Bird of Prey, Stooping, Child of Mountain, Nesting

Like a Thunderbolt from the Heavens, plummeting faster than the speed of sound, a spear of force driving into the play, piercing its soft center, the hands of the predator plunge from dizzying heights in one fell swoop to stab at the mound of clay spinning on the wheel head.

The problem is, its not a skill most beginners can intuitively master. The veteran clay wrangler can do so many things that are beyond the reach of beginners. I’ve seen experienced potters centering and then making pots with their feet. I’ve seen professional teachers center balls of clay on two separate wheels simultaneously and one handed. I’ve seen exhibition potters make pots blindfolded. I’ve seen them throw without water. I’ve seen them use only tools to touch the clay but never their hands. I’ve seen them use only their chin and nose to center and their teeth and lips to pull up the walls. I’ve seen them throw from across the room using long poles with various tips that do the work of conventional tools. I’ve seen one potter breathe on a lump of raw clay and transform it into a wood fired masterpiece….. (okay, maybe not the last few, but you get my point)

Beginners often need all the help they can get. And when we (teachers) show them various techniques there will always be the difference between what we with our experienced and already skillful hands can do and what they with their inexperienced and relatively insensitive hands are capable of. To teach them simply what we can do is like showing a beginning math student the finer points of calculus. Its like taking a first year medical student and turning her loose in surgery. Its like putting your four year old in the driver seat. The question is always, “Are they ready to do what you can do?” If all the training it took you to get where you are as an instructor mattered at all, then its importance is not just what you understand better than beginners, but that you recognize the stages of development it took to get there. Learning is not like the flue or food poisoning that can be contracted from simple exposure. Teaching isn’t some occult transformation as the hidden secrets are suddenly revealed. Rather, its hard work, and beginning students need a platform from which to grow.

So when I caught a beginning student last week with her elbows up, arms fully extended, leaning back, with index fingers pointed roughly at the center of a mound of clay on her wheel I had to put the brakes on her predatory advances. She looked like an eagle dropping down on some oblivious rabbit, ready to strike the target and rip its center out. The problem was, she was unsteady, she had no bracing or support, and her hands were weaving dangerously as they plummeted earthward. The ‘rabbit’ looked like it had every chance of escaping and living to see another day. The gentlest breeze would have brought it to safety. Which did very little for her plans to make a pot……

Wings folded, talons extended, the raptor lands on its victim and breaks its back, splitting the soft carcass to reveal the hidden core

Wings folded, talons extended, the raptor lands on its victim and breaks its back, splitting the soft carcass to reveal the hidden core

My advice was that rather than approaching the task as a predatory raptor swooping in on its prey, to instead seek as much contact and stability as possible. If the clay is centered, then use that as a source of equilibrium. Rather than dropping down with only a visual guide to aim with, use the centeredness of the clay itself as a basis for guiding the opening procedure. Tuck the arms in, wherever they fit, to make the extremities more grounded. Burrow into the center rather than pierce it in a percussive blow. In other words, rather than a bird of prey stooping, make like a child of the mountains hollowing out a nest. Belong to the clay. Its not an adversary to be broken and devoured but a nurturing habitat to make ones’ self at home in. In the end, that seems much more intuitive and accessible to beginners. Or so it has seemed in my experience.

Clinging tightly to its resting place the child of the mountain burrows deeper, finding its new nesting place in the comfort and security of the solidly familiar landscape

Clinging tightly to its resting place the child of the mountain burrows deeper, finding its new nest in the comfort and security of the solidly familiar landscape

But then again, I know folks who push their kids into the deep end first thing. ‘Sink or swim’ sometimes does yield positive results, so I won’t claim hammering the clay doesn’t occasionally pay off. The world can be a hard place, and if I had to walk 20 miles in deep snow drifts in the middle of summer to get to school each day as a child, then so to can my students (perhaps). 🙂 Tough love has its place, for sure. But maybe instead I will drive them to school and let them off in front of their classrooms. Maybe I will give them what they can use rather than simply what I myself can do (or had to do when I was a beginner). I could show them how to center with their feet. Anyone really think I should?

All for now!

Make beauty real!

Happy potting!


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.
This entry was posted in Art, Ceramics, metacognition, Pottery, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Bird of Prey, Stooping, Child of Mountain, Nesting

  1. Of course some beginners are so good they can both center with their feet and pull the walls up with their puffy pudding stained lips (the hands are purely optional):

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