Something I read years back pointed out that clay needs to be centered on a potter’s wheel, else when the spin cycle comes (!), it splats all over the place. Okay, that’s my translation, but you get the point. I’ve used that image with individuals and groups. Clay – and life’s raw materials – call for respectful handling and sheltering, and humbly-entered shaping processes. Today that seems an apt image to consider for individuals, groups, cultures and countries. I invite you to consider how, with a bit of prompting.
I took a pottery course two springs ago. And wasn’t that a kick?! I really looked forward to it, as I’d always wanted to try my hand (turns out, hands) at it. With two friends I signed up for a 12 week series of 3-hour lessons and production. I expected to love it – really love it! I had even written as an undergrad a ‘screen play’ that used a pottery class as a key setting and image for a character’s wrestling and maturation. Anyway, in less than an hour of the first session, I wanted OUT, and OUT NOW!
So, what was the problem? Well, there was the ‘teacher’ who told us too much too fast with no checking on whether or not anyone knew what she was saying. She showed us how to do it from her level of skill instead of starting from ours. Then there was the fact that my two friends are both artists in their own right, and so what entirely drowned me in the instruction sequence either didn’t for them or was not a big deal. I had no idea what I was doing or how to do it, and felt as if I didn’t know how to add and was being asked to do calculus, only worse. It looked so simple and easy when others did it – and I felt not only stupid but like an ox trying to shape something with hoofs. I should be able to do this… I can’t. Don’t you hate that feeling?
It took me forever to even get to the wheel from preparing the clay, as the instructions made no sense to me, and the clay fought my efforts. By the time I approached the wheel, I was frustrated and angry. I had really expected to love this experience, and the let down was unexpected. I felt – and was – so incompetent before I even began. At the wheel next to me, one of my friends happily played with his mound of clay and learned about it. Picking up on my ill-disguised frustration (and heavy breathing!), he looked from me to my clay and whispered/advised that I think about the people I nurture or work with one on one and how this effort is like that. He urged me to consider what growth felt like for them, or new steps. As the wheel spun slowly at my hesitant prompting, and the pot-to-be was just an ugly mud pile with its own ideas, I told him between clenched teeth that I didn’t care about that-them-advice, thanks, and I was going to get out of there. Wisely, he let me be.
I’ve learned over the years to just dial it down when frustration is that high. I put my hands around the clay and spun the wheel slow, then quick, then slow. I didn’t want to speak with ANYONE, thanks. The instructor, who had been absent with any assistance through all the moments before, came by. She picked up on my frame of mind and stepped back. I needed time… time to breathe and to see if I would stay… time to see if I would allow myself to be more comfortable with being so uncomfortable.
We sat in a large square of about 15-16 wheels, all facing inward. It seemed my friends and I were the only newcomers to this Monday night timeframe. People around me were making beautiful items on their wheels, and the clay of all kinds responded to their gentlest touch with pleasing curves and shapes. It was wonderful to watch, and I hated my ineptitude. I said to myself, “Well, you had to choose an art that talks back!” If you put your thumb or fingers in the wrong place, squeeze too hard, or do not center the clay, it reacts directly in proportion to your actions or errors. It doesn’t matter if you meant to do something wrong… it just all shows up. After about 50 minutes of just playing with the clay and seeing how it worked on the wheel, I began to just see what it would do to my various interventions. I wasn’t ready to be happy with the process, but there was something VERY remotely comical. I admired some of the others’ work aloud. They were gracious. One woman, creating gorgeous items, seemed to look at me with understanding and compassion, saying something like “it takes a while”. I said, loud enough for a few to hear, “It’s not at all like Ghost – and it’s not romantic either!” This got some small laughs, and I felt better.
Over those 12 weeks I made some things. The first – a lopsided ‘pot’ I cut the bottom out of by accident in trimming. In an effort to have some positive result, I then punched holes in its side in a design so it could be a vigil candle holder. When I glazed it, the holes filled in! No candlelight would show up, but it’s a great prop for the truth of my story!
Some of the items turned out pretty well – they are basic, but I like them. And I did come to have some fun with the process, and even enjoy the messiness of the effort some. I did not experience the excitement and pleasure I had anticipated, but I did experience first hand the respectful relationship an artist should have with the materials that consent to be used in art. I learned from the process… about clay, about centering, about interacting, about feelings, about me, about creating, about shaping and being shaped, about courage and the new. I’d long since had those experiences and learnings with words and language as art. Still, nudging raw materials literally with thumb or fingers or hand palm – this was a study in dialogue with the stuff of creation for me in a new way. I learned that the clay needed the sensitive sheltering of my hands to take shape, and that I could help it move in directions or start anew with little fuss. I admired how others related to the clay before them, and how the materials responded to their skilled attention.
The reason for all this story? It seems to me that each of us are invited every day to lots of action around lots of wheels. Because there is often so much globs of stuff going – issues, work, relationships, commitments, fears, joys – it is easy to either just spin all the wheels at once (as if that works!) or to not approach with play and respect the raw materials, or the new or at first strange and not-understandable elements/people/involvements, of our lives. I think there is something here for how countries and neighborhoods, churches and schools, agencies and families operate too.
Here are some learnings from my pottery lessons that I believe can have implications for individuals and groups. I invite you to make your own connections. In the midst of your own living – and in the midst of where we are as a world these days, where the momentary acts of humility and centering and pausing and breathing and dealing with the real of life’s raw materials is called for… here are some thoughts:
- All clay is not the same, and the amount on the wheel changes how it should be handled. Be careful of too much or not enough.
- Keep the clay wet enough to be molded, but dry enough not to just be sloppy mud
- Centering is essential – and every small adjustment of every small amount towards center matters
- Sheltering the clay with one’s hands is essential – so the clay both ‘feels’ safe and can, when potter and clay are both ready, move into form/s
- The speed of the wheel must be proportionate to the holding and shaping
- Let the clay teach you about how your touch influences it
- Restarting is reality
- What one sets out to create often changes with the process
- Creativity happens in the middle of the effort much more often than at the beginning
- Art is a partnership and requires the service of the artist
- Excess clay can be cut away for reuse
- Judgement of depth and breadth happens as much by feel as it does by external measures
- Too thick is clunky, too thin is fragile — the shape is served by a dialogue between bulk/strength and fragility that lands at the place in between that serves the creation’s message or task
- Frustration and anger when entering a new process/new place/new culture are about a desire/perceived need to be in control, or disappointment with life’s unpredictability or step-by-step-ness
- Glazes and finishing looks one way in the sample, and another in actual application
- If you are willing to play with color and shape, you may discover and create beauties you could not have anticipated
- Engaging the raw materials of art (and life) is about real encounter, touch, influencing and being influenced by — and NOT about assumptions
- Learning to stay through the emotions or stages one wishes could be by-passed with patience and honesty is to develop a compassion for oneself and a humility before one’s next interaction with the art