Pottery Lesson

The potter's wheel

Long ago, I taught introductory ceramics in colleges and adult-ed programs. Despite my emphasis on handbuilding (non-wheel techniques) most students came to these classes eager to try the potters wheel. I couldn't blame them- it looks like magic and it is everyone's image of a potter at work.

Throwing on the wheel is like playing a musical instrument- it takes lots of practice to achieve basic proficiency. 

The return on this investment of time and effort is a skill that, (like its sister craft, glassblowing) is only applicable to a single material. At least if you took, say, a woodworking class, the skill might help you with a practical problem like a home repair. Throwing is fun, meditative, and rewarding (if you can tolerate the frustration), but you can only use it to make pots, and pretty crude ones in the beginning. 

The process of throwing begins with slapping a lump of clay on of the wheel and then "centering" it- forcing it run true between your hands. If you carefully observe a beginner, you will see the hands wobble hopelessly as the clay pushes the potter rather than the other way around. Eventually, the student starts to "get it" when the hands take control and the clay spins into a concentric form. 

This is not a matter of strength or technical tricks, it's a matter of directing your will. It is hard to describe the feeling of consciously imposing your intention on the turning clay. (In Tai Chi practice, we'd conceptualize it as directing the chi, the body's energy, from the abdominal core through the chest, arms and hands into the clay.) 

In all the years I taught, there were only two students who watched my demonstration and then just sat down and did it. 

It was amazing. 

I don't know that either one of these women were experienced makers of things or tool users. But one of them was a dancer with the NYC Ballet. The other was a Martha Graham dancer. They just knew how to focus their entire body's energy and intention- that is the key to throwing.

And perhaps that's the most important lesson about movement in any sport, art, or craft.

A post-script to this story-  a friend, who teaches art, including ceramics, to children in a Montessori school, tells me she has had the same experience with young gymnasts!

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