Recently, I had the opportunity to try my hand at making pottery—wheel-throwing, to be exact. In truth, I think I did this once or twice as a kid, but it was long ago. I remembered only the feeling of wet clay slipping between my fingers, the gentle prodding of the clay to create the desired shape, and the uneven feeling of lopsidedness on the wheel.
This time, I had the benefit of a patient and experienced instructor, who led me—step by step—through the process. I threw the clay onto the wheel, missing the center by more than I’d like to admit. The instructor adjusted the clay, pushing it closer to the center, and started the wheel. He demonstrated how I should hold my hands to gently push or pull the lump of clay into the center, shaping it and rounding it out. The clay resisted. I pushed harder, using some muscle to move it beyond its resistance. I was a bit surprised at the muscle necessary to move this inanimate, shapeless lump.
I smoothed the edges into a disk, and I pulled up toward the center, raising the height of the nameless object on the wheel. I used the side of my hand to flatten the clay and push it into the center. I repeated this process of centering until I had a flat disk resembling a hockey puck.
I began to work the center, slowly and gently pressing my thumb into the clay to create a hole from which I would begin to sculpt the vessel. From here, the process became one of gentle pressure—make an indent and watch it slowly become deeper and wider. The next steps would take an increasingly gentler touch as I steadied one hand against the other to work the sides upward and outward. The farther out and up I went, the more I could feel a slight off-centeredness of the piece. While I wanted to pull it back in, I didn’t want to exert too much force.
In the moments before I declared my piece “done,” and the wheel was turned off, the metaphor of potter and clay was not lost on me. The fact is, it’s not easy to mold a shapeless lump of clay into something both beautiful and useful. The clay resists. It won’t stay centered, and if it’s off center, it will become increasingly lopsided until it ultimately spins out of control and falls apart. Sometimes, it takes greater force from the potter to coax a piece back to the center. Perhaps sometimes, when we get too caught up in our lives, we are particularly unyielding and need to allow ourselves to be pulled back to center.
Ultimately, I added a spout to my piece. I not only wanted a vessel that could be filled up, but I also wanted one that could be poured out. One that would easily contain and distribute ingredients. It will take some time for my bowl to be dried and fired, glazed and re-fired. At the end of this month, it will arrive, beautiful and useful. I can’t wait to see the finished product and recognize the steps—and the patience—necessary as the potter molds the clay.