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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Stuck in the mud

I've always loved pottery and I have a small collection of artisan-made pieces that I have had the privilege to buy over the years. Every time our family would go on vacation, often to Maine, I would try to make at least one stop at a craft co-op store or pottery shop to browse through the hand-thrown, brightly-colored mugs, bowls and dishes created by local potters. I've also bought several gems online at Etsy from such ceramic shops as Fehu Stoneware. There is something pleasantly tactile and curiously comforting about owning and using clay-based items that were lovingly formed by an actual person and not a machine; the hands of the artist leave a unique imprint on each piece, imparting a little bit of him or her onto the clay. As I hold a handmade ceramic bowl in my hands, I can almost feel what the potter felt as the wet clay or "mud" slipped through her fingers. It's no wonder this magical process has fascinated me for years.

For some time, I have yearned to take a pottery class to feel this clay-molding process for myself. Perhaps I had fond memories of playing with Play Doh when I was a child, and I thought making pots on a wheel would be just as much fun. Perhaps I was emboldened by my recent enjoyable experiences learning weaving and spinning, and I thought, "Why not give pottery a try too? How hard can it be if I take a class?" When I saw an ad with a 20% off coupon for pottery classes given at a local studio that was only five minutes from my house, I jumped at the chance to make my pottery-making dream come true.

Toting my little plastic bucket filled with newly-purchased clay-sculpting supplies, I went to my first class filled with positive expectations. The teacher showed us the ins and outs of the studio, and gave us a demonstration of how to wedge the clay (pounding and kneading it), which softens and conditions it prior to starting a project. This was much harder than I anticipated as the clay was very dense and heavy, and much arm strength was required to make it malleable. But I managed to get a medium-sized ball of clay ready for the potter's wheel, which was the next step on my clay odyssey. Over to the wheels we went. We were told to slap our lump of clay as close to the center of the wheel as possible in order to make "centering" easier. After a few attempts and some pushing, I managed to get the clay secured and ready to go for a spin.

Next, the centering...a process, which I soon discovered, must involve some mysterious incantations or magical hand movements that still elude me after four classes. Three different wheels and five lumps of clay later, I still couldn't get the clay to behave. I tried pressing with all might, but it only made me feel like my arms were made of muscle-less rubber. Then I tried concentrating on the "zen" of pottery-making - to no avail; all I could muster was one tiny bowl after another while my happy classmates were delighting in the pottery-throwing experience, making lovely, tall pots and vases. Some were even adding handles to make mugs, or advancing to slab-built projects! On the outside I laughed at myself and my puny little bowls that looked childlike in comparison to the other pieces being made. Yet on the inside, I was heartily disappointed in myself. Why was this so hard for me? What was I doing wrong?

After the first class, and some encouraging words from friends, I vowed to go back to the wheel and try again. I would not admit defeat just yet. I studied YouTube videos on how to center and throw clay; I read about making slab bowls. I was ready for round two. I wish I could say that my second class was better than my first, but it turned out to be a rerun of the same slapstick comedy that played during class one. I had only finished trimming my little bowls and threw one more before it was time to leave. The other students were busy making large hand-built bowls imprinted with leaf and other decorative designs. Slab-building was on agenda for the third class...definitely.

Ding. Round three. A different approach. I would stay away from the wheel in this class and concentrate on textured bowls and a vase made using flat slabs of clay that were pressed down using a slab roller. This neat, hand-cranked device was like a table-top steam roller for clay. It was quite fun to use and it did what it was told to do, unlike that pesky wheel. I managed to make a small bowl with a delicate floral design inside, which I created by pressing a piece of eyelet fabric onto the clay. I also made a slab-built square-topped vase that had a border of lace imprinted on the bottom edge. Hey, this slab-building was ok! Finally something I can do with clay. I was feeling somewhat more confident, perhaps a little too much so. Inspired by the lovely, tall pitchers other students were making on the wheel, and drunk with the power of hand-building, I decided to give the wheel another try. This time I used a bigger piece of clay and all the power my arms would give me. I felt like Scotty on Star Trek with the engines rattling at full speed and about to blow. She's givin' it all she's got Captain! I was determined to make something TALL this time.

Well, if you are wondering if I made a pitcher, I did not. Did I make a tall vase? Um, no. However I did achieve a little more height in what turned out to be yet another bowl; this one sported a fluted top rather than a plain rim. It was a nice bowl, but it wasn't a vase or a pitcher or a tall success. I finished round three with the clay and wheel 3 for 3. I was feeling thoroughly defeated.

Round four came along with my last shot at making something for glazing, which we would begin to learn in the fifth class. Sadly, I learned that my best bowl had cracked during initial firing, so the bottom was sheared off. This was another hard blow. So I decided to stay "down for the count on the mat," away from the wheel, and to focus on building another slab bowl. However, I re-learned that if you come to class without a solid design idea in mind, you will spend a lot of time re-doing projects, and feeling like the clay is fighting you every step of the way. Clearly, I did not have a good design concept in mind because I spent most of my precious class time starting a platter or bowl, getting stumped as to the shape or decoration, then rolling the clay back into a ball in frustration. Finally, I resigned myself to using tree-shaped cookie cutters to add 3-dimensional interest to a bowl, which became lumpy once it was inverted onto a plaster mold for shaping. SIGH Time to go home...hooray!

The fifth class arrived with its lessons on glazing. No more clay work or wheel throwing for the remaining classes. I heaved a sigh of relief. The only clay work I did was prior to class; I took my clay home and made about a dozen round beads, which I brought back to the studio for bisque firing. Bead-making was fun and more like working with Play Doh. Rolling little balls of clay between my palms was easy and satisfying. I enjoyed making melon-shaped beads by pressing lines into the clay with wooden skewers. I even found another use for my letter stamps, normally used on metal, as I imprinted words on the beads. On to glazing them...

At first, glazing seemed like painting, which was something I had liked in the past. But, as I would soon realize, glaze was not paint. Glaze was persnickety and liked to separate. It had a habit of running and pooling in odd places. I discovered I couldn't glaze the impressed design areas with a second color the way I had planned. Pieces with indentations would have to be washed with glaze to get color in the design, then the glaze wiped off leaving the majority of the pot in its natural reddish clay color - not what I had in mind. Also, I learned, to my dismay, that dried layers of glaze were easily disturbed by subsequent wet layers, creating the possibility of a messy mixture of colors. Finally, to add to my paranoia about clay work, somehow only I seemed to be having a problem with hairs from paint brushes coming loose and finding their way into the pools of wet glaze, causing me to have to fish for the hairs with my fingers which marred the glaze I had just applied. Even the teacher looked puzzled when the brand new brush she just gave me started to shed mysteriously. The curse of the pottery studio had struck again!

So here I am, class six of eight coming up soon, and I find myself wishing the class was over already. I have taken a lot of classes over the years, and I enjoyed most of them. There were a few that were less than exciting, but very few that left me feeling completely perplexed and inept. I should make it clear than this is not because of the teacher and her methods. My complete lack of ceramic skill comes from something in me that had greatly puzzled me. I am certainly not adept at everything; I can't play a guitar, I don't have a great singing voice, my painting skills are only so-so, and crochet is a struggle. So why do I feel so stuck in the mud with this particular craft?

After much pondering and soul-searching, I have come to the realization that passion - or lack thereof - for a creative process is at the core of my success and failure rates. But it's not so much my passion level as the relationship between my passion and my skills, and my expectations for both that cause a cognitive dissonance. For example, I have always loved textiles and weaving. My interest level and past experience with fabric led me to have high skill expectations for weaving. When I started to learn to weave, I found I had decent skills, though I still had frustrations. The weaving path is a long one with many things to learn. It is a fact that it will take a lifetime to achieve proficiency in this craft. Had it not been for my inner passion for textiles and some moderate initial success, that fact would likely have easily stopped me in my tracks, causing me to drop classes after one session. Yet I eagerly look forward to fall classes and to eventually improving my skills. Even though I know I will have bad experiences along the way, my love of fiber will keep me moving forward.

With ceramics, my beginning interest level was high, and my skill level expectations were high as well, but I soon discovered that my passion level was fairly low for this craft. As I began to proceed through the classes, and I realized that my abilities did not match my expectations, I waited for passion to kick in and cause me to persevere to improve my skills. That never happened. In fact, without passion the opposite took place: I wanted to quit. Yet, I still liked pottery-making - or the idea of it, and I wanted to succeed, but evidently not enough that I was able to muster sufficient energy to steam up the learning curve when it was steep.

I should add, that I am not above admitting there was also a certain amount of ego deflation and embarrassment in play here too. I didn't like doing so poorly at something that seemed so easy for everyone else! My fragile mid-life ego sustained a critical blow from this experience, but only because my expectations of being able to "do it all" were unrealistically high.

So what have I learned from all this? I learned that there are several scenarios possible in any learning situation, and that some cause more internal struggle than others.

Scenario 1. There are things I like but I am not good at doing, yet I am willing to work to improve my skills because I have some passion for that particular creative process. My very early sewing experiences fall in this category, and eventually I moved up my skills to match my interest level. It was the internal passion for textiles that provided my continued motivation to learn.

Scenario 2. There are things I am good at doing but I don't like (office work and accounting come to mind!). I'll do these only if I have to do them. These require a lot of external pressure to complete.

Scenario 3. There are things that I like and I am good at doing, which require very little passion to sustain my effort. (These are hard to find!) The existence of this scenario is what can set up disappointment and overly high expectations for other scenarios. I'd put learning to use a spinning wheel in this category since spinning seemed to come fairly naturally to me. That's not to say that I can't improve my skills, for I certainly have a lot to learn about this craft.

Scenario 4. There are things I don't like and I am not good at doing; needless to say, I don't even try these things a second time, or I don't even contemplate attempting them.

Scenario 5. There are lots of things which cause a neutral response. They evoke a so-so interest level and my skills are so-so. I may come back to them later, but there's an equal chance that I won't. However, because my initial interest level was only moderate, I am not very disappointed if I don't succeed. (This is the "I can take it or leave it" response.)

Scenario 6. Then there are things I like, but I am not good at doing. I want to make the experience a success because I still have interest in the process or product, yet I don't have the passion to sustain my learning curve. This is the most frustrating scenario and what I found while trying to learn ceramics. Basically, it bugs me to continue to like a craft but not have the necessary innate skills OR internal drive to improve my skills.

The Scenario 6 experience of getting "stuck in the mud," though very frustrating, does the most to shake us up and honestly realign our goals with our inner motivation levels. It brings us back to center and forces us to re-examine our expectations for what we can and cannot do based on where we most want to spend our precious energies. It is definitely a wake-up call to tell us that we cannot do it all, and we cannot be good at it all. To expect to be able to do it all with equal skill and effort is to put undue pressure on ourselves. We all have our passions and best skills, our Scenarios 1 and 3, and it's ok that not all of what we like or attempt falls into these categories. For me, the spinning wheel is fine, but the pottery wheel is not, and that's normal and not a failure.

So I am returning the mud to the hands of those of you who love and are inspired by it. I can't wait to see what you do with the clay. I'll be waiting with money in my handwoven, hand-sewn purse to buy the fruits of your passions. I think I will be weaving my life in another direction for now.

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Blogger Judy Nolan said...

Oh, Liv! I can SO relate! When I visited Pearl and she tried to teach me how to center clay on the wheel, I was better at letting the clay fly away from me that keeping it in my hands. We won't even talk about the lack of arm strength! I think I enjoyed photographing Pearl at work, and admiring her finished product, far more than I did the process of working the clay myself. There just are crafts (and skills) that are meant for others to admire and appreciate. :-)

June 30, 2009 at 5:37 PM  
Blogger ZudaGay said...

Thank you for your beautiful and honestly written post, Liv! Very interesting truths you've learned from this experience.

June 30, 2009 at 10:23 PM  

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