The Zen of the Pottery Wheel

I took a pottery class this semester at the local community college, and I loved it. It went by way too fast. I did pick up some pottery skills, but I’m using the word “skill” in its very broadest sense here. At best, I can be considered part of the primitive school. But the most important thing is that I had a wonderful time.

I also learned a great deal about things way beyond pottery. I wasn’t expecting that. I am now convinced that pottery should be classified not only as art, but also as therapy, philosophy, physical education, and management. All these things come into play in the studio.

Here are a few things I learned that I can apply to life in general:

  • If everyone wedged clay every day, there would be peace on earth. In order to get the air bubbles out of clay so you work won’t explode in the kiln, you have to pound it, throw it, basically beat it within an inch of its life. There’s no greater stress reducer. You can’t possibly feel frustrated once you’ve wedged some clay.
  • Everything comes out better when you remember to breathe. When nothing is going right with my pottery, if I do a quick body check, I usually discover that I’m tense and holding my breath. Breathing lets the energy flow through your body. Breathing is good.
  • Listen to your inner voice. This one I’ll probably always struggle with, but I’ve found that when my little voice goes, “time to stop messing with that pot,” it is, in fact, time to stop messing with that pot. Any more attempts at perfection will most likely lead to disaster, like accidentally caving in a wall or getting the clay so wet it turns into a glob.
  • Be patient with yourself. Try as you might, you’re not always going to have a good day. Some days are for ash trays, other days are for vases. And that’s okay.
  • Effort isn’t always obvious. One thing the movie Ghost did not make clear is that throwing pots on a pottery wheel actually takes a lot more muscle than you’d think! So next time you buy something from a potter, don’t grouse at the price. Pottery is hard work.
  • One man’s crap is another man’s masterpiece. It always amazed me that some of the most talented potters in the class were the most critical of their own work. I would kill to be able to produce some of the things they were throwing away. And conversely, some of the stuff I created could only be loved by me, and I’m fine with that.
  • It’s important to be creative. Pottery class fed my soul. It allowed me to exercise my imagination. It gave me something to be proud of. It gave me a sense of satisfaction that I can’t experience anywhere else.
  • Take a break. I would often get so deep in the zone that hours would pass by without my realizing it. And those were hours when my 50 year old body remained in basically the exact same position. I’d sometimes get so stiff I could barely make it to my car. Not good. It’s important to stand up and walk around every now and then.
  • Know when you’ve been beaten. Like I said above, you’re not going to always have a good day. Sometimes you’re going to have a really horrible day. Times like that, it’s probably better to walk away and try again tomorrow, rather than continuing to make mud pies while you gnash your teeth. That’s not quitting. That’s knowing yourself and being realistic.
  • It’s okay for things to turn out differently than expected. I’ve yet to have a pot turn out exactly the way I planned. At first that really disappointed me. But once I learned to let go of the steering wheel a little bit, I let in the ability to be delightfully surprised now and then, and that’s a great feeling.
  • It’s easier to talk to people when you can find some common ground. I actually took this class in the hopes of making friends that I could hang out with outside of class. That didn’t happen, unfortunately, although I met a lot of people I would have loved that to happen with. But I made some in class friends with whom I had some really amazing conversations. Art is a great ice breaker. It allows people to be different yet have a launch point from which to communicate. It also reminded me that I’m likable, and that kept the loneliness at bay. That has value, too.
  • Sometimes you don’t know best. Silly me. I would start out with an idea of how I wanted a pot to look, but clay often has a mind of its own. The harder I tried to force it to my will, the more it would resist, and that was an exercise in futility. I’m still working on this, but I’ve discovered that if you listen to the clay, it will often guide you toward something amazing.
  • Differences are beautiful. Every single student in that class had different ideas, different styles, different quirks. I was constantly in awe of what got produced in that studio. I could never have produced their stuff, and they could never have produced mine. Every single thing was one of a kind. Isn’t that amazing?
  • Keep track of things. At various times I’d have about 10 different projects going at once. Some were works in progress. Some were drying and waiting to be fired in the kiln. Some were waiting to be glazed. Some were cooling. It would be easy to lose track of everything. It’s important to take notes. It’s even more important to pay attention.
  • People can be really, really cool in a variety of ways. There were a lot of cool people in that class. My professor was the coolest one of all. I want to be her when I grow up. But everyone was special. Everyone had qualities that I admired. Everyone touched me in a different way. Something about the atmosphere there allowed people to be free to be themselves, and I love that.

If you ever get a chance to take a class that allows you to spread your wings in the creative realm, I highly recommend it!

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9 thoughts on “The Zen of the Pottery Wheel

  1. Seattle Park Lover

    Funny timing. I’m reading a book right now in which the main character is a potter. There was a passage where she was talking about when she started out she thought of wedging the clay as a chore. But over time she came to realize its Zen-like qualities, and that the act provided a mental transition from the rest of life into creativity.

    Glad you had such a wonderful experience with the class.

  2. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Every point you’ve made was was spot on with my experience in a pottery class. I ended up making a complete studio in our garage. Were constantly playing with clay and feeding the neighbors with new pottery.

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