Humbled, and not in a good way

This is an email I sent to my great friend, sounding board, conscience, and fairy godpotter, Scott Cooper. He thought it should be a blog post, so who am I to argue? Batten down the hatches! Stormy weather approaches!


“Sheeze! That vacation harmony didn’t last too long!

I just had about the worst 24 hours in clay that I ever think I’ve experienced. So I’ve got this commission for some friends’ wedding and I had made the bowls before I left. Easy part done. Next up are 12 eleven inch dinner plates and 12 eight inch salad plates. Shouldn’t be too hard except for getting 12 that all fit reasonably together. Just a few extras and I should be good. Or so I thought….

Well, I started throwing a few plates kind of aiming at the project, but also sort of as warm up, hoping I might come in with some I could use but not necessarily planning on it. Well, I hate making plates as a rule, but I usually can do a pretty good job of it when I’m in the flow. So the first eight small ones were pretty much all over the place, with possibly 4 or 5 that could end up usable.

Well, that was the end of my (3 year) old batch of clay, and yesterday I started on my newer batch. I have to use a specific clay because the glazes they want look pretty different depending on what they’re on. So I open the first new box and discover that it feels much stiffer than I would want. It almost felt thixotropic like a porcelain. So I decide to use it anyway, because this new batch is basically all I’ve got access to.

Needless to say, stiff clay is no fun to center, much less make plates out of. So I struggle. In fact, somehow I got an air bubble in my first lump, and after about 4 minutes of poking and repoking holes in it I finally gave up on it being a plate, and turned it into a pitcher. That may be the only thing I made yesterday that actually survives….

So I buckle down and eventually get another eight plates thrown. Pushing that stiff clay was such a bear that my neck, back, thumb, and wrists were seriously messed up. But I thought some of the plates might end up decent. And maybe I just need some toughening up after all that down time. Well, it turns out that the bag I had was just improperly sealed, and the next bag I picked up felt much better (dumb ass!). But of course the damage was already done….

So that was yesterday. Nimrod that I am, I thought surely nothing else could go wrong. Guess again, Sherlock! The overnight super-dry air dried them out waaay beyond what I needed, and the lips on most of them curled into more of a pasta plate profile. Not what my friends are looking for, so not suitable for their project. But possibly still salvageable, I thought. Gee wiz, what an optimist!

So I commence cutting them off the bats, only to find that they are so stiff that the wire does crazy things to the bottom, ruins three and scars another three getting them off. Shit! Well, after some painful salvage trimming I have 2 ‘just okay’ plates and another 2 really messed up ones to show for all my pain. Not a good 24 hours….. I’m still waiting for my handle to set up before I assess the pitcher and breath a small sigh of relief, or officially mark this 24 hours as a day of mourning on all future calendars.

So once my wrists and thumb are feeling up to it I will start back doing something totally different with no pressure on it. It should have been so easy. But the fatal combination of my own stupidity and less than ideal conditions should have had me playing it much smarter. But that’s the flaw of stupidity: It never knows when to question things. What an amateur. What a maroon….

Well, at least I’m laughing at myself now, and I’ll take that over the near bawling I contemplated just moments ago. Thanks for lending your ethereal ear as always!

Wish me luck (good sense being out of the question),


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
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6 Responses to Humbled, and not in a good way

  1. Scott Cooper says:

    I’ll proudly take the friend, sounding board and fairy roles, but if I’m your conscience, boy are you in trouble!

    Seriously, though, I think we’ve all been there at one time or another. I know I have. It’s like everything in the studio suddenly goes Bizarro World on you and after fighting it for a while to no avail, all you can do do is throw up your hands and say, “What The Fuck?”

    As I said by email, I think the key is to find a way to live to fight another day. Sometimes the only way through is to retreat and regroup. Then again, maybe not! What the hell do I know?

    • Don’t confuse me! Is it retreat and regroup, or charge blindly ahead?

      Hah! Actually, my wrists and thumb being worse for wear I now have an enforced retreat underway. But having vented so thoroughly in my emails to you I at least now feel better about the situation. I have no worries that when I pick my tools back up I will get it right this time. I may have left the field of battle in what looks like a rout, but the enemy has been shattered. He just doesn’t know it yet. I learned what I needed to learn. Sure, I could have done without the pain and suffering, but my toes are now firmly standing on the grounds of my triumph. Let the drums beat, the flags wave, and the rockets glare (or something like that). Victory is at hand! Ready the bayonets! Charge!

  2. Linda Starr says:

    I’ve done that so many times with so many pieces. I know I have to be persistent to work in clay, but sometimes that persistence gets me in trouble trying and trying to no avail. I’ve never been one to give up and maybe that’s why I keep trying when it’s foolish to do so.

    Recently when I went to get a new batch of clay, they had me inspect the boxes before I signed for them. I gave a little finger press to the bag to be sure it was soft.

    • Yeah, you and me both!

      If there’s one failing I could do without its that I am usually such a stubborn slow learner. And the funny thing is that the first part of my debacle should have been avoided. I know better. Or at least, I should have known not to blindly trust in my smarty pants solutions in the face of serious obstacles. One of the first things I tell my beginning students is to inspect their clay each time before using it, because clay has a tendency to become unusable when it starts to dry out (“Unusable”. Seems like an important word….). Good advice if you can do more than dole it out….

      So call me a hypocrite. Practicing and preaching just get so twisted up. Its just that I imagined that I was smart enough to make do even in these unfavorable circumstances. For instance, I knew that if you cone up and down several additional times you can actually add back enough water to make the clay usable. And it may have taken a lot of extra work, but I DID get each lump centered and I did get the plates thrown into good shapes. Unfortunately, the cost was that my neck, shoulders, back, wrists, and thumb all took a serious beating, and now I’m out of commission for another day or so…. Oh yeah. This strategy is less onerous when you are using small to modest sized lumps of clay (dumb ass).

      So what’s the lesson here? I’m not half as clever as I may think I am, and I’m probably twice as stubborn as is good for me. And whenever I start to get that mulish look in my eye I need to take that as a warning sign that things are about to get ugly. What’s that saying about meeting the Budha on the road again? Oh yeah. Kill the S.O.B.

  3. tracey says:

    Just building character my friend! I have had so many of these days, as I know many readers out there have. Today, for instance, it was a beautiful day for a raku firing and my tried and true, trusted sells very well turquoise glaze f’d up every single thing I put it on. I just smashed it all and thanked the kiln for the very lovely white bowls it gave me. You just take what the potter Gods give you, they giveth they taketh away 🙂 Chin up, you will have even more beautiful plates for you friend, sometimes the potter Gods edit our less than great efforts. Just don’t try using hard clay again, that’s a sure way to start your day off bad !!!!!

    • Thanks for the pep talk Tracey! I guess misery at least appreciates company (but I wish things had turned out better on your end). Deep breath, tranquility, peace of mind….

      Actually I’m not as devastated as when I was realizing my full humiliation. Then it hurt. It hurt bad, and my limbs ached just to put salt in the wounds. I don’t suppose I will ever again try to tough out throwing with a sack of dried clay. Lesson learned. At least for the next 20 years or so….

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