Sun, Sep 11, 2022 6:00 AM

Earth to art


Tessa Jaine

Could pottery be the perfect hobby? Even complete novices can poke and prod a ball of clay into something recognisable, usable, satisfying – and perhaps even slip into a state of mindfulness while they’re at it.

Words: Britt Coker | Photos: Sarah Brown

If you want to try your hand at pottery, throwing on the wheel is fun, but harder than it appears. Look what a mess Demi Moore’s character in Ghost made of a perfectly good vase. In her defence, she was doing quite well at it until her shirtless husband, Sam (Patrick Swayze) came along and distracted her. Has anyone looked at a pottery wheel the same way again?

It seems odd to call a technique ‘throwing’ when you only spend a couple of seconds chucking the clay on the wheel and the rest of the time making the wheel turn using a foot pedal or electricity. It should be called wheeling, turning or pedalling. If I wished to channel my inner word nerd at this point, I would explain that the word ‘throw’, comes from the old English, ‘thrawan’, which actually means to twist or turn. We also have early potters to thank for the invention of the wheel as its first purpose was not to transport people or goods but to make earthenware. Pottery classes are going through a bit of a revival since the lockdown slowdown found many of us staring metaphorically at our navels and found something lacking. Creative joy, inner voices whispered everywhere. Make stuff. And if you want to choose a hobby that anyone can do, pottery is an obvious choice.

Wendy Mein has been a tutor at Marlborough Community Potters for three years but has been working with clay for 24. It’s fair to say, she is as enamoured with it now as she was then. “I do have to warn a lot of my new students that clay can be really quite addictive.”

Pottery teacher Wendy Mein has been working with clay for 24 years and teaching the craft for the past three years at Marlborough Community Potters.

She finds many students in her beginner classes can sometimes be afraid of making mistakes and don’t know where to start. But as the lump of clay is transformed, so are those working on them. Confidence grows through the experience, boosted by the therapeutic nature of the medium. Tactile, pliable and forgivable, it is the Romans version of a stress ball.

“For some people, just feeling the clay is enough, because when it is on the wheel, there is a lot of water, it’s soft and squidgy. It’s so easy and some people who are doing our throwing course find it meditative, without actually making anything.”

If you require mediation rather than meditation, Wendy says, clay can help there too. “The easiest way of making a ball of clay flat is to get a rolling pin and hit it. If you’ve had a tough day, hitting that clay is brilliant.”

There are all kinds of ways to work with clay aside from pummelling it with a rolling pin. Many great potters steer clear of the wheel, preferring to hand build their pieces using techniques like coiling or pinching. Glazing and firing follow, though the final stage, admiration, is the most important and reaches peak effectiveness when felt by someone else. Wendy loves the end of term Show and Tell where she enjoys the student’s reactions to the finished pieces.

Student, Lee Hart has been a self-confessed pottery addict for a year, she enjoys the meditative side of working with clay.

“They’ve started with this lump of clay four weeks earlier, and it comes out of the kiln and it’s all these beautiful shiny colours and it just looks amazing. Opening the kiln is the most exciting thing about pottery, I just love it. When pots come out they go into the shelves so whenever someone comes into the clubroom you always look at the shelf to see what’s coming through, what’s been happening.”

She has a rule to abide by. “You can’t take your pots home until they’ve’ been admired by the class.”

There’s another piece of the pottery puzzle that contributes to its transcendence into craft nirvana. Community spirit.

“Everyone is just so supportive of other people’s work, which is great. If you are looking at your pot wondering, how will I decorate this, someone will say, ‘Have you considered doing this?’ Pottery making is not just creating a piece of work,  It’s building networks and support.

Wendy still has the first piece of pottery she ever threw which now provides function rather than form - holding paperclips on her windowsill at home.  Despite its hideousness (“It is the ugliest thing you have ever seen…None of my beginner students produce pots as ugly as I did”), she has kept it to remind herself how much better she is now. Is this the pottery tutor’s feet of clay?

Teacher, Wendy Mein takes out a piece out of the kiln.

Student, Lee Hart has been an addict for a year. She’s done a couple of classes and is currently learning how to create pieces using a pottery wheel. “A wheel is way harder than it looks.” Lee says she’s always been creative but agrees that pottery is accessible for anyone. The tactile nature of the clay and the relaxing aspect of working with your hands is reflected in the wide range of ages that are drawn to the classes, though the hobby diversity doesn’t extend to genders with the ratio of women attending the classes being far greater than men.

“It's almost like meditation once you get in the class and you get the clay in your hands it just feels so nice. And everyone's chatting and then the room just kind of quietens down and everyone gets really focused on what they're doing. It's a really lovely thing to do in the evenings.”

As they work away at the clay, it’s forgiving nature allows for plenty of do overs as anyone with strong fingers can fashion a pot or mug out of a malleable lump, and if they hate it, get the proverbial rolling pin out and start again.

Lee says, “I just love how you can start something and a lot of the time you might have an idea of where you want to go but then it can turn into something so different, especially on the wheel. I haven’t mastered the wheel yet, but I have definitely improved a lot, but it's just as amazing how fast you can have a creation that you’ve made with your hands.”

Lee sees two types of people attend the classes. Those who strive to create the perfect piece, and those who are contented with mastering the process. As she is going through the learning stage, she falls happily in the second group, feeling less fussed about making a faultless piece.

Glazing and firing are the final stages. The glazing colours and patterns transform the look of the piece substantially but even the clay you’re using and the firing temperature can generate a result that falls more into the genre of Show, Tell and Surprise.

Humans have been making objects of clay for over 29,000 years. Perhaps, taking a clump of earth and transforming it into a vessel or bowl still resonates with the Neolithic in us all. The glazes might be more colourful, but underneath them is the humble earthy tones of a time when life was a bit simpler. Pottering offers an opportunity for creative immersion, meditation, reducing stress and reaching a flow state at a time when a state of flux is more typical. No wonder it's popular.

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