edited: Friday, August 15, 2003
By James Arthur Anderson
Posted: Friday, August 15, 2003
Become a Fan
My wife drags me into a pottery class. The next thing I know, evetything is hitting the fan....
James Arthur Anderson
I should have known better than to hook up with an artist. There are certain benefits, of course. You never have to buy a piece of art work. You have someone to illustrate your stories. You get your office decorated for free. And you get to hang around with weird and interesting people. But there are hazards as well--like being asked “do you want to try this?”
My latest artistic adventure came when Lynn took me to a pottery class at Elements Clay Studio on Branch Avenue. Lynn is quite an accomplished sculptor and has won a number of awards in the south for her freeform work. But she had never had a formal class on using a potters wheel and decided she needed some expert instruction. The first class happened to fall on the 4th of July, my day off, so she invited me to come along and watch.
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll just bring a book and hang out in the corner where I’ll be out of the way.”
If only life were so simple.
Lynn and I went into the class where the instructor, Holly Feldheim, introduces herself, explains what tools will be needed, and hands out a course outline. Being a teacher, I can’t help listen in. Then Holly instructs each student to get a piece of clay as she demonstrates a method of getting the air bubble out so it won’t explode when you heat it up in the kiln. The process involves kneading the clay in a spiral motion, and I can tell that it looks easier than it is.
I watch for a moment, feeling uncomfortable, and decide that it’s time to find a place where I can be out of the way.
The instructor isn’t going to let me get away so easily, though.
“Would you like to give it a try?” she asks.
Now I know that I have no mechanical ability whatsoever, and that my hands usually behave as if I have no thumbs whenever I try to use them for any creative endeavor that doesn’t involve writing. I start to shake my head and decline when Lynn glances over and gives me a pleading look.
“Come on, try it,” she says. “I think you’d be good at this.”
Obviously I’ve been very successful in keeping my clumsiness hidden from her.
“Come on,” she says. “Maybe you can write about it....”
That’s what finally does it. Who knows, maybe someday I will want to write about a potter. If I try this once I might learn enough to know how to write about it.
“OK,” I say, and grab a chunk of clay from the barrel.
Unfortunately, I realize too late that I’ve grabbed clay from the wrong barrel, the wet, sticky barrel where the used clay is put, not the nice new barrel with the fresh stuff. It feels like I’ve dipped my hands into a used bedpan from a diarrhea patient.
“Yuck,” I say, then spend the next ten minutes cleaning the stuff off.
When I do find the right barrel I decide to take just a small piece. It’ll be less messy, I decide.
I watch Lynn as she expertly rolls the clay in the way we’ve been instructed, and I try to imitate her.
The teacher watches me for a moment, and makes several corrections to my technique. She has a MFA in Ceramics from RISD. I have hands that won’t do what I want them to.
I’ve gone from the extreme of having liquid clay to now having a ball of clay that is craving more water than a beached squid. No matter how much I wet it, it keeps cracking and caking up. Oh well, I think. I’m just playing around anyway. I don’t expect she’ll actually ask me to make anything.
Next we take our clay over to the potter’s wheels. I try to escape but Lynn and Holly gang up on me.
“Today we are going to make a cylinder,” Holly says. “The first step is to center your clay on the wheel.”
She shows us how to turn the wheel on and how to slap the clay down in the center. Then she demonstrates a technique of pulling it up and then down so the clay becomes perfectly centered.
I turn my wheel on and slap my clay down. It flies off center and bumps around and around like a ball on a roulette wheel. I madly grab for the thing but can’t seem to retrieve it.
“Shut the wheel off,” Lynn whispers.
Once the thing stops I grab the clay and try again. I wet it some more and throw it down hard. This time it sticks where it’s supposed to.
“Make sure you keep it wet,” one of the other ladies in the class says.
I respond by dumping water on the clay as it’s spinning. Unfortunately, I overcompensate and drench the clay until pieces of it are flying around the room like you-know-what hitting the fan. Lynn and the other women manage to dodge the worst of it. Being closer to the problem, I’m not so lucky. Clay splatters me from the waist up, making me wish I’d worn a disposable shirt. Maybe I could invent plastic clothes for potters, I think. But none of the other students seem to be wearing their project.
By now the small piece of clay I began with has shrunk from softball size to golfball size. I follow the instructions and manage to pull it up into a tiny cylindrical shape that actually looks pretty good.
“That’s coming along nicely,” Holly says.
“See, I told you you’d be good at this,” Lynn says.
I’m feeling pretty good about myself when one of my ten thumbs suddenly decides to do its own thing. For no reason at all, and without any warning, the disobedient thumb crashes down upon the top lip of the cylinder, collapsing the fragile walls of the miniature pot into paste, where they fly out across the room in a comet-like trail of mud.
“Ooops,” I say.
“It’ll make a good ashtray,” Lynn says when the wheel stops turning and we assess the damage.
“No one in the house smokes,” I remind her.
“Maybe a paper clip holder,” she suggests.
I look down at the thing and think that it might hold one or two paper clips--the small kind, though. The jumbo ones would never fit. Mostly it looks like a cylinder that caved in upon itself.
“I wonder if Michaelangelo ever felt like this,” I say.
“Probably not,” Lynn responds. “But I bet the guy who did the Leaning Tower did.”
I don’t know how I could have begun with a pound of clay and end up wearing five pounds of the stuff on my shirt and in my hair, but somehow I’ve managed to violate the law of conservation of matter. Lynn wipes me down with a sponge as the other women giggle.
“I guess maybe I should stick to writing,” I say with a grin, and they all agree.
Maybe now Lynn will believe me when I tell her my hands don’t work. Best of all, she’s now going to think twice about asking me to change the oil on her car or wallpaper a room. The experience might have been worthwhile after all.