Get lost in clay, even if it’s just for the weekend

Get lost in clay, even if it’s just for the weekend
A photo provided by Claire Brassil/Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts shows a pottery workshop last month at the Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, Maine. Pottery workshops are filling up with people who want to connect with others instead of screens. (Photos: NYTimes)
The challenge: Make 10 small clay objects in 18 minutes — one minute each for the first five pieces, two minutes for the next four and five for the last one.اضافة اعلان

Ariela Kuh, a ceramic artist with a bright demeanor and a yellow apron, set a timer on her iPhone as she explained the drill to the 14 of us attending her workshop in April at the Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, Maine.

“Remember what it was like to touch clay as a kid,” she advised.

As I prepared 10 tangerine-size balls of clay, images from childhood flashed through my mind: the blue shelves at my after-school pottery program, the bulbous terra-cotta vase my mom made at one of the countless cancer facilities in the months before her death, the small elephant at the center of a red ceramic plate that my tiny hands had formed sometime in the mid-1990s and was now collecting dust.

“Go,” Kuh said, and there was no more time for thinking. Clay shapes appeared and multiplied, each maintaining a vague resemblance to the previous one, like snapshots of sea creatures undergoing evolution, all shells and tentacles. By the time the final phone alarm blared, I was giddy with the uninhibited joy you experience when letting go of perfectionism.

Earth meets water
“Clay is the opposite of the cellphone,” said D. Wayne Higby, an artist and the director of Ceramic Art Museum at Alfred University in Alfred, New York. “This stuff is real, takes up space, it’s dirty. There’s just this physicality that is very different from what we experience six or eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer.”

This might partly explain pottery’s recent resurgence in popularity.

Clay educators, artists, and industry experts from across the United States told me of people flocking to pottery classes and workshops, studios trying to get a handle on expanding waitlists, and ceramists racking up huge online followings. (There is even a television show for aficionados of the craft: “The Great Pottery Throw Down,” a production à la “The Great British Baking Show,” streaming on Max.)

Shaping clay and bending time
“I like some organic wonkiness,” said Kuh as she freehanded a rectangle out of a sheet of clay and seemingly effortlessly curled the piece into a cylinder, then did the same with a circle, turning it into a cone. “I’m not a rule follower. There’s a reason I didn’t become a woodworker.”

The three-day class I was attending focused on how to build geometric objects from slabs of clay and then use those to assemble more intricate creations. Unlike wheel-throwing — where clay is molded on a spinning disk — this technique, known as hand-building, can be used to make a wide variety of forms and larger works.

As we broke into 25-pound bags of clay, the room filled with the smell of damp soil and a studious silence, punctuated occasionally by the sound of hands slapping and dropping the material to give it the right texture.

A sign proclaimed the studio a no-cellphone zone, and there were no clocks. As I bent, squeezed and smudged the gray dough in my hands, a smooth and cool sensation spread from the tips of my fingers to my head, pooling there, then drowning out anxieties and washing away my sense of time. Shapes of clay morphed on the canvas-covered work tables, and trapezoids of sun crept across the polished cement floors.

A medium that contains multitudes
Watershed is far from the only place in the United States where potters can experience the fresh country air while exploring the craft and its traditions.

Founded in 1929 to give Appalachian women a means of earning a living, the Penland School of Craft in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina — where clay was designated the “official state art medium” in 2013 — draws artists and hobbyists with a range of programs in different media. Summer clay workshops generally last between four and 12 days, during which participants live on the 420-acre campus, and focus on a range of functional and decorative aspects of pottery.

A three-hour drive east, the town of Seagrove, which has one of the highest concentrations of working potters in the country, advertises itself as America’s pottery capital.

The area is home to more than 50 pottery shops, studios and galleries as well as the North Carolina Pottery Center, a museum dedicated to the craft. Among its residents, Seagrove counts eighth- and ninth-generation potters, as well as a growing number of young apprentices and clay artists.

Tipping the scale from the utilitarian to the artful has long been the mission of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, in the foothills near Helena, Montana. Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Bray was founded, the world appears ready for its contemporary take on clay.

“Somewhere in the pandemic,” said the foundation’s current director, Rebecca Harvey, “whatever that hierarchy was, whatever that boundary between art and craft was, seems to have just evaporated.” She pointed to the expanding number of artists, galleries and museums — among them, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — that in recent years have started to embrace clay work.

Pleasure over productivity
Kuh was trimming away the excess material from a vessel reminiscent of an oversize dumpling, slowly imbuing it with the delicacy of a curtain fluttering in the spring breeze.

It was the last day at the workshop, and she was going over the finishing touches.

“Everyone has a different favorite part of the process. I really love this refining part,” she said, shaving off ribbon after ribbon of drying clay. “It’s like in writing, I like the editing part.”

Because of how long firing ceramics takes, we would not be putting raw clay pieces, known as greenware, in the kiln, but wrapping them to transport home.

Having flown to Maine and knowing this type of clay would melt in the high-temperature kilns at my studio in New York, I realized early on that my pieces would not be returning with me. The thought was weirdly freeing.

Like many hobby ceramists, I had been drawn to pottery because of the sense of purpose it gave me: making planters for my friends, bowls for my family, a little cave for my fish, knickknacks for my girlfriend.

I looked at the objects in front of me. One resembled a muscular set of shoulders with a long and skinny neck; the other reminded me of a volcanic hillside or tubular coral reef. What use would I possibly have for them?

Maybe they could be vases or lamps. Or perhaps their sole function was to bring me closer to the joy of playing I had so rarely felt since childhood.

And why shouldn’t that be purpose enough, I thought, as I dropped my creations into the reclaim bin, where scraps of clay go to await their next adventure.

Read more Culture and Arts
Jordan News