The Ben Gunn



Ceramic Dreams

It was an empty room, save for the long dusty tables streaked white with clay. I was in a classroom, waiting. Sometimes I was alone, other times standing with a line of other people. All waiting patiently for our teacher to arrive.

I'd already had this curious dream three or four times when one day, driving an unfamiliar route on an unusual errand, a phone number on a dusty awning at the corner caught my eye. An open ceramics studio? With 24 hour access? Where do I sign up? It was quite literally a dream come true.

There's something very therapeutic about working with clay, very grounding. Perhaps it's because it's true earth you're sinking your hands into. You pour yourself into this blessed mud, and what emerges is as real as a dream, transformed by fire to forge a concrete snapshot of your soul.

After spending a year contemplating the meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, and grown slightly weary of marveling at these lumps of earth and their connection to the lumps in my head, I noticed that the students (the others from my dream?) seated at the potter's wheels at the other end of the classroom sounded like they were having a lot of fun.

I'd tried learning how to throw several times previously, starting when I was in junior high, again in high school, and once more when I was in college. I had always found it frustrating and disappointing, especially since I was used to being able to manipulate most other media with at least some degree of competence. But I was ready for a change of pace and decided to give it another whirl. My first lesson was: do not use heavy sculpting clay for pottery unless you really badly need to exfoliate your hideously calloused monster hands, or you are interested in experimenting to see if the iron in your blood will stain your piece an interesting rust color.

Determined to get past the "I suck at this and I don't want to do it anymore" stage, I practiced (with better clay) as often as I could, turning out heavy, misshapen blobs that might have made good doorstops. Just when it was starting to seem hopeless, I suddenly figured out how to center. Now I was making heavy, ugly pots that would have been fine to keep by the entrance in case you needed to bludgeon an intruder. Hey, progress.

Little by little, over years, it's finally coming together. Throwing can be very meditative, and I think it helps to be centered yourself before you start. It has only taken 25 years of repeated effort, but at last I feel I've begun to get the hang of it. I still sculpt when the mood strikes, but I cherish my time at the wheel. I have learned so much from working with clay. You have to be patient. You can't rush the stuff. It's like a person. Some days it's perfectly charming, other days it just doesn't want to be messed with. Every clay has a different body, a different attitude, and needs to be tended accordingly. Some clay is very forgiving; porcelain however, has a memory, and I do believe it can carry a grudge!

Another thing I've learned is not to get too attached. Say you've just thrown the most perfect vessel you can imagine, and bequeath it on the spot as a birthday present to your favorite aunt before the wheel has even stopped spinning. Having done so, there's a great chance you will then nick the edge as you're putting it on the shelf, or bust through the bottom during trimming. Or suppose you've made it past the first firing and nothing's cracked or exploded. You know exactly which glaze you want and everything is going swell. But when you peer expectantly into the still toasty kiln, you note with dismay that a piece on top has dripped all over everything that was below it, permanently glooping up the design that took you 17 hours to carve by hand; or there was an unforeseen chemical reaction and instead of that vivid red you were hoping for, everything's gone a muddy brown; or your glaze was too thick and ran and your piece got stuck to the shelf and has to be broken off. C'est la vie! The gods do not favor perfection. It ruins a person. So you learn to relax and enjoy the process, and when things turn out well, it's like a gift.

Jungle Pot
Three of a Perfect Pair