by Cindy Douglass of Stardust Pottery
I've taken pottery classes for about four years now. Although I now have a business selling pottery, I still enjoy taking classes for the social and learning aspects. These are some of the life lessons I've learned in pottery classes.
1. Creation is messy
This might not be obvious, but the act of creation is much like giving birth. It is a messy business! When I started taking pottery classes, I tried to stay neat and clean. The clay quickly let me know that it doesn’t work well that way. You have to use water to form the clay on the wheel. Water mixes with clay and then slings all over the place as the wheel spins. Glazes in five gallon buckets have to be mixed with a power drill and mixing tool. The glazes often get slung around, over the tops of the buckets.
In otherwords, you can't expect to keep everything exactly the same if you want something new and different. Stir things up and it gets messy. But the results, hopefully, will be worth the mess.
2. Learning new skills is awkward
I had an affinity to clay. I was sure everything about the clay would come easily to me. Boy! Was I wrong! Learning new skills in middle age is a little rough on the ego. Seeing the walls of the pots droop down time after time can be disheartening. Many times I walked out of that classroom in tears. But when the next class came around, I sat down to try again.
Building new skills takes patience with one's self. You can't base your self esteem on your failures. You have to base your self esteem on your successes, even if that success is merely showing back up to class.
3. It has to be fun
Learning to become a potter became such an overwhelming “must do” for me that I’d get more and more intense as I attempted to work the clay. On one particularly rough day where the clay screamed “NO!” at me, my instructor said to me, “Cindy, you don’t look like you are having fun. Aren’t you having fun?” At that moment I realized how tense I had gotten. I had put a lot of pressure on myself to excel. But what I really needed to do was to relax, enjoy the process and have a little fun with it!
Isn’t it odd that we have to have a little fun to succeed?
4. Slow down and focus
Another thing I learned working with clay is that there’s no forcing it to behave. Clay, like people, have to be coaxed into responding the way we’d like. As soon as the clay felt forced, it would drop like mud. But by slowing down, giving the clay my full attention, and encouraging the clay made it stand up like excited body parts!
5. Encouragement is always appreciated
We all need encouragement to face and endure the down days in pottery class. It surprises me how few people encourage others until they’ve been encouraged themselves. So, to ensure that I got some encouragement when I needed it, I offered it to the other students. It trained me to start looking for the positive in other people’s work. And that really works to build synergy in a group setting.
6. There is so much more to learn
There are some things we learn that seem to be set in stone, but clay is not one of those things. There are hundreds of techniques and a thousand different ways to accomplish those techniques. There are as many ingredients to a glaze as there are types of soil, rock and minerals in the earth. There will always be something new to learn, but that makes the journey exciting for me.
7. Creating pottery requires lots of exercise
I’ve found that wedging clay requires a lot of strength. One pound of clay is not too bad, but when I try to wedge clay for the 10 lb pots, that requires a lot of repetitive motion. By the time I’ve wedged the clay for the day, I’ve spent at least an hour in exercise. And that’s not counting hauling around 50 lb boxes of clay and the 5 gallon buckets of water and glaze. So if you need strength training, but want something to show for the time exercising become a potter!
8. Don’t follow the leader. Use your voice.
Every artist who agrees to demonstrate their skills knows that the students will want to practice the new techniques shown them. It is sad though, when a student attempts to copy the entire work of the artist. Don’t be a lemming. Find and use your own voice in your body of work. That’s what makes a true artist.
9. Pottery friends are some of the best
Building friendships on shared creative endeavors really brings out the best in people. My pottery friends come from all socioeconomic classes, but we have a shared passion: clay. I am lucky in my pottery friends.
10. Only the Great Spirit is perfect
No matter how long I create in clay, it is not likely that my work will ever achieve perfection. It’s said that the Navaho Indians deliberately leave a small imperfection in their weavings because to create something perfect is hubris. Their reasoning is that only the Great Spirit is, and can be, perfect. It is a good reminder for those of us who work with our hands in clay. We naturally strive to attempt perfection every time we sit down to create. But the beauty actually lies in the imperfections our hands create. That’s the charm of handmade items.