Raku firing. Raku is a (relatively) low temperature firing that involves placing a red-hot piece into a pile of dried leaves or newspapers. The dry materials burn and the fire makes its impression on the piece. Collaboration with fire. In this case, part of a word transferred from a newspaper onto my vase. No one at the studio had seen this happen before. After much studying, I determined it was the mirror image of the word “acceptance”, transferred upside down. The consensus among my fellow potters is that if you’re going to have a word transferred, “acceptance” is a great word to have. I agree.
Finding time for wheelthrowing is difficult these days. I returned to the studio three years after Sunboy was born, which coincided with becoming pregnant with Flowergirl. I will have time for these things again. Some day. I must. There is part of me that is made of mud. There is part of me that spins. Wheelthrowing is a reunion with a part of myself that is centered, is circular, is beautifully pliant and pluripotent like mud. Wheelthrowing is like a homecoming to a part of myself.
I recently found two pieces that I – unimaginably – had forgotten that I had thrown. They are still in the bisqueware stage, having undergone only one firing. They still need to be glazed (or not) and put through a second, high-temperature firing. One of them is a jar that I made to hold wine corks from the wine that my now-husband and I drank together during our 14 months living 1000 miles apart. We never went more than two weeks without seeing each other, and we inevitably drank wine. I saved the corks.
Until my return to the studio, I will miss the feeling of wet mud slipping below my stiffened fingers. I miss the feeling of neurons firing in a specific area of my brain that I only fully use while wheelthrowing. I miss centering myself as I center a lump of clay onto the wheel. I miss turning myself completely over to the right side of my brain as I turn a hollow sphere over in my hands, experiencing it as a three-dimensional whole all at once, a round canvas to accept texture instead of paint. I miss finding mud in my hair at the end of a good throwing session, ridiculous grin on my face, breathing deeply and fully. I miss my box of tools and my brown apron. I miss the mud.