“I am still learning.” – Michelangelo
Did I just compare myself to Michelangelo? As if.
This is the fourth in a series of posts written after a summer spent chiefly at home during the time of COVID-19. Except for occasional grocery trips, visiting my mother, or a trip to the wide open beach, we have been home. I’m putting together four or five posts to document this Home Time, with a keen focus on the silver linings of the situation. This post is about my pottery work and my progress in teaching myself wheel throwing in a rustic pottery studio in my backyard.
As an art teacher I have summers off. For years I spent my summers in professional learning, taking classes to stay current on technologies and methodologies and to get to next lane in our contract salary schedule. Having topped off at Masters plus 60 credits a few years ago, I found myself with actual free time during the summer. After teaching and extra-curricular work at the end of a school year, I would always find my creativity needs depleted. With a BFA in Painting and extensive experience in 2D art making and digital work, I had always been intrigued by wheel throwing, especially as something completely different from the flat plane of 2D work. I always enjoyed the hand built clay work I facilitated with my students in school and wanted to extend my clay experience into the summer. So I bought an inexpensive wheel and set it up in my husband’s wood shop (thank you, honey) in one of the barns on our property. I found a kiln nearby in an online yard sale site, added common tools, and I was all set.
A friend and former student, Sam Odysseus Wolken, who is a working artist in the Santa Clarita, CA area, made the painting on glass the hangs in the studio. We call him Saint Samuel, and he has become my muse.
Because this summer of the pandemic has been so wonky, especially with concerns around schools and education, I worked a lot more than I had anticipated. I was part of my school district’s working group on reopening our schools this fall. We met several times virtually and contributed to cloud documents between meetings. And in a group of arts leaders from throughout Massachusetts, I collaborated on the Arts Education in the Time of a Pandemic: COVID-19 Reopening Guidelines for Massachusetts PreK-12 Arts Programs. I also facilitated development of the Massachusetts Art Education Association Reopening Guidelines with a team of art educators from across the state. This was important work. I believe that seeing guidelines for teaching the arts with the protocols in place during the pandemic has had a tremendous influence on education decision makers who otherwise couldn’t necessarily wrap their heads around the possibilities. Many districts cut arts positions initially and then restored them as time went by and budgets became more well defined. I am grateful to have been part of the process of keeping the arts alive and vital in schools. In my own district, our advocacy helped to make art classes a part of the learning program and schedule, so different from last spring when we we termed “enrichment” and most sadly, “optional”. I’m writing this two days into the new school year and I already see the impact of being included!
During regular school years, I typically open the studio around Memorial Day. Due to the demands of unplanned remote learning last spring, I didn’t open it up until July 4th. Truly my Independence Day. After working and sorting through the various summer projects a teacher stores up throughout the school year earlier in the day, I would typically go up to the studio around 3:00 and throw until 5:30 or 6:00. A big part of my time in the summer pottery studio is feeling like being outdoors. The large windows that open all the way allow for moving air (with a fan assist) and great moments of changing weather. Especially rain and thunder:
Another big part of my summer pottery work is goal setting. Last year’s goal was to design and 3D print stamps for imprinting on the clay. It was a process through which I learned a lot about designing for 3D printing for a targeted result within the tolerances of clay. You can read all about that in this post. This summer, I had the 3D printed stamps all ready and chose to focus on creating large bowls and plates incorporating consistent imprinting.
It feels good when everything goes as planned. And it’s crazy frustrating when it doesn’t! You might think throwing pottery is like riding a bike, but it’s not that way for me. It takes about 10 small pots to find the muscle memory and another few to connect it to active thinking. Throw in some inconsistencies with clay and it is pretty challenging. I look at a lot of YouTube videos to help make the steps more concrete for myself and this year I found Earth Nation Ceramics to be super helpful.
When I’m throwing on the wheel, time flies by. I lose myself in the process and emerge relaxed yet rejuvenated. My most challenging yet favorite part of it is pulling up the walls. When it goes well, it feels like flying.
Rather than wearing an apron in the hot summer weather, I have these “clay clothes” that I change into before going to the studio. I seriously get covered with clay and I don’t know how people DON’T! And secretly I think I love it.
Speaking of cleaning up, the studio is without running water. At the end of each session, I’d bring my clay tools and towels into the back yard and use a hose to clean them in a double sink we found at the Brimfield Flea Market a few years ago. This relatively primitive system works pretty well.
With pottery you have to respect the process. If you throw one day, you have to trim the bottom the next day, or it will dry out too much. If you’re making a handle, you can make it first before throwing or trimming and it’s dry enough to apply by the time you’re ready, after a couple of hours. In summer I build my daily schedule around two things – a beach day each week and pottery.
After about a week to ten days, the pieces are ready to fire. It doesn’t take long in my double chamber kiln compared to the one at school, which is triple chamber.
I bisque fired just three times this summer due to the late start. Here is the bounty of my “labor”:
I’ve already set a goal for next summer to try working with porcelain. This year I worked with a light brown low fire stoneware with a low grog. I really liked it. Next year I want to experiment with some other clays to see the difference. During the early spring months, I will glaze this pottery to fire as soon as the weather warms up. There is no heat in the studio and pottery has a very low tolerance for temperature changes. Yes, I learned that the hard way. Here are examples of last year’s pottery, all glazed and fired:
A lot of people spend Labor Day weekend closing up summer cottages, I spend it closing up the clay studio.
When I cleaned it for the last time this year, I savored the time spent in the space, developing craft and getting lost in the creative process. I realized this year how important this time away from the rest of the world has been to my overall health and well being. I realize painting and creating 2D work doesn’t offer the same tactile experience as working with clay, however the time spent immersed in creativity away from all other stimulation is essential. I’ve promised myself that I’ll spend similar time in my indoor painting studio throughout the school year, no matter how hectic this school year feels. I’m grateful for the Home Time necessitated by this otherwise overwhelming pandemic.