Archives for posts with tag: art

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.

When I was in high school, my humanities teachers, now know to me as Helen and Bob, took a group of us on week long trip to New York City, with a one day stop in Boston.  Bob and Helen worked with us for months ahead of time making sure we would know how to use the subways and get around because we were on our own for significant parts of each day. By day, we visited museums and scoped out architecture. We had a journal for each day with tons of questions corresponding to different paintings, buildings, and exhibits. I remember spending about 10 minutes staring at a series of Frank Stella paintings at the Museum of Modern Art before realizing that I was on the wrong floor of the museum and none of the questions in my book were matching up to the exhibit. I remember my excitement with visiting my first Frank Lloyd Wright building, the Guggenheim Museum. There was a large collection of later Picassos on exhibit. One of my friends was totally disgusted. I was so taken with the colors and the abstract forms that I did not notice that most of paintings were of female genitalia. Come on, like Picasso was the first horny artist. The man was a genius and I got to see his original paintings, some from the Blue Period and some from the Lady Bits Period.

We also went to a lot of Broadway shows. We saw Noises Off (meh), Cats (T.S. Elliot and cats dancing on the balcony; awesome), and the very fun Little Shop of Horrors. We skipped Oh, Calcutta, the all nude musical that was playing at the Edison Hotel, where we were staying. I remember I worked long and hard to charm the cranky and rude man who worked at the front desk. He yelled at us every time we asked him politely to get money out of the safe, to which only he had access. By day three he was smiling every time he saw me and calling me, “Darling.”

Oh yeah. I almost forgot. We saw a very famous play. We saw the Death of a Salesman. Dustin Hoffman played Willie Lowman. He was so amazing. I still remember the uproar caused by his not being nominated for a Tony Award that year. He was invited to present at the awards and received a standing ovation. Although my memory of this event seemed so clear, I was recently reminded that John Malkovich played Willie Lowman’s son, Biff, in that production. He was already famous by that time. His voice was as distinctive as it is now. It was amazing.

The whole trip was an amazing experience and I almost didn’t go. My parents told me that it was too expensive.  A few days after telling my teachers that I would not be able to go on the trip, Bob took me aside and told me that there had been an anonymous donation for my airfare. That allowed me to go. I remember that it was about $300 and that we flew on Continental Airlines.

For many years, I have suspected that Bob and Helen paid for my airfare out of their own pockets. Maybe I’m wrong about that. But even still, the trip would not have been possible without these two dedicated teachers, giving so much of their time not to mention giving up their spring break every year, to teach kids from Renton, WA about the arts and the big world outside of us.

I have kept in touch with Helen over the years. She reads this blog and sometimes sends me a personal email with her thoughts about a particular post. She retired right after my cancer diagnosis. She is extremely beloved by many former students. There’s even a fan club on Facebook for her!

Helen got pretty ill last summer and last I heard, she was getting stronger each day. Maybe she’s even reading this post along with the rest of you who are reading this right now. Helen, I have enormous gratitude for what you did for me in my teens. You are smart and an outlier. A passionate person who enjoyed her career. You were and are a role model to me about living a life of meaning, humor, and service. Thank you for all that you have done for THOUSANDS of students. Not every teacher gets fan page on social media. And not every teacher agrees to meet with former students, still in their teens who miss their teacher and want to talk to her about books.

I have filled my blog with posts of gratitude and appreciation this week, with an eye on paying-it-forward.  I have had the privilege of an exemplary education and you were among the very best of my teachers during my 25 years of schooling. Your dedication to the welfare and education of youth, helped inspire mine.

Thank you and I wish you the very best in your health and healing.

I saw this article today and the beauty of the photos as well as the inspiration for the work is very moving.

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