Lessons in Pottery

I had always judged my sister’s pottery when she gifted it to us for Christmas. Weird, small, misshapen plates that you couldn’t even put shit on. The colours were splattered and random, the texture of the glassware was uneven. I remember once accidentally dropping a mug she had made on the floor at my parents’ cottage when I was reaching for a different mug because hers was small and couldn’t fit a sufficient amount of coffee in it. I looked at my dad like I had just killed our dog. He sort of shrugged and pointed to the other seven mugs of hers that had somehow made their way up there and said “Honestly, I think it’ll be okay.” We laughed and I cleaned up my mess. I felt nothing towards her pottery except this weird responsibility to preserve it and show it off because it was hers and she had made it with her hands. How did we not understand the gravity of her hard work?

Now, I look at my sister’s pottery with reverence. It is clean and the colours are complimentary. The mugs are all completely even and fit a perfect amount of tea in them. They are functional and beautiful.

When I signed up for pottery, I just wanted something to do every week and I had missed the deadline to apply for a woodworking class to make your own planter. I was disillusioned about pottery before I had even started. Starting pottery, as it turned out, did not help.

I immediately resented having to be somewhere for three hours without the ability to check my phone or answer emails. I physically couldn’t because my hands would be full of wet clay. I thought pottery would calm me down, and it did in a way, but I was still mad about it. I could only think about what I was missing from my life instead of what I was gaining.

I signed up with my roommate who, like me, wanted to try something new and thought pottery would fill our creative voids. Between us, the two lawyers who were on their fifth series of pottery classes, and two teachers who also signed up for the first time, we made a pretty one dimensional crew. The girls were lovely and we often chatted to each other about our lives and our jobs and our feelings about pottery. I loved being complimented on centering my clay because it was what I was worst at. We provided positive reinforcement constantly because we were so nervous and bad at doing pottery that it felt celebratory if we did something even remotely right. Only the lawyers could effectively apply what the teacher was telling us to do but they were experts at this point so it really was their world and we were just living in it. Above all else, pottery taught me to support and to accept support. Our group wasn’t tight but I remember each woman because they all took time out to give me advice on how to fix whatever project I was messing up and to encourage me when I was doing a good job. I returned the compliments when I saw them making something nice which was easy because it happened all the time.

Pottery also taught me that it was okay to be fucking up constantly. My roommate occasionally got flustered, mostly because she wasn’t mastering the art as quickly as she had hoped but also if anything ever went slightly wrong which it tended to do all the time. I didn’t understand because from the beginning I had resigned to my shittiness and leaned into my mistakes. My collapsed cup would become a plate. My collapsed bowl would also become a plate. Basically anything can just become a plate. This, I like to think, is a metaphor for life’s mistakes too. It was humbling to be fixing your mistakes by redirecting and making something that was still workable and pretty.

I also learned to be more patient with my projects. The most gruelling and frustrating process in pottery is centering your clay. If you do not centre your clay, there’s no point in making anything because it will be uneven and wrong and won’t be able to support any weight and the kiln will ruin it. This made me crazy. Centering your clay is not simple and straightforward. It’s not a cursory step that you do to begin your routine but a complicated, difficult, often easily messed up part of the entire process that requires your full attention. If you mess it up, no matter how close you’ve gotten to perfectly centred clay, you have to scrap the whole mound and restart. It can be annoying and stubborn and you can do the same actions each time and end up with a different product. I often overworked my clay in the centering process and made myself nuts by having to throw it into the recycled clay bin. By the end of my first few classes, I would have only made one or two pieces because of the number of times I was made to reset my clay. This slowly became normal for me and I actually felt grateful for the pieces that I did make. Even though they were not pretty, they felt hard won and like I had actually made an effort for them because of all the crap I had ruined by not being able to centre them within twenty minutes. It was okay to be constantly fucking up and I could still make some passably bad pottery.

Near the end of the last class, I learned that I was really good at one thing which everyone was good at because it was easy. I learned that to prevent each piece of pottery from sticking to the inside of the kiln, you had to gently remove the paint and glaze that covered the bottom. I did this with such tenderness and affection that our teacher, Heidi, complimented my patience. I said that it was probably what I was best at in the class and she agreed. While it is not difficult, it is important work and it’s especially important to not take it for granted. Pottery was full of rules and waiting that I didn’t understand and didn’t agree with because of my lack of understanding. You mostly had to trust that the instructor knew what was up and was steering you in the right direction. Along with being bad at pottery and being okay with that, I learned to let go. Being able to let go of the idea that I was there to learn a new skill and become a better person immediately reestablished my expectations and changed my perspective of my experience. My pottery turned out okay, and I would too.