Friday, February 25, 2011

On Pottery, Perfection, Perseverance, and Tiger Mothers

The red earth is cold and wet when I open the bag. The smell--that's a different story. It's always what I notice first. As soon as I open up the rubber band that holds the plastic bag shut my nose is filled with the earthy smell of the wet forest floor.

There really is not another feeling in the world like clay warming up under my palms as I press it against a wedging table. The clay transforms into a warm supple material on the wedging table. This is a place of such potential. It also is a place where many battles have begun. Some days at the wedging table I stand before the clay and become demanding. I work the clay and want it to become a mug, platter, or perhaps a teapot. 

This is never good. When I forget my way at the wedging table and start demanding a form appear out of the clay I can always anticipate a disaster (yet strangely, I do this with amazing frequency). Without fail, this pound or two or five of clay that I demand into a particular shape will return back to the wedging table. Rather than becoming what I ask of it, this blobs of earth have been known to fly off the wheel, explode in the kiln, or break in two while I'm glazing after a bisque fire. 

When I go into battle with the clay, trying to form it into something that it is not, it simply will not yield to my fingers and imagination.

There is something else that can happen at the wedging table. I can listen to the earth. I can let the clay listen to me. A certain kind of magic can happen when we both listen to each other. The earth can yield to my imagination when I can yield to the conditions of the blob of dirt and water that is in my hands. The ambient temperature, humidity, and day-to-day changes of the  viscosity of the earth all influence what form it might take. Even the wedging table has its own influence--an eager student potter washing the dry surface with a gallon of water will influence what my little slab of cold red earth can become.

A few days ago was one of those times when the dance worked well. I did have a vision of what I wanted, and they clay wanted to become something similar. The two of us had a shared vision. We worked together and made something more than either could have made on it's own (admittedly, clay has a hard time being something other than clay without human intervention). The studio was warm and the clay rapidly became smooth and supple in my hands. It flattened right out on the wedging table--almost like it was encouraging me to create what my vision was. The clay yielded to the slab roller and flattened out into a supple disk. It easily accepted the imprint from a textured wooden roller and a piece of coral. The now textured and yet still supple round disk of earth were easily peeled off  the surface it rested on and draped right over the surface of the balloon I inflated to serve as a mold for  my clay.

When I listen to the clay, it will listen to me. Together we can create something unique. 

Now draped over the balloons there was one final step before I left the clay to try. Around the edge of the three disks of now inverted clay, I wanted to pierce a series of holes. Armed with a very small ruler and a bamboo carving tool, I measured and pierced my way around the the smallest of the three disks of clay. When I  moved to the second disk of clay a minor disaster struck. As I  moved around the inverted disk piercing the disk the clay body had trouble maintaining it's structural integrity. This is a fancy way to say that the clay started to tear.

Rats. My perfectly round disk, formed into a irregular yet symmetrical vessel, was damaged. Several tears opened up creating jagged edges. I considered for a moment rolling it up into a ball and heading over the the wedging table. Clay is forgiving like that--you can always start over (until the final firing, where clay is permanently altered to stone). I looked a little closer at the material in my hand. I liked how the inside of the holes I pierced were jagged--like a bullet had torn through the clay leaving a jagged wound. I liked the irregular edges of the tear--another reminder of the inevitableness of damage and decay. I  kept the clay as is. Rather than demanding it be something it wasn't, I listed to what it was becoming. I also learned from my mistake and pierced the holes on the final--and largest--piece prior to inverting it over the balloon.

Mistakes and imperfections aren't failures--they are opportunities to discover something new.

The earth, transformed into a supple warm clay, worked in a process of mutual discovery, now sits on a shelf drying. When it is leather hard I will take it off the balloon. Hopefully at some point before it becomes leather hard I will be able to coax the bottom to flatten a bit without the rim of the vessel collapsing (or breaking). It will sit on the shelf again until it's bone dry. Then the three vessels will go into the kiln and be bisque fired. It will be heated until it is about 1835 degrees Fahrenheit. The resulting heat will remove every last bit of water that is chemically bonded in the clay body. 

I'll dip the clay in a glaze, let it dry. It will again enter the kiln and be heated to 2165 degrees Fahrenheit. The clay will melt and become viscous and the glaze will also melt and oxidize. Parts of the clay will be transformed into silica. When the kiln cycles down and cools off, the resulting object will no longer be wet dirt: it will have been transformed to stone (take that, Medusa!). 

My vessels might crack and disintegrate on the drying rack. They might explode in the bisque firing. I might break them when glazing, or the glaze might malfunction in the final firing, drip onto the kiln shelf. This is particularly distressing because if it happens, my vessel will become fused to the surface it rested on while being fired and thus be destroyed. 

If these three vessels make it this far, there will be more work. I'm planning on applying some metal leaf along the edge and perhaps some bead work across the opening. That is the plan, at least, unless the process moves me in another direction.

Art isn't a battle, it's a dance of mutuality and dialogue between artist and their medium.

One last thought. Have you heard about tiger mothers? Law professor and memoir writing Amy Chua has been making the rounds in the media about her story of raising her children. In a Wall Street Journal essay she writes that here children were never allowed to: attend a sleepover, have a play-date, be in a school play, complain about not being in a school play, watch TV or play computer games, choose their own extracurricular activities, get any grade less than an A, not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama, play any instrument other than the piano or violin, not play the piano or violin.

I thought about Chua a bit while I was working the clay. Chua made her daughter do 2,000 math problems a night when she was number two in a math competition. She had to do 2,000 math problems every night until she became number one again. What might the results be if I had a Tiger mother hovering over me demanding I made an additional 2,000 clay vessels until I perfected them? I'd probably be able to form a perfect bowl. that's for sure. The excitement and life would be taken out of my pottery. That's for sure, too. 

It's important to master technique. I learned that in high school when a band director stopped the music, pointed to me, and told me the wrong note I just played was like poking my finger through the Mona Lisa's eyes. He had me play the passage a few times until I got I got it right and we moved on. 

There was more than having perfect fidelity to the score. I learned that from my piano professor. When I had trouble playing something he'd take the music way, close the cover on the piano, and put his CD player on. He would ask me to close my eyes and pretend to play the song. He'd open up the keyboard and ask me to pretend to play the song again--regardless of what the right or wrong notes were. 

"Feel the music," he'd say. "Don't worry about getting it right." I was usually too embarrassed to listen to him. I was too busy trying to get it right and be perfect. One those rare occasions that I actually did listen to him, I did get it right. I felt the music and then figured out how to coax the music out of the piano.

By freeing myself up and playing, I would be able to both offer fidelity to the score while being true to my heart. 

It is this same balance that I find when working with earth. Of course I need to practice and develop  my technique. I also need to spend an equal amount of time listening to my heart. This whole Tiger Mother controversy is silly: it misses the magic that happens when skill and imagination unite. 

It is in the space between perfection of talent and expression of the heart that something is formed that cannot be created by either alone.


  1. Flash Cards

    In math I was the whiz kid, keeper
    of oranges and apples. What you don’t understand,
    master, my father said; the faster
    I answered, the faster they came.

    I could see one bud on the teacher’s geranium,
    one clear bee sputtering at the wet pane.
    The tulip tree always dragged after heavy rain
    so I tucked my head as my boots slapped home.

    My father put up his feet after work
    and relaxed with a highball and The Life of Lincoln.
    After supper we drilled and I climbed the dark

    before sleep, before a thin voice hissed
    numbers as I spun on a wheel. I had to guess.
    Ten, I kept saying, I’m only ten.

    --Rita Dove

  2. Thanks for the comment, annonymous. For those of you who don't know, Rita Dove was Poet Laureate of the United States as well as the Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia.