Last Thursday was the end of term. The doors to the cool pottery studio will be locked for the summer. This means nine weeks without smudges on my spectacles or gritty residue under my fingernails. Alas, it also means no spinning clay or smooth slip between my fingers for nine weeks. As my pottery journey is suspended for two months, all I can do is study my pots and reflect on what I’ve learnt in the last ten months.
Again and again
In the autumn I was just happy to throw a well centred pot or bowl. That in itself felt like an achievement. However, as my centring and pulling up skills improved, I wanted to throw the pot I had in mind rather than the one that just happened to materialise. I longed to throw pots with the same wall width at the base as at the rim; to achieve a smooth transition from base to wall; to mirror the turned outside to the thrown inside…
For months and months I practiced the most ancient shape know to man, throwing one lump of clay after another. For every pot I chose to fire there were four or five that I wired through to check if my technique was improving. Were these a waste? Hardly. Maybe I sacrificed a few potentially good bowls, but throwing and analysing is an essential part of learning the craft.
By splitting open a just thrown pot, my eye can see what my body has just felt. It helps me understand what muscle movements to remember and which to correct. A successful pot comes from a strong core and minimal tension in the fingers. This control also means little clay or slip in the splash tray or on my apron. And yes, it involves lots of practice and endless patience. The patience to throw and discard again and again*. The patience to step away from the wheel when frustration sets in, shake it off and start again. And the patience to allow the practice to take as long as it needs to take!
When I started out, like other beginners I fixated on learning to shape the clay but I soon realised that just as much enjoyment and progress comes from getting to know the medium. With practice comes an understanding of the clays and the glazes. The more I handle clay, the more I learn what it needs to perform and what it will respond to. One week the reclaimed clay may be soft and wet and need a lot of wedging on a slate board before I even put it on the wheel head. Other weeks it may contain more crank and require more coning to align the particles before the shaping starts. Feeling the clay’s properties is an integral part of the process and deeply satisfying.
And then there are the glazes. After a few weeks of exploring the college’s array of dark greens, blacks and greys, I slashed my repertoire to three and spent nearly a year experimenting with them. Like many vaguely creative people, I love the possibilities that limitations unlock. By limiting myself to three glazes: buff green, matt white and satin transparent, I’ve discovered the sheer variety of effects I can achieve just by varying the my dipping technique, the thickness of the pot or the clay I use. Stoneware double dipped in buff green produces a very attractive duck egg blue bowl but a single coat of the same colour on red earthenware looks more like burnt umber or copper with a hint of verdigris.
Perfection and happy accidents
As children and young students we’re often told to master the rules so we know how to break them. Youthful enthusiasm and impatience generally rebel against this advice but being a mature novice potter, I can definitely embrace that wisdom. I’ve spent the past year practicing my throwing, turning and glazing skills. Not all bowls have been a success but ten months on my forms are definitely improving. I’m consistently achieving serving bowls and tapas dishes. My irregular forms are also getting better as I develop an eye for which modified shapes are actually more attractive due to their irregularities.
And then there are the happy accidents that can never be replicated but teach me more about the wondrous properties of heat, clay and glass than I could learn by design.
Two of my favourite bowls of the year are the result of the kiln misfiring. When I originally retrieved them, the glaze had blistered in places and was sandy in others as the kiln failed to reach temperature. My tutor suggested firing them again. The result are gorgeously rich earth tones with deep speckling and a touch of verdigris or a splash of duck egg blue. One of my fellow students commented that they looked old, as if they carried the history of the clay in them. I think that sums up what I love about pottery. The craft is as much about the materials and the alchemy as it is about me and my skill!
* In case you’re wondering, discarding clay does not mean I throw it away. At my college waste clay is recycled to produce reclaimed clay. Many students don’t like using this as it is a little grittier and softer than virgin material, but I made a conscious decision to use reclaimed clay for my pottery for environmental but also aesthetic reasons. The mix of different clays means slight variations in the properties of the reclaim, which means I get more interesting results with the glazes.