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5 Lessons Pottery Taught Me About Life

I came to pottery with the anxiety of a perfectionist, the need to constantly be in control, and, yes, somehow, an openness to learn something new and be terrible at it.

That last one can be hard for adults, especially ones who like control, because humble surrender into new territory can feel scary, frustrating, and like an attack on self-esteem. It goes against everything we feel we've conquered by knowing and experiencing and comprehending.

And yet we learn nothing when we risk nothing.

I met myself in all of my anxieties as I dove into pottery, first with a class instructor on the wheel, then by self-learning hand-building techniques. Pottery is a quiet craft, a slow-moving one that requires patience and attention to detail that I don't readily have in abundance. But patience can be practiced, and I learned this by realizing that what frustrated me most of all when I failed at pottery was me getting in my own way.

The more presence of mind I had as I learned this new skill and ruined a bunch of pieces in the process, the more I learned about myself and new ways of being in the world. Here are some of my favorite takeaways:

5. Perfection is tempting, but entirely unnecessary (and antithetical)

As an unconscious function of perfectionism, I've convinced myself that doing something perfectly conceals or redeems everything about me that is imperfect. Pottery is not the place for this. Arguably, there is no actual place for this. Better would be to get to the root of unworthiness and shame rather than hiding behind the illusion of immaculate.

The rub about pottery is you can't control every aspect of the process. Some parts are in your hands, some are left to extreme elements and the chemistry it casts. This, then, is a great lesson in drawing distinctions between that which is in my control and that which isn't, freeing me to place my energy more on what is in my control and learning to accept the latter.

For instance, I might have control over how I build the piece, how well I manage the dampness and dryness of the clay in order for it to move and attach and trim the way I intend, how careful I am with the fragile material while it remains malleable.

I have control over the risks I'm willing or unwilling to take with raw clay, while it remains raw clay.

Ultimately, though, I can’t control how it dries and what happens in either the bisque kiln or the glaze kiln. I won't entirely know how my particular glaze application that day will combine with the clay body and the firing temperature of the glaze kiln. Even if I test swatches beforehand, application on a whole piece can render variations in results. This also alchemizes in lesson #2.

But in terms of perfectionism, the lack of constant control over the process means my idea of perfect is unlikely to occur. Without those variants, perfectionism isn't all that likely to occur anyway, which brings me to the real reason pottery has burst my need for flawlessness: it's way cooler when it actually looks homemade.

If I wanted perfect stoneware, I'd shop at a large company that mass-produces its plates and bowls. If I wanted planters that look like everyone else's, I'd ask people where they got them from and buy one there.

But I don't want unoriginal, perfectly sleek, clay-less looking pottery. I want things that are weird, that reflect how weird I am, and that serve the particular function I covet them for, which may not match the masses. I also want my pottery to look like it was made out of clay because, damn, it's remarkable to witness the creation of ceramics. The raw material is both gorgeous and fascinating. Why erase it completely?

4. Get to know your own rhythm (and flow with it)

When I arrive at the studio with a frustrated or impatient heart, I have two options with the wheel: stay away from it entirely, or use it as a challenge to slow down and ground.

A ball of wet clay spinning around on a mechanical wheel will let me know if I'm not in the right headspace for it. So if I haven't figured out my state of being on my own, the clay will mirror something important back to me. This helps cultivate a level of mindfulness one can't always achieve on one's own. Relationships tend to reveal us to ourselves, whether they be relationships with people or balls of muddy earth.

There is potential in these relationships, too, to use that mindfulness and invite in something new. Some of my best meditations have been at the wheel in front of a wet spinning vessel that may or may not turn out to be anything upright and solid in the end. I slow down, I make a little extra room in myself, I let go of the outcomes, and I see if I can meet the rhythm of the clay rather than insist it meets mine.

Sometimes I can't. Sometimes the energy moving through me needs to be expressed as it is and not channeled into something more grounded. That's when I hand-build.

Hand-building allows me to be scrappier, move at my own pace, cut, smack, and contort the clay with my own angsty hands. It's still humbling, but hand-building is where physics is more likely to be a comedy than a tragedy, unlike the wheel which trends more toward the latter.

Regardless, what matters is that I'm strengthening the awareness of what energy I'm bringing in the door, allowing the material to mirror me in a way that I accept rather than resist, and using that information to inform what I do next. Instead of telling myself I'm doing it wrong because I can't quite get the rhythm, I let my rhythm take me where it will be most useful. I can be challenged in either direction, but ultimately, there is no wrong answer.

3. Before you build up, open the center and compress the floor

I mentioned in the previous lesson "making a little extra room in myself" when the going gets tough. Pottery has given me a brilliant image for that.

When throwing on the wheel, you first center your clay. Then you're left with a mound of the stuff and the shaping is up to you. Metamorphically, opening up the center of the clay is when the piece starts to come to life. But it can be hard to get started, to push into and then outward against the mound of moving clay. It takes intention, patience, and strength to break open the center and make a hollow space.

And it's exactly that image, and the accompanying muscle memory of actually doing it, that I activate when I find myself needing more room. When I'm nervous, impatient, irritated, and sensing myself trying to white-knuckle my way through resistance, I breathe, close my eyes, and imagine I'm opening up the center of the clay.

I imagine doing it slowly, feeling the clay push back at first until gliding into momentum. In my gut or solar plexus chakra, I imagine tightness there being released through an opening. Carefully, tenderly, I use my imagination to create a new sensation in my body, one that feels recognized, respected, and still rearranged in a necessary way.

Opening the center of a piece is one of the most transformational moments of pottery-making. Suddenly a lump becomes functional. It can hold things now, things that otherwise would have slid or bounced off of it before. Capacity has grown, and that's exactly how I feel when I mirror the process in my own body.

After widening the center to its ideal width, compressing the floor comes next. It's a quick step but an important one both literally and in the metaphor, as it strengthens the bottom that has just been created. While the walls of the piece still need work, the clay on the bottom now knows its role in this vessel -- to hold the piece itself and everything inside it. Taking a second to compress it ensures there won't be cracks at the base of the piece, encouraging more strength and confidence.

2. Comparison is the thief of joy, even if the comparison is just to your own fantasy

When I first started doing pottery, I would rush to the studio late at night with the excitement of a kid on Christmas morning, knowing my pieces were finally done in the glaze kiln and ready to come home with me. Waiting weeks or months on a piece to be complete is so hard for my impulsive heart which thrives on instant gratification.

I'd search for my piece on the shelf, trying to remember my glaze combinations and grumbling about how unfamiliar it will look to me in its final state. What a strange thing, to once be so intimately familiar with the looks of the thing you created only to have its final step be the wildest of cards.

My eyes would scan row after row of beautiful pieces made by others in my community studio, envy and excitement running through me as I look upon their creations and build up hope for mine.

Then I'd see a vaguely familiar shape -- easier to spot my own hand-built pieces than wheel-thrown ones. I'd move in closer, anticipation building, anxious excitement pouring out of me, and then all of that energy would hit the floor.

"Ugh, it's so dark! The glaze was too thin, too much iron from the clay got through!"

"I thought I glazed this blue, why does it just look like a darker shade of the clay?"

"What happened to this?! It's so ugly!"

I was disappointed with every piece because of how I built it up in my head.

On top of it, the clay offered for free to students wasn't the most predictable when it came to glazing and I didn't know enough about the craft to solve for it. It was immensely frustrating to put so much time and effort into a piece only for it to come out not at all like I'd planned.

But when I would bring these disappointing pieces home, full of perfectionist shame and frustration, my boyfriend would marvel at them.

"You like this?" I'd ask him, confused.

"Yes, I love how the clay bleeds through and adds to the color. It's interesting, both earthy and a sleek finished piece" he'd say.

Seeing it through his eyes started to give me some distance from my expectations. The more space I got between pieces fresh out of the kiln, the more I started to love them, too. I realized the only reason I didn't like them was that I was comparing them to other finished pieces on the shelves and to the fantasy of them I created in my mind. But if I just let them be what they were -- something I co-created with a 2300°F kiln and had a life of its own -- then I started to fall in love.

Letting things be what they are and appreciating them as is rather than trying to control them into the more ideal thing they could be is one of the greatest lessons pottery has taught me. Only topped by this one:

1. Mistakes are made to become features

Mistakes happen, says the perfectionist in recovery.

Mistakes can happen and they can lead to destruction. One mistake can make a whole vessel feel futile and embarrassing. And yet, mistakes have led me to some of my favorite creative surprises.

Pottery will never be mistake-less. In fact I can't think of an art form or realm of life that is. And some mistakes can't necessarily be undone. So what would you do if an unfixable mistake blesses one corner of an otherwise beautiful piece. Throw the whole thing out? Some potters might. But I won't.

Instead, I'll try to make the mistake purposeful by duplicating it to create symmetry or an unexpected pattern. Maybe this bowl wanted to be a planter anyway, so I'll add a few more holes and let it live another life. Maybe this vase knew it would be better as a carafe so I'll turn this bump into a lip and make it useful.

This all ties into the idea of perfectionism, control, and fantasies full of expectations. While it's good to have discipline and skill that allows you to create what you intend, pottery for me is more about art and creativity than productivity. Which means surrendering to the life force pulsing through the process, and yes, sometimes that includes errors.

Of course, I have ruined pieces so profoundly that they couldn't be recovered and only reclaimed into something entirely new, but the habit of now seeing a mistake as "another fucking opportunity for growth," as my old grad school professor used to say, is much more exciting than seeing every deviation from my expectation to be a complete failure.



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