Sometimes I joke that I prefer clay to people. This is meant to be funny because clay can be temperamental, unforgiving, or straight up petty. Clay is difficult. We have a complicated relationship.
There’s a reason I spend more quality time with clay than I do with other human beings. Ceramics has been my obsession for the last year or so. Throwing pottery on the wheel was something I always wanted to try—the wet clay always looked so mushy and slippery and what you could do with it as it spins—and slowly transforms into different shapes —can be like watching a magic trick.
I took a class and was instantly addicted. It was better, messier, more fun than I imagined. I took up the hobby because I thought it would make me happy. That’s why you take up a hobby in the first place, right?
Happiness is a complicated subject for me because I’m not entirely sure I know what that means, maybe even especially through the lens of something I love so much.
I don’t know if pottery makes me happy—like “cartwheeling and laughing” happy. It helps me with stress. And it certainly makes me feel like I’m… well… high. Like a kite or a balloon or what you feel when you smoke a bong. It makes me feel free. Writing used to do the same thing with ease.
When I was a kid, I used to come home from school, plop down in front of the computer, and immediately get in a zone, transporting myself to this other world where what was in my head could be made into something real. “I AM GOING TO GROW UP AND BE A WRITER SOMEDAY,” I declared at age 12.
I had no idea, of course, that someday, I would be a single woman in my late-30s struggling to support myself as a writer in an increasingly grotesque clickbait content economy. I also didn’t know that my concentration would be hindered by adult-onset ADHD managed with ever-weakening generic amphetamines, paid for out of pocket. That hyperfocus high happens sometimes, if my brain is gripped on tight to One Big Thought, the Adderall is working, and I’m not having an anxiety attack about being over the de-evolution of humankind.
But every time I sit down at the pottery wheel, the high kicks in almost right away. Even on the days when it seems like the clay is trying to tell me I should go home, I’m off my game, I don’t want to stop. Sometimes it’s like being in a trance, almost hypnotized, and when I come out of it, I’ll look at the clock and realize I’ve been sitting at the wheel for three hours. I could always keep going. I do my best thinking at the wheel, which for me means letting my brain wander down dozens of thought streams at once, instead of wrestling my internal narratives into submission.
Not unlike my relationships with people, the one I have with ceramics is not completely mutual. There are definitely other people that clay prefers over me. I try not to get jealous. Like I wrote: it’s a complicated relationship. I am one of the least prolific members at my studio, a wonderful non-profit called ArtShack in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and I don’t even care.
A fellow member who started at the same time as I did, is now off throwing fruit bowls, old-timey milk pitchers and matching coffee cup sets in rapid succession. Meanwhile, I’m struggling to center my third ball of red clay (the first step in ensuring the pot isn’t lopsided) and muttering insults about air bubbles (which can cause cracking). It can be frustrating to feel like I’ve plateaued, but I’ll still be back at the wheel tomorrow.
The clay is constantly teaching me things. I have learned there are no “perfect pots.” There are five stages to making ceramics and your most perfect pot ever could be ruined during any of them, no matter how good you are. Step 1 is throwing. Step 2 is trimming, which you’re ideally supposed to do when the clay has dried to leather hardness, so the excess clay shaves off in satisfying ribbons. Pottery at this stage is called greenware. Step 3 is the first firing, and what comes out is called “bisque ware.” Step 4 is glazing. And Step 5 is the final firing. Altogether, it takes about a week to finish a piece at a minimum, with all the waiting in between the steps; even if it makes it all the way to the end without getting cracked, over-trimmed or poorly glazed, your perfect pot could be dropped at any time, shattered into pieces.
I’ve ruined so many perfect pots. “Suck it up and make another one,” my teacher said when I showed her that my first perfect pot had an S-shaped crack in the center, making it impossible to drink out of. I pouted at first, but now I feel that in my bones – in the end, a perfect pot is still a THING that can fall apart. I can always make another, and another, and another. The process of MAKING can’t be taken away.
I’ve always had a tendency to compare myself to others resulting in a lot of harsh self-criticisms, and resentment and jealousy of others. That has led me creatively astray at times, where someone else’s work has been a distracting influence on my own, with results that never quite work.
But making pottery is a skill that takes a lot of time to develop, and there really is no fast-forward option or YouTube video I could watch that would make me suddenly great overnight. Throwing a mound of clay into a cylinder is the simplest thing you can do—after centering the clay on the wheel, throwing begins as soon as you make the hole in the center with your two thumbs. After stopping about a half-inch from the bottom, you push the inside wall outward to the desired width for the inside of the vessel, and then pulling the clay from the outside wall up to make it tall.
This is not something you simply get the hang of after a few attempts. I certainly haven’t come close to mastering it after a few hundred. From the jump, pottery lets me know I had to check my ego at the door. The slow, humbling process of learning how to throw has put many of my initial goals —largely influenced by the work of ceramicists I admire —way the hell out of my reach. It’s cute how I actually thought I would have my own line of chic, modern, ceramic bongs by now. I haven’t even made a mug yet (pulling handles being on my long list of things I have yet to learn).
I don’t know if pottery makes me happy, but I’m getting more comfortable with uncertainty. Picking up my finished pieces from the glazed shelf always is a surprise. My eyes scan across the shiny array of mugs, soup bowls, sculptural objects and other vessels, looking for one I recognize as my own. It’s a little like Where’s Waldo, his red and white hat and striped shirt hiding in plain sight. Sometimes, my final glazed piece won’t come out the way I’d hoped (suck it up, make another one) but when they’re good, I’m giddy. Once, I experimented with a new glazing combination of both creamsicle and deep amber red, and when I saw how the chemicals had interacted during the final firing found myself shouting aloud, “Oh my god, I’m a WITCH!” The outside of the freshly glazed bowl looked like a desert landscape at sunset.
The last few years have been about coming to terms with life working out differently than I imagined, becoming less afraid of what may lie ahead, including failure. Pottery has made me more patient, forgiving, and trusting of myself. Every throw is different, every day is different. I don’t know if pottery makes me happy, but it definitely reminds me to enjoy being alive.