When I was in college, I lived in the dorms for the first two years. Our dorm had a pottery room, which was open for student use. One of my acquaintances, a ceramics major named Kal, was hired to provide instruction. I wanted to learn how to throw a pot on the wheel. However, I purposely avoided going to the pottery room when I knew that Kal would be there. Kal acted as if he had a strong romantic interest in me. He was never anything except a polite and respectful young man to me but he was really intense. When he looked at me it was as if he were picturing what our children might look like when we got married. As a 19 year-old, this was too much. It made me feel uncomfortable and off balance.

One day, I went into the pottery room by myself, whacked off a hunk of clay, plopped it on the wheel, got the wheel turning, and tried to shape it into a pot with my hands. It was quickly obvious to me that pot throwing skills might be enhanced by instruction. I managed to take an off center blob of clay and transform it into an even more off center blob of clay with ridges. I’m not even sure how I got that clay scraped off of the wheel but I did. Then I did a little hand building followed by having some fun with the slip molds. Slip molds are easy. You pour in the clay slip, wait a bit, and then pour it out leaving a lining on the mold. Put it in the kiln and presto, a perfectly molded piece came out, ready to glaze. I can’t say that it actually stoked my creativity, using those slip molds getting the same shape, over and over.

It is now thirty years later and I am learning to throw pottery on a wheel. I signed my husband and I up for a pottery class at the local community college. This is the first class we’ve taken together since the travesty that was ballroom dancing at the Bloomington, Indiana YMCA, 17 years ago. I have signed us up for other classes in the past few years and have had to cancer them due to urgent parenting needs that have made it necessary for us to stay closer to home. We spend every Thursday night working with clay. The first thing we learned was to wedge the clay, in order remove the air bubbles and prevent cracks. Then we learned to center the clay on the wheel. Working with un-centered clay is kind of like trying to get a washing machine back in balance by hugging it.

To center clay, you have to make it stick to the wheel and you have to stick it to the right spot. Then you have to use your hands and tools to move some of the clay while keeping the whole pile of clay stable. It is a dance of flux against stability and like any dance, it requires coordination. The first thing I learned to do after wedging was centering. Then I was kind of stuck because I could not get the clay to move the way I wanted it to. It either moved too much and unevenly so or nowhere at all. Micki, our instructor came over to each of us at these times and helped us out either with verbal instruction or by demonstrating the technique on our work.

With each lesson, I learned a different part and by the 4th lesson, I had learned enough parts that I was able to get the clay to do some things that I wanted. I had a few epiphanies that led to my hands working together but performing different jobs. I am learning to use my right hand to create change and to use my left hand to hold everything steady while also accommodating the growth of the object. I am learning to move my hands at the right speed. I am learning to use the strength of my forearm and body weight to create width instead of willing the heel of my hand to be flatter and stronger. I can make a reasonably acceptable looking plate now. I am still working on pulling up the clay higher for cylinders, a process that has been somewhat hindered by the fact that the flat surface of a plate is much more interesting to decorate.

I am very much enjoying this class, as is my husband. We are both learning. Perhaps if I wanted to and dedicated the time to it, I could get really good at throwing plates. I suspect I will keep learning to make new things, each a combination of struggle and discovery.

I do know that with each new learning I start the same way, by taking the time to get my work securely centered to the wheel before getting creative or fancy. It requires patience, persistence, and plenty of do-overs.