Working clay is as much meditation as craft, but there is so much to learn, from ram’s head wedging to coiling and glazing. And the results sometimes leave a lot to be desired
It’s an awkward start to my pottery journey. I’ve arrived at the Kiln Rooms in Peckham, south-east London, dressed as Demi Moore, star of the movie Ghost, and the most famous pottery scene ever filmed. “Should I have worn a tank top?” asks my tutor David McGuire. Tank top? I realise with horror that he has never seen the film. “When you say you’re a potter, people always mention Ghost!” he winces, almost in physical pain. I have no idea why he thinks Patrick Swayze wears a tank top in it. Then again, when I check the film, I realise I am dressed nothing like Demi Moore either. Is McGuire choosing not to watch Ghost purely on a point of principle? Perhaps, he admits. You should watch it, I insist, it’s classic Whoopi Goldberg. “Shall we make a start?” he says.
The lesson begins with physical heft, pushing and turning the clay in an arduous technique known as ram’s head wedging. Wedging removes air pockets from the clay, lest they cause the finished product to bloat or explode in the oven. It’s like kneading dough, I remark, always thinking about pizza. It’s the opposite, says McGuire, apologetically, as kneading introduces air to dough. He has a lovely Donegal accent, which makes corrections easy to hear. Also, I’m thinking about putting a quattro formaggi in my oven tonight, which will certainly lead to bloating, possibly an explosion.
Potters spend a lifetime refining their craft. It'd be insulting for me to turn up on a Tuesday and toss out a Ming vase
Time for us to throw down. McGuire sits at a parallel wheel, like a driving instructor. I throw wedged clay on to the centre of the electric wheel, depress the foot pedal, and we’re rolling. McGuire talks me through coning and doming, pulling the clay up into a small tower, then pushing it down into a sourdough shape. It feels like sorcery, shaping clay by merely positioning one’s hand at its edge, letting the wheel do the work. It is muscular and finely controlled at once, from an elbow wedged into the hip for support to minuscule calibrations of fingertips. It is hard, too, judging angle, pressure, speed. Keeping the clay from drying with a wet sponge, stopping it getting too wet. I’m trying to make a bowl, but if it’s hideous, we’ll call it an ashtray. Anything can be an ashtray.
I’d expected a comic buckaroo, floppy clay flying everywhere. Instead, the endless revolution of round clay, within concentric circles of the spinning wheel, feels like gazing into infinity. Throwing is a portal to mindfulness, as once the wheel is in motion, the options are tune in, or spin out. “Look at your hand, not at the clay,” advises McGuire, like the Jungle Book’s Bagheera warning Mowgli not to look into the eyes of Kaa. I could watch this revolving earth for ever.
The notion that humans were first made from clay, with life breathed into it, appears in the cosmologies of the Qur’an, the Bible, and the Yoruba religion. Any divine pretensions I have are punctured, however, when McGuire mentions that inhaling clay dust causes silicosis. I later do a quick, horrific search for the condition online, in which inhaled silica, too fine to be seen in normal light, causes blue skin and lung failure. “Single exposure is fine, but when students are blowing on their glaze, I do think: ‘You’re killing me,’” he muses, in his lovely lilt.
My plate is something else. It’s irredeemably ugly, thick and monstrously heavy
Pleased with my bowl, I have a go at making a plate. This time we use a mould, curved like an upside down turtle’s shell, pressing the clay into shape. It feels lumpen, after the elegance of throwing. Every student is drawn to different aspects of pottery, McGuire says. This technique suits anyone with a talent for decoration. Maybe that’s me! I rake striations into the clay with a decorative comb, then attempt a marbling effect, washing green and blue glaze over it. McGuire isn’t sure the combination will be vivid; colours are complicated. Earthenware pottery takes reds and oranges readily, while firing stoneware renders pinks less vibrant. Electric versus gas flames makes a difference, too. How does one ever know enough to make anything good? Time, he answers gently. Coil work, throwing, glazing: all pathways you could spend years exploring. Once pottery works its way into your life, it starts to shape you.
The annealing process – a slow cooling, after kiln firing – means it is weeks before I see my finished kitchenware. Time goes by slowly; but time can do so much. When I return, I am met with the most beautiful small bowl. Even, smooth, boasting a deep blue glaze. My plate is something else. It’s irredeemably ugly, thick and monstrously heavy. The colours are insipid and formless. It’s rough and cracking in places, jagged elsewhere. It can’t even pass as an ashtray.
Potters spend a lifetime refining their craft. It would be insulting for me to turn up on a Tuesday and toss out a Ming vase. I’ve walked through Morrisons dressed nearly like Demi Moore (Semi Moore?) for nothing. But I think I should try again. Pottery is as much meditation as craft; elemental yet peaceful, earth and water and fire calling one to slow down. It’s ancient, and it’s what we need now. If I’m too lazy to Swayze, I’m in love all the same.
Appreciate the making, McGuire urges, not the final products. Get comfortable with letting them go. “Does this need to exist?” is the question he asks himself before firing anything. Maybe pottery was Buddhism all along?
Moore practice required. 3/5
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