Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Behind the Wheel - Tales from a Pottery Newbie, part 1


I have long wanted to learn how to throw pottery on a wheel. So as part of my #101in1001 project I signed us up for a beginning pottery class. We had our first session a few weeks ago and, well, it wasn't quite what I expected.

Which begs the question, what was I expecting? Well, I expected a bit more order, and not to spend the first half hour trying to find room for us all to store our clay. And I expected to, well, be instructed on how to do things. And of course I expected that a "Beginner" class would be full of beginners. But now I'm getting ahead of myself.

We arrived, nervous and jangly, at the community center where the class was located. A nice man at the front desk showed us where the studio was, and we went in. Shelves of pottery in various states. Six pottery wheels at one end, a massive sink, a jars full of tools. Big tables, low stools. Clay-stained aprons. Displays of glazes and unknown things in jars.

After several minutes, another person came in, then a few more. Finally, right at 6:30, the instructor arrived.

We gathered around the table … it was clear she knew some of the students already. She asked us to tell her what our experience with pottery was, and what we hoped to achieve. As she went around the room, my sense of … dread? Ire? Panic? … rose. Everyone else had been making pottery for at least a couple of months, if not years.

She got to me and I said, "Well, I'm a beginner … I don't have any experience … which is why I thought I signed up for a beginner class." She said, "You're in the right place." I even thought, for a while, that maybe it would be great -- if everyone else already knew what they were doing, we'd get more instruction.

Then it was time to get our clay. There were choices to be made -- the other students are working with different clay than we are. We're using a clay described as the simplest clay. Whatever that means.

Then we went back to the pottery room and spent a good 20 minutes trying to figure out whether there was room on the storage shelves, and what clay could be removed because the student wasn't continuing, and so on. In the end Wil and I just said we'd share a space at the end of one of the shelves, wrote our names on the sheet, and moved out of the way.

Then, finally, clay. We learned to "wedge" it -- though I was doing it wrong, at first. I was kneading it -- which, with dough, is designed in part to *add* air. But with clay, what you need to do is remove any air -- because air bubbles will explode when the clay is fired. Kaboom.
While we "wedged", the experienced students got on pottery wheels… and the real problem became apparent. Seven students in attendance. Six wheels.

The instructor took a wheel and did a little demo with speed and grace, centering her clay, making first a cone then a cylinder, then a delicate bowl. She repeated the demonstration and made a perfect little pitcher.

I mean, how hard could it be?

Luckily for me, one of the experienced potters decided she wanted to do some hand building rather than throw on a wheel, so I gathered my supplies and got set up. To "center" clay you find the approximate center of your wheel, and then use the pressure of your wet hands to gather and center and start shaping the clay. When watching a master potter do this, it's like magic -- they splat, they squeeze, they make a cone, the push it down, then the open it up and start a cylinder.

I, on the other hand, spent a frustrating 45 minutes just trying to center my clay. I used enough water to completely saturate the clay, rendering it too useless to throw. And I used up each of my three prepared lumps. By the end I was so upset and so frustrated I was convinced we should drop the class.


Except I looked over at Wil and he was actually raising cylinders. Thick-walled cylinders, sure. But still just making things work.

This made me almost more upset -- so I decided to clean up my wheel and try not to cry. I made eye contact with the woman who was hand building. She said, "If you ask her, she'll show you how to do it… I mean, look at what I made last term" -- holding up a small bowl. "Throwing is really hard."

So the next time the teacher came into the room I went over and said, "Well, actually, I need instruction. I need to be shown how to do something -- I can't just learn it from watching. I've just spent 45 minutes trying to center clay. Can you help?"

And to her credit, she came over to my wheel, helped me center the clay, showed me where on my hand I should be placing pressure, where I should hold my arms, how to open up the clay to start a cylinder. And after a few minutes, I had made -- with STRONG DIRECTION -- a passable cup.

So I didn't feel like crying anymore … but I was still frustrated. Shouldn't the teacher have actively been TEACHING? With only two newbies … sitting next to each other … shouldn't she have come by to check on us and offer … INSTRUCTION?

Week 2 we went into the studio early so that we could wedge a LOT of clay, and make sure we got on wheels. Which was good, because we had 9 students in class that night. But again we made a bit of a fatal error -- largely because we didn't know what we were supposed to do next. We got on wheels, threw our clay, made some cups and bowls and plates … but hadn't been taught about "trimming" so we gave our wheels up… so couldn't trim our stuff from week 1. Which meant that at 7:30 we were just twiddling our thumbs… so we guiltily left. Guilty because we didn't help clean up, but we clearly weren't going to accomplish anything else!


Week 3 we actually went into the studio on the Monday night, too -- to do some prep work, and trim our bowls in peace. I did enough work on the wheel that I decided that on Tuesday I would just throw 2 lumps of clay, and then spend the evening working on hand-built projects. Not that we had any instruction on it, but I just decided to stop stressing about the limited wheels. And at the end of class I'd made a nice little "campfire" candle holder and a vase. Oh, and an ugly duckling pitcher I threw before class even started.


However, we also learned that we should have been putting our "finished" projects on the "fire me" shelves … how would we have known that? Really not sure. So we did that at the end of week 3; in theory we should have some bisque-ware that we can glaze tonight.

So tonight I plan on getting there a little early, trimming the ugly duckling pitcher, throwing 2 wedges on the wheel, and then making some hand-built candleholders using my snowflake cookie cutters. Perhaps a couple of pinch pots. Oh, and decorating my campfire.

1 comment:

Wendy said...

wow! Sounds like a crap teacher! I have done so many classes and found some good, some outstanding and some useless teachers. No advice really other than to try and find a different class for next term.