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A reflection: What clay can teach me
The Arts Scene
Crystal Holman
Crystal Holman sits at her potter’s wheel in the ceramic studio. (Photo provided)

Walking to my ceramic studio gives me a chance to prepare my mindset for creativity before I even reach the studio. My clay studio is in the barn, and the 12-by-12-foot space is crowded with a potter’s wheel, two kilns and an abundance of ceramic tools and equipment. Even though the space is small and crowded, it is a place of peace and creativity for me. I feel like there is so much to learn about ceramics, and my ceramic studio is a safe place to learn and make mistakes. It is also a great place to embrace success. 

Working in ceramics has helped me to learn about life. From the time I grab a bag of clay, I am allowing the clay to teach me and challenge me. For one, it has taught me about preparation. It is important in life to be prepared so that you are ready for what is to come, and you are also prepared with knowledge that allows you to be flexible and adjust to the many changes that life brings your way. 

Preparation is also important in ceramics. As the clay is cut and weighed, a plan begins to develop for what it is to become. Preparation continues as the clay is wedged, which involves a process that removes air bubbles within the clay and makes it consistent so that it will work better on the potter’s wheel. While I am wedging the clay, I am planning for the ceramic form that will be thrown during the pottery session. Afterwards, I allow the clay to rest under a damp cloth until it is time for it to go to the potter’s wheel.

With a thump, the clay meets the potter’s wheel, and then the fun begins. Water allows it to glide through my hands, and the pleasing feel of it is wonderful. Knowing how much water to use and when to use the water is something that a ceramic artist must learn. Just as in life, knowledge comes with experience and practice. As the wheel spins fast, the clay is coned up, and it is as if it is being trained and prepared for what it is to become. Then, it is time to center the clay. 

Sometimes centering comes easy, but sometimes the clay seems to have other plans; especially when there is a small and elusive air bubble. When this happens, I must make a decision: Will I try and find the air bubble, or will I continue to work and hope it will work itself out? Sometimes in life, you need to stop and reevaluate. Experience is a good teacher, and it is experience that helps you make decisions. And, as with life, you are accountable for the outcome and the consequences of those decisions. 

At this point, the chunk of clay is beginning to look a little more refined and is ready to be opened up. In life, when you open up to others, you make yourself vulnerable. The clay is also vulnerable at this point because I have to know exactly how much pressure to apply. Sometimes strength is required, and sometimes the gentlest touch will move and form the clay. 

To form the base of the vessel, you must stop and compress the bottom floor. Compressing is a very important step, and if it is ignored or rushed through, there will be severe consequences. Every action has a consequence, and without the correct amount of compression, cracks and areas of weakness will form in the clay bottom. I have learned not to rush the compression process, which allows me a few moments to be mindful and show respect to the clay. 

What if we took the time to compress in life? We often think about decompression, but compression is just as important. Compressing the clay is part of the process and is a step that should not be skipped or taken lightly. It is needed to smooth the clay, to make it stronger and to prevent cracks. In life, if we took the time to compress, we would make ourselves stronger, more prepared, and better able to withstand what life brings our way.

After the bottom is compressed, the sides are formed. The first pulls to move the clay in an upward motion require strength, and both hands must work in unison with very specific jobs. My left hand rests quietly inside the clay form, its fingers a supporting wall, while the fingers on my right hand use pressure to move the clay in an upward motion. During the pulling process, great attention must be paid to the amount of water on the clay. Too much of it is not good, but too little makes it difficult to make fluid movements with the clay. As my right hand comes to the top of the ceramic form, I use my fingers to measure the thickness of the clay and compress the top edge.

Crystal Holman
While throwing, the rim is compressed after each pull to strengthen the ceramic form. (Photo provided)

There again is the word “compression.” This step is more important than you might think, and without it, the clay vessel could become weak and possibly fail. Think of compression as the lining up of priorities in life, or as the preparation to become solid and grounded. 

There are so many decisions and so many details that need attention as the clay is spinning on the potter’s wheel. Many things could go wrong as the clay is being formed, but that does not stop me from working. In life we must persevere and continue to move forward, even in the toughest of times. There are times for change, and there are times to stand tall — but we must be willing to try in order to keep going. There will be failures along life’s way, but they are opportunities to learn and to help others. There will also be successes, which bring opportunities to grow as an individual and to invest in the future.

Once the sides have been formed and the rim compressed, the ceramic vessel is almost ready to take on its identity. Some vessels are meant to be visually pleasing and make an artistic statement, while others are destined to become functional as well as beautiful. Similarly, we determine our future in life, and we have the opportunity to make positive changes today that will change our home and our community.

When the wheel comes to a stop, the ceramic form has taken on a new life. Once an unformed chunk of clay, it now stands tall with a sleek new form and appearance. With a gentle touch, a pouring spout is added, and the clay is a step closer to becoming a functional vessel. Then it must dry to the state of leather hard, after which it will be trimmed, and a handle added.

Crystal Holman
With a gentle touch, the pouring spout is added. (Photo provided)

The ceramic pitcher has been formed, but the process is not complete. Just like the chunk of clay, we are being formed into the vessel we are intended to be. Each step in the process is important and must not be rushed. The vessel will be bisque-fired in the kiln before it is decorated, then glazed and returned to the kiln. Finally, it will be ready for its life as a pitcher. 

Life often mirrors the ceramic process. Sometimes we go through tough times, sometimes the stress may seem unbearable, and sometimes the process of forming is difficult — but through the good times and the tough times, we are formed into the person we choose to become. Our choices determine our future and, like the clay vessel, we find our place and purpose in life.

 The ceramic pitcher will hold refreshing water that will bring life and hope and will itself serve as a reminder of the process from which it came. So, you see, the pitcher is much more than a chunk of clay: It is a lesson in life, love and perseverance.

Crystal Holman
The pitcher is made from a chunk of clay, and it is quite a transformation. A drawing shows the plans for the pitcher once it is decorated. (Photo provided)

As I finish each day in my studio, I make time to clean up and prepare for my next pottery session. The pottery experience does not grow old or weary; I am always ready for the next lesson the clay is going to teach me. But for now, the lights are turned off, and the door is closed. Now, it is time for me to take my pottery knowledge into the world, my home and my life. Blessings to all.

Local artist Crystal Holman retired after 23 years as an art educator with the Bulloch County Schools to pursue her artistic endeavors. She currently works in a variety of media including painting, ceramics and wood burning, using her creative journey to embrace art as a means of healing, spiritual growth and personal expression.