Lesson Two: Dancing Around the Center

As I mentioned in Lesson One, due to the gift of a homemade potter’s wheel, I decided to go looking for some natural clay out in the hills. As I was contemplating and exploring the small lump of clay I had brought home from the mountains, I was simultaneously staring at the homemade potter’s wheel. It was the reason I had gone out and found clay in the first place. I knew nothing about how to use the wheel. I had read one short sentence about working on a potter’s wheel. It said something like, “the potter centers the clay on his wheel and then pulls the clay up and shapes it into any number of different forms.” This was intriguing. I decided to give it a try.

I put some clay on the round wheel head and kicked the large cement base. The wheel head began to spin, and my clay flew across the room. I was a little stunned. I went over and picked the clay up off the floor. This time I pounded the clay down on the wheel head before I tried again. I got up on the seat and kicked the cement again. The clay stayed put for the most part but as I put my hands on the dry clay it just twisted off. I remember feeling perplexed. I pounded the clay as it went around and tried my best to keep my hands on it and to make it do something. After a few minutes my hands were a little sore and dirty, and bits of clay were sticking to my fingers. I got up and went to wash my hands. I grabbed a towel and walked back to the wheel. I tried this a few more times before deciding to bring some water back to the spare room with me so I didn’t have to keep getting up to go clean up my hands. I was at a loss and to be honest I was trying with all my might to control the situation. Nothing seemed to work.

I decided the clay was not in the center of the wheel head. I scraped it off and moved it over until it looked like it was more in the middle. I was determined, persistent, and getting more and more frustrated. But I kept scraping it off and moving the clay around hoping to get it in just the right place. Eventually I was rinsing my hands and not taking time to dry them and to my surprise my hands could stay on the clay. It was wet and sticky, but I could keep my hands on it and the clay began to smooth out a little.

After an afternoon of being completely unable to make any sense out of what was happening, I headed back to the library.

In today’s world, all you would need to do is “google” how to throw a pot. What a difference a few decades make. I had no idea how to gain the knowledge I needed. I didn’t even have the terminology to find what I needed at the library.

After searching for days, I found a small pamphlet on how to make a teapot. I checked it out and headed back to the spare room. There wasn’t much information, but enough pictures and short paragraphs to give me a hint of how to begin on the wheel.

I tried and tried to get the clay in the middle of the wheel head. Making no progress and feeling defeated, I almost burst into tears and then, my shoulders dropped, and the clay began to speak to me. This time, I stopped and listened. Before I knew it, I was following my intuition and I could hear a voice in my head reminding me to relax, stay steady and the lesson of all lessons: “force is never the answer.”

Working at the wheel every day, taking comfort in making small lopsided pots, I felt like I had found my purpose. The summer flew by. In late August I emerged from the spare room, having made a crude teapot and I triumphantly announced I was a potter.

In October of that year, 1975, I opened my first studio.