Clay, meet GC.

Today’s guest post is by intrepid vagabond and MAF board member GC Meridian*:

Have you ever taken a pottery class?  Me neither, but always wanted to.  Not sure why really, it just called to me.  Maybe it’s because I so enjoy drinking from and holding a hand-made teacup or coffee cup?  Maybe because I own vases, platters, pitchers and more and they are so exquisite in their beauty, many highly functional, so I can’t help but be drawn to trying to make them myself?  After all, we’re blessed with a center here in Cedar Rapids that encourages and educates us on the beauty of clay by offering classes for beginners to advanced, for children to adults.  So I enrolled in a “beginning wheel for adults” class.

Excited for my first night at class to begin, I showed up a little early! The room is buzzing with activity.  Funny looking rows of seats made up of squatty little stools, with contraptions containing a wheel in front of them; I wonder to myself if these old bones will allow me to squat that deep.  Shelves upon shelves of pottery, plastic sheets, boards and jars—most hard to know what-is-what for us first-timers, as we don’t have the understanding, the “pottery making lingo” to know and express what is before us, but we’ll all know the secrets soon enough—there is excitement in the air, as we progress further into the Ceramic Center.

As in all previous classroom situations I’ve been exposed to, we find our seats (and yes, I can easily perch myself comfortably on my squatty little stool), mumble and nod hello to each other, and look around wide-eyed in awe; soon the instructor begins.  After a brief tour of the facility, walking past four—or was it six?—different kilns he jumps right into demonstrating just how one “throws a pot”.  Providing a step-by-step example, encouraging our attention to the black-board where he’s written instructions that we may use as a reference of the pot throwing procedures once we are off and trying on our own.

It looks so simple!  Just like Demi Moore and Patrick Swazey in Ghost!  For once, something, I think to myself, looks just—just like it does in the movies!  The clay moves for the teacher and becomes a cylinder in mere minutes as he talks us through the process.

“I can do this!” I hear my inner artist child squeal excitedly.

Itching to get started, I can barely concentrate on what the instructor is saying, but soon, we’re given the mandate to dig in and get our hands dirty!  Oh how “Clay” feels!  Heavy and awkward in my hand as I slice a grapefruit sized hunk from the large tubular blob they say is mine, all mine, to use for this class.

I take my grapefruit sized disk, Clay, and “wedge” him on the table.  Wedge, a new term for us newbies, meaning I’m working him, quickly—or in my case, methodically, rather than so quickly—plunging the heels of my hands into him, folding him over and plunging again, repeating the act for as little as twenty times, but I’m told, many times this must and should be more, depending upon the type of clay, all with the goal to make him, clay, pliable, softer, and lacking of any bubbles.  I muse that this really isn’t all that different from kneading bread.  Stiffer of course, but Clay recognizes that this touch isn’t foreign to my hands.

Time to introduce myself to “The Wheel”.  I play with the foot pad, spinning the wheel, observing the speed and the sensitivity of the foot-feed.   Then I stop the wheel and sit quietly for a moment, holding the weighty ball in my hand.  “Clay”, I whisper, “it’s nice to meet you.  Shall we give it a go?”

As I toss Clay from one hand to the other, like a softball, patting it soundly with the opposite hand, trying to compact and round him a little more before not-so-gently plopping him as close to center of the wheel as I can.  He makes a satisfactory thudding sound, securely adhering to the metal plate.  I take a deep breath and begin.  Wetting my hands in the water bucket before me, allowing the water to drip off my hands, onto Clay, I nod respectfully to Wheel and he kindly, slowly at first, begins, then spinning faster, as he responds to my foot pressing on his foot-feed.

I wonder how Clay feels as my hands grip him.  Does he say to himself, “Ouch!  She’s pushing too hard!”?  Or does Wheel laugh knowingly at me—as I, more than novice, and nervous to be trying something new, especially in front of strangers, tensely push Clay together between the palms of my hands, while simultaneously pushing the sides of my hands down with as much strength as I can muster to somehow control the wobbling mound that is Clay, and I feel the spin of the metal, Wheel—as he ever so slightly rubs raw the meaty outer edges of my hands? Yes, by the end of class, I do walk out with a nice metal burn on the sides of my hands, but I digress.

There is a discussion going on inside my head as I and my inner child artist vie for control over my hands, and we agree to try relaxing, focusing, concentrating, tuning out all distractions.  You know those kinds of moments of which I speak?  Those times when you miraculously can zone into something so well!  Think of a scene on a stage, where a character steps out of the play and talks to the audience, the lights dim around all the other characters and it becomes all about the spot-lit character—so it’s all about me and Wheel and Clay; The Clay.

The centrifugal force coming together with the pressure of my hands, as Clay complies and compacts toward the center of the wheel.  Does he feel dizzy? Or perhaps he’s stationary in his core and is feeling a wonderful massage with just the right amount of tension to relax and conform to the will of, Me?  The potter?

Neophyte that I am, I accuse Clay and Wheel of having nefarious intentions with a mind of their own, working in concert to humiliate me, for they know I do not have the first clue of what I am doing.  I swear! I can hear them laughing at me and my humiliation grows as the instructor comes to my wheel—for the dozenth time since we were given instructions and told it was our turn to try—and he controls the unruly Clay, instantly!   Clay submits to his hands, with Wheel, whistling along as if he wasn’t part of the conspiracy.

They do not know me however.  The Clay, The Wheel, they believe they’ve had a great time in confounding me, that I will walk away from class, frustrated and discouraged, which I believe their goal to be, just so they can brag to their other clay and wheel friends.  At first, I consider allowing them to believe this to be true.  Better to keep my secret for a later battle that I plan on winning.

On second thought, I decide, no, this is not a war to wage, there is not, nor should not be winners and losers here.  True, there will be successes and failures, but, the winning will come from the doing and I choose instead to thrill to the experience regardless of the outcome!  I will enjoy Clay, his earthy smell, his warmth, his gooey texture, both firm and yet sloppy softness when I add too much water.  I delight at the “smack”, “glob”, “smack” Clay says in my hands as his friend Wheel spins him around.  I embrace their giggles as I continue to attempt to coax Clay to the center of the wheel, trying my best to mimic the instructor’s performance where his clay compresses in his hands.  It’s rising vertically, then horizontally and spherical as he continues to press from the sides, keeping his thumbs over the top to contain vertical growth, working in concert with physics, his clay centers on his spinning wheel.  This “centering” is the only goal of tonight’s class.  Learn to center the clay on the wheel.

By the end of the first class, I have accomplished nothing.  No cylinder, no centering; nothing but the satisfaction of feeling Clay, water and Wheel.  Evidence of this experience is all over me.  Clay juice is everywhere, even a glob on my cheek that I quickly, conspiratorially, wipe away before anyone sees that I played more than caught onto the technique we were being taught.

Ahh—but I learned, unbeknownst to anyone else, especially Clay and Wheel.  I was on the cusp of understanding, at my core, the principals of what was to take place in order to create a piece of pottery.  I left class that night, knowing I would be back.  Not just because I paid for classes, but more importantly, because a crack in the door of creativity had been opened and my inner child artist was singing, dancing the snoopy dance of creative fun, titillated at the idea of playing again, and soon!

Goodnight Ceramic Center.  Goodnight Clay.  Goodnight Wheel.  We’ll be back, my inner child artist and I, for we are not discouraged, but hopeful and excited.

*GC Meridian is known in some circles as the most amazing being in the universe, having once saved an entire family of muskrats from a sinking, fire engulfed steamboat while recovering from two broken arms relating to a botched no-chute wingsuit landing in North Korea. When not impressing people with humbling humility, GC can be found freelance writing, hanging out as a board member of the Marion Arts Festival, finding shiny objects on the internet, enjoying the company of much-appreciated friends and living out–okay, vicariously–a nomadic nature. Managing Editor, Chief Cook, Pirate Wench and Chicken Sitter at Vista Della Cava. Connect with GC through Twitter or StumbleUpon.