The Clay Will Tell You How You Are

Sunday, October 18, 2015 - 5:07am

The Clay Will Tell You How You Are

My fourth ceramics class began and ended calamitously, despite high expectations and a building confidence.

Working at the wheel, where I’d handily "thrown" a pot on my first try weeks before, my task was to wedge the clay to remove air and inconsistency, knead it into balls the size of oranges, slam them one at a time on the bull’s-eye of the wheel, and then hit the accelerator.

This first step — centering the clay — is much harder than it sounds, requiring stillness and concentration from the potter. Even if the clay is properly positioned when the wheel is stationary, a challenging task in itself, the flattened ball of clay can easily begin a wild wobble once the wheel begins its counter-clockwise spin.

The foot pedal, not used properly, adds to the problem. You need to reach it, without looking down, then apply exactly the right pressure. The brake and the accelerator are at opposite ends of the same pedal. Stomp your heel on the brake instead of your toe on the accelerator and the wheel screeches to a halt. Make the same mistake in reverse, accelerating instead of breaking when trying to slow the wheel down, and you’re driving 80 mph in a 45 mph zone.

On this night, neither hands nor feet would obey me. For two hours, the wild wobble at my wheel went from bad to worse until the clay became a projectile — flying once, twice, three times off the wheel, breaking apart and lodging in unreachable places in the splash pan. The catch basin filled with ruined clay and dirty water fit only for the recycle bin.

As my exasperation mounted, along with embarrassment that my classmates and teacher were watching, the clay took charge of me, not the other way around. Pressing the mound down beneath my palms, squeezing it up from the sides, opening the top with my fingers and then widening that opening, were distant memories from the early class. My hands were not mindfully guiding the clay but trying to force it to do my bidding. My feet didn’t seem attached to the rest of my body. Something I had done rather intuitively two weeks ago was no longer part of my muscle memory.

The flying wheel not only launched the clay into the splash pan, which would take an hour to clean at the end of class, but into the lap of the person to my left and the shoulder of the person to my right. “Sorry, sorry, sorry,” I mumbled, fighting back tears.

One teacher offered me wine (“No, thank you”). He urged me to take a walk (I did), have a glass of water (I found the fountain), and, most importantly of all, try to breathe. He adjusted my hands by cradling them in his own. He bent to move the pedal that had skidded across the floor so my foot could reach it. He eased my flailing leg back where it belonged.

The other teacher, good-humoredly, told me everyone had bad days and she wasn’t surprised that mine was today as Mercury was in retrograde, a time when life can go haywire, according to astrologers.

I don't put any stock in astrology. I find "What's your sign?" one of the most foolish questions in the world. I was still comforted — even after I got home and checked Google, only to find the most recent retrograde period was September 19 to October 9. My pottery mishap occurred on October 12. Oops.

“So what?” I decided. I’d rather be under the influence of the planets than responsible for myself.

Even twitching, blushing, and fighting the urge to flee the classroom, I still learned one precious lesson. “The clay will tell you how you are,” the teacher said, even if the message is that you’re in a very bad place.

The previous classes — making pinch pots, scoring and attaching coils, working at the rambunctious wheel — had begun with me centered, and then centered me even further.

Were these two hours fun like those other classes? Nope. Did I risk getting clay all over my iPhone by taking proud pictures? No, as I’d made nothing and the only thing to photograph was my corner of the room, slathered in wayward clay. Still, this new adventure has already succeeded beyond my wildest expectations.

I wanted to get out of my head and into my body, to silence the jabbering “monkey mind” that Buddhists warn make one unsettled, restless, confused. Swimming has always done that for me by counting laps: “One, one, one. Two, two, two. Three, three, three…” to crowd out thinking. Ceramics could quiet me, too, or send an instant signal that I was in a bad place, that I needed to slow myself down, breathe, control the clay, and let the wheel do its work.

Like a balancing pose in yoga, ceramics provides a perfect feedback loop: exit your body and enter your busy mind, and you will likely teeter and fall. Or, in this case, try to bully the clay with strength, not stillness, and it turns into a guided missile rather than a bowl.

The saving grace of this last class was that it nudged me in this direction of learning. It provided welcome calm, however belated, not at the wheel but at the sink. There, long after the others had gone, I was still washing the splash pan and a dozen tools I had used that were now unrecognizable under the gobs of clay.

As hot water ran over my hands, and I squeezed sponge after sponge until one was clean enough to scrub my work area, my breathing slowed and my shoulders unclenched and moved away from my ears.

The teacher’s voice followed me out the door:

“The more you get aggravated, the more you get aggravated."


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Jane Gross

is a retired New York Times correspondent, who spent 30 years there covering all manner of subjects from sports to autism, aging and major earthquakes and wild fires in California. She is the author of A Bittersweet Season: Caring for Our Aging Parents — And Ourselves and creator of the "New Old Age” blog, now defunct, at the Times.

Prior to joining the Times, Ms. Gross worked for Long Island Newsday and Sports Illustrated magazine. Post-retirement, she volunteers mentoring New York City high school students and is trying her hand at ceramics.

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True of so much of the arts! We do our best work when we get out of the way and let it happen. Often we live our best lives when we do the same.

As a working potter for the past 40 years , this article reminded me of my great frustration and perserverance when beginning to throw clay all those many years ago. I became hooked (or got the bug as we liked to say in the studio) to both the medium and how it could be transformed into a beautiful object as well as the lifestyle that came with being a potter. Of all the lessons that have come my way from being a potter, the greatest has been in learning to let go. When all is said and done the fire has the final say. There is a complete surrender to the heat and flames of the kiln. I know of no other artistic process that undergoes this sort of transformation. The opening of the kiln can be a glorious experience and often quite humbling. You can make your best piece, with anticipation of it having a beautiful glaze and the fire can turn it into a masterpiece or disaster. Thanks for the article Jane Gross - I hope you continue to pursue your time in the clay studio. It's guaranteed to offer you more lessons than you can imagine.

I'm also a working potter … and pastor. Your comments remind me of the late MC Richards' statement, "It is not the pots we are forming; it is ourselves." Always forming and reforming and re-forming. Peace in the journey ...

I have also been a potter for quite a few years, but I have taught pottery as well. because I have always loved the social interaction that pottery brings, I always told my students that "Nothing is precious until it comes out of the last kiln" even when you are really experianced, things can go wrong, but they can also go right and there are unexpected wonderful results!!!!
I love it!!!

Love this essay. So true.

I spent all day today in my pottery studio. Perfectly calm and content pounding and molding and centering clay. Throwing on the wheel was one of the hardest things for me to master but so so rewarding. There are some days I simply cannot throw so I walk away and calm myself. After 35 years I still love it. My husband always said the only time I was happy was when my hands were in clay.

I am a potter. Even today after 27 years of working at the wheel, it is still true, the clay does tell you how you are. Listen to the clay, adjust according so that being centered, the clay can sing!

Inspiring and so true to my own experience, not as a potter, but as a person. Loved your essays in the Times, Jane, and am glad you are continuing in this space.

I enjoyed this article tremendously; I have been teaching pottery for 47 years. The writing is skilled and I assume it took time to be able to express yourself eloquently. Pottery is the same.

I have often found when sitting at the wheel that I do NOT try to center the clay.....I merely hold it, press firmly at the sides and allow the clay and gravity to do the took me a long time to figure that process out and I doubt I could teach it to another.....I absolutely love that I felt your frustration, you are a wonderful writer.....keep at the clay and you shall be rewarded many times over......If you want any pointers, please feel free to email me. stay muddy :)

Such a true statement. There's nothing like the clay telling you when you were a little 'off' physically, and centering becomes impossible. After many frustrated attempts, I've finally learned to back away from the wheel until I am in a better place.

I had a wonderful laugh reading this article and reflecting on my first wheel throwing experiences! Yes, patience and practice along with letting the wheel do the work is the answer to beautiful wheel thrown items. Not to mention locking the elbows in ...........

Very important to be still.

It is true that the clay will tell you how you are, in a passive reflective sort of way, but not always. Its just the same as calling the comments to your posts 'reflections'. Ideas and good writing can also be *transformative*. We digest new information and that changes us. We enter the studio, have our successes and failures, and are reborn with every new attempt..... Sitting down and expressing ourselves is the opportunity to rewrite the condition of our being, nothing less. Creativity is generative, and that means we evolve as we express new things.

So, what Kelly said in the quote from MC Richards is exactly right: We are not working on the clay as much as we are working on ourselves. The clay is simply the means of our transformation. If reading a book or an essay has the power to change us so too does our actual creative engagement with clay. And while it is sometimes true that when you are having a bad day you will only express that 'badness' in the studio, I have also found that I can walk into the studio with a bad attitude, make something brilliant, and that my attitude becomes much lighter. The studio isn't simply the victim of our dispositions. The clay isn't simply a mirror....

So if you find that you are struggling with clay at some point in the future, my advice is to focus less on what you are making than what you are doing. There are all sorts of reasons why clay will frustrate us. Is it so stiff that it is unworkable? Do we have too much for us to handle? Too little for our hands to make sense of? The thing to remember is that failure is not always about us. Sometimes the conditions are set up to fail. My advice is to do as much in your comfort zone to warm up before tackling greater ambitions. That often means starting out with a size piece of clay that is familiar and workable. And if the clay is at all stiff, find some wetter clay or just use a bit less. Wedging dries the clay out, but you can make it more pliable by conning up and down. Do this extra times until you get control over the lump. Its important to learn your own limitations and abilities, but its also important to analyze the conditions you are working in and set things up to be as accommodating as possible.

Good luck!

I started learning to wheel throw October of 2014 when my dad bought a wheel and asked to set it up in my garage until he had a spot at his place. I wanted to learn this for three years and I was going to be instantly good at it.

I was not.

I made huge horrible sticky messes that flopped and rippled and broke and shook me to my bones trying to center them. I ended up covered from fingertips to above my elbows, from knees to chest with smears of clay. Time after time I scraped my results off the bat and into the reclaim bucket. I would give up, sometimes for weeks, and decide I wasn't going back out there. Then I would watch some videos and try again with some new ideas. It was six months before I had a single thing that didn't fail, and another three before I could actually make the shape that was in my head ON PURPOSE. What finally got me through the dark days was consciously letting go of the result, reminding myself that it was okay to do it even if it was "only" fun, that I wanted to learn and I was willing to keep at it no matter how long it took because learning to throw was really important to me. I put on headphones and just FELT the clay ... and it worked! I've kept those first half-dozen pots to look at and reflect how far I've come, and I try to hold on to that feeling of gratitude and excitement at each success. I still have off days so I take nothing for granted. You will get there when you're ready, and the joy is indescribable.

Thank you so much for your comment ... It is not always my fault. I was on the verge of giving up, again. I will take another deep breath, and try again.

When I was learning to center and pull up my clay on the wheel, I spent a year cutting through the walls to train my hands to feel what was happening. Now my daughter marvels at the pieces I produced. She did not spend a year at this activity.

so very true.. as a potter, i can relate to her frustrations.. but then when a pot comes out beautifully, all is well with the world..

Yes, I am the "other" Jane Gross, as my friends call me. I appreciate this article, as my husband is a potter and I have tried my hand
at it and had a very similar experience to the one you so beautifully describe. My medium is paint and I also find that it lets me know
very clearly when I am off center and gently nudges me back into balance.
You have sold quite a few books to folks who thought I was the author. Funny. Wish we could meet!

I could have written that article. Every potter I know says "been there" . I like teaching beginners... my line today is... Every mistake you make, I made it first! No shame just fun fun fun!

"Clay and wheel, they teach us." -- Hamada Shoji

Love. So accurate

I learned how to center my Self in order to center the clay, but not overnight. My mind had to still. Leaving thinking outside the door, I came to the wheel merely being: being in the moment. A life lesson I still strive to follow.

As an oft-frustrated newcomer to ceramics & throwing, I must 'stop trying to bully the clay'! That's exactly what I try to do when I haven't been in the right frame of mind...

I am a ceramic artist and art teacher, and it was great to hear the experience of starting to throw pots in such a complete way. The journey is unique and special with many ups and downs, and teachers that continue to encourage but don't stop you from learning from failure. Thank you for writing and sharing the store of the journey.

I discovered who I was once I touch the Clay. I had a short career as a Potter. I was asked to serve Others in a different way, through physical therapy. In my latter years I have become a massage therapist. It is all interconnected, like with the Clay I just get out of the way and my hands communicates a wonderful energy of life for others. Thank you for your article it was a reminder how we really don't have control of life we just become better instruments when we let go. Renee

I am a potter of many years, however after decorating, glazing + firing routines...there is always some hesitancy in beginning the throwing cycle. The unknown + letting go....getting my mind out of it. A fellow ceramics friend told me..."just let go.. Your hands KNOW the way." It always helps me to get into the zone + out of my head. A practiced craftsman trusts his best tools. In our case, it's our hands.

It took me a while to recognize that what I needed was stillness, even longer to realize that I only obtained it while I was at the wheel or mixing glazes. Its moving without having to think about what steps to take next and looking with your body, with your hands instead of your eyes that I find my stillness, my refuge. I remember not what my thoughts where but by looking back on the calm I realized that it didn't matter what I was thinking only that my hands where moving and that my mind was free (if only temporarily) from thoughts that bogged it down. Idle hands can indeed be the devils playthings.

You couldn't have been more succinct in your description for someone starting out.It gets better. Much better. In the meantime, enjoy the ride!

Been there, done that, have the tee-shirt. When the mind gets in the way, the pots don't turn out so well. Also, in the beginning, the skill set just isn't quite there yet. Start small, then work your way up. Throw small (about 1 pound of clay or less) vessels, trying to work on centering, opening, pulling up and then having an equal thickness throughout. Don't be in love with what you throw. Take a wire and cut through it to see if it is even throughout. Throw, throw, throw until you have developed the skill set and then learn to play with your skills. (Remember, you can put all that wet clay on some plaster and it will pull all the excess moisture out, just monitor to make sure it doesn't get too dry.) Get a sketch book and draw some ideas. Try to make them. Oh what fun!

Thank you deborah for sharing that. I think you are spot on about not falling inlove with your peices.... I just started and made something i like but am quite sure its not even. I'm going back to the studio tomorrow and will slice and dice. ;)

Thank to all pottery explerience heave post writers.
Iam beginning to touch a clay, ,,, i hope good to Learning and beauty obect all.

One dances with clay. It leads and you follow. You learn to recognize and respond to the subtle signals that make Big statements and a beautiful, inspiring or in some way thought provocative, emotive partnership ensues. It takes two to clay/tango. (45 years in love with clay)

As a production potter I can tell you that "these days" are not exclusive to beginners. My high school teacher once said to me, "When you find yourself stalled and frustrated, you must persevere for you are about to learn something; it may be about you or your medium or your form, but you will learn." I've carried that for 45 years.

What a wonderful article! As a potter only about two years in ... I think I've earned the right to be referred to as; potter. Time after time living the descriptions you wrote about, I arrived at a point where I actually had my own technique of being at one with the wheel and producing pieces I was actually happy with ;) Thanks for sharing this article! Donna

What a wonderful illustration! When I read it, it reminded me of how mankind often interacts with God. Each individual is unique. Yet, instead of the potter not being in the right position or of still mind, it is instead the wheel, the pedal and the clay that will not serender to the potters touch... instead, each is wanting to take control, not realizing that they are missing their created purpose. However, if only the pedal knew that its actions influenced the wheels turns, and the wheels turns influenced the clays transformation, and the clays transformation influenced the potters grasp, then all would be in harmony. We cannot exist on our own. Instead, we must find peace in what we have been created to be and do... so that we can exist in harmony in the world around us and allow God to use us in the creation of this masterpiece, called life.