(long, rambling post) For the past two years, I’ve been taking a weekly ceramics “class”. I use the quotation marks because it’s not really a traditional class… it’s called “Clay Explorations” and that is exactly what it is. Each class, there is a demonstration on throwing, or handbuilding, or glazing, but there are no assignments, there is no step-by-step instruction (unless you specifically ask for it) and there is no judgment. Really, it’s guided studio time, with hands-on help if you request it. Which is kind of awesome, but also a little intimidating. “What should I make?!?” Many people take this class all year round, and have for years and years, even if they have their own kiln and are fairly well-established in their art and techniques. It’s a great way to get ideas, learn from others, and there is wonderful camaraderie and community. The instructor is the most easy-going person in the world, calm and positive and encouraging and generous and knowledgeable. There are TAs available each class who have expertise in various areas: different firing techniques, handbuilding tricks, etc. It’s really a wonderful (affordable!) opportunity to explore clay in all its forms. Truly a gift.
It’s been an interesting journey for me. I started taking ceramics classes when I was a pre-teen, during the summer. I loved it, even though I found it frustrating. The clay collapsed, or it dried out before I could finish my project, or it cracked during firing, or I couldn’t get it smooth. Much of this was because of my youth and inexperience and impatience: I now know ways around most of these pitfalls. I wanted to continue with it as an adult but couldn’t find what I wanted in the Bay Area: too expensive, too inaccessible for various reasons. So now that I am back in Corvallis, with this wonderful community resource, I have been diligent in going — basically I’ve waited 30 years to have this opportunity.
It is intimidating, however. I have a degree in art. I have been doing art of some kind my whole life. That does NOT make it easy — in fact, it is an impediment, because clay is fickle and you must get used to failure. It is not like pencils or paint: you are literally molding a 3-D object and the clay has ideas of its own. You must constantly negotiate with moisture content, temperature, clay consistency, clay “memory” (yes, this is a thing). My teacher, Ted, is great at explaining this. He says that it is like a dance, and sometimes it goes where you don’t think it’s going to go, and you just have to adjust because you are not 100% in control. Sometimes, you work and work and work, and then for unknown reasons (other pieces in the kiln, hidden bubbles, whatever) your piece will break in the firing process. He urges us to accept this, and “just make another one” or make something out of the broken piece: glue it together with something interesting, paint it, use it as a tile, whatever. It has been a process of learning to make non-precious art.
And it is a slow process to learn. Each piece in class literally takes weeks from start to finish. Even if you complete your piece in one class (usually it takes at least two classes from start to finish — there’s two weeks already), then it must sit on the shelf for a few days to dry. Then it goes into the bisque firing kiln, once there are enough pieces to fire (another week). Then it has to cool, then you have to glaze it, then it goes into the high-fire kiln (another week). Then, finally, you get your finished piece. Literally this can take 4-6 weeks start to finish, because of the once-a-week class structure and because they wait to load the kilns until they have a full kiln. However, even home kiln users must go through this process, so there is a lot of time involved, a lot of waiting.
The class structure, of everyone being in the same class, both experts and beginners, is really helpful because you get to see that everyone’s process is both the same and different, and that EVERYONE has lots of failures. Everyone is very open about being unsure if this is going to work, or if the glazing will do what you think it’s going to do, or trying a new technique and it not going well for the first few pieces.
Personally I find this comforting. I make probably 10-12 separate pieces during each term, and generally only 1-3 pieces turn out in any way that I am even sort of happy with. Sometimes a piece will have great glaze but I don’t love the actual piece for whatever reason (lumpy, lopsided, whatever). Or, the glaze didn’t work out, so it’s ugly. Or, the thing broke or cracked or I just don’t like it. This was hard for the first few months. I felt like I was wasting my time, since obviously I wasn’t “good” at this. But I kept going, because I liked the class. I liked the people, and the atmosphere, and the fact that when your hands are covered in mud, you literally cannot do anything else. No phone checking, no reading, no getting distracted. You just have to keep at it. It is very calming. And slowly, I am starting to find a groove.
Or rather, I find it and then I lose it. Part of the problem with the once-a-week class is that I often feel rushed. I sometimes have to travel and I miss classes, so my time gets compressed, and then I feel like I can’t take as much time as I’d like to work on something (because it starts to get dry, or I need to make a firing window, or whatever). And, during the school year, the class is crowded. I like to spread out, I like to have a couple of projects going at once during class because sometimes you have to wait for the clay to dry to a certain consistency, so you might as well have a few things going. But if the class is crowded, then I can’t do that as well, and it makes me feel anxious and rushed and I don’t take my time and things don’t go as well as I’d like. But when I get really focused, and I take the time to go to studio hours outside of class, then things go better and I am happier with my stuff. I’m starting to see that many people use this class as experimenting time: they have a home workspace and that’s where they do most of the slower, detail work. They come to class to experiment, to talk with others, to try a new firing technique, to play with glazes.
Since my AWESOME BROTHER found a kiln for me for $50, I can think about a little home studio, myself. This is VERY exciting: I think that is the key to really getting comfortable with what I want to do. I can’t wait to get the kiln home and figure out how to get it working.
But anyway, I was thinking about this last night, a busy class night. We were unloading the soda-fire kiln, which is always fun and a highlight, and doing an obvara firing, also really fun (anytime you get to work with burning red-hot ceramics it’s exciting). Each of these is also an exercise in giving up control: you don’t know how they’re going to turn out. Everyone is exactly equal: a lumpy pinch pot can come out of the soda firing kiln with an absolutely gorgeous finish that transforms it, or a beautifully formed vase can come out of the obvara with something non-spectacular and the creator shrugs and it goes onto the end-of-class sale shelf (a kind of Charlie Brown Xmas tree assortment, sold for cheap, to raise money for new equipment, etc.). And everyone just accepts it (with joy or disappointment) and it’s OK to lose a vase or a plate because you just make more. It’s OK to sacrifice something, because you learned something and there’s usually some redeeming feature to the piece, and you can just make more. Each piece is not precious. It’s like cookies. If you mess up a batch, oh well, just make another batch. This way of thinking took awhile to learn but I’m getting there.
My current big project are tiles. I have an unfinished window sill in my kitchen, and I want to make tiles for it. My idea is to press leaves from the trees on our property into the tiles, so that it’s representative of our natural landscape. Now, I am not at all experienced with tile-making. They are tricky. You have to keep them absolutely flat the whole time, because otherwise the clay will “remember” the curve and your tile won’t end up flat. So there’s all kinds of tricks for that. The leaves need to make a deep enough impression so that the imprint shows up under the glaze. I don’t know what color glaze will look best. I might need to do some underglazing. All kinds of things. So, I am making tons of tiles. I have 15 waiting for high-fire right now — I tried all kinds of glazes, all kinds of leaves. We shall see what looks best. What will I do with all the failed tiles? Some will go in the garbage. Some will get put in my yard, among the flowers and ground cover. I expect to make at least 50 tiles, to end up with probably 16 final tiles that we will use.
Anyway, this is a long post, but I’ve been thinking about why I like my ceramics class so much even though it is hard and mysterious and I fail a lot. But it’s OK — everyone fails a lot, even the teacher. That is what it is. This is a good lesson for someone like me, who likes to do creative things well, is somewhat invested in them turning out as I expected. It is good to learn failure, get comfortable with it, have a beginners mind the entire time. And to slowly find the places that you want to go, and to slowly get better at it. Plus, it’s just fun. The people are quirky, everyone is generous with ideas and knowledge, and you can go at your own pace (mostly). The complete lack of judgment is also so refreshing: there is something to celebrate in every piece, even the failures, and people are so excited when something turns out well, no matter the expertise level. It’s just nice.