Get Lost in Clay, Even if It’s Just for the Weekend
Pottery workshops like those at the Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts in Maine are filling up with people who want to connect with others instead of screens.
This post is from a larger article written by the New York Times view URL link to read more: https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/31/travel/pottery-ceramics-workshops.html
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.
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 last month 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,” Ms. 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.
“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, N.Y. “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 wait lists, 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.)
And maybe because it provides a tactile alternative to the flattened reality of the screen, clay kept drawing in new devotees even as much of the world ground to a halt during Covid lockdowns.
“Pottery wheel sales doubled and tripled during the pandemic,” said Bryan Vansell, the owner and president of the Laguna Clay Company, a leading provider of clays, glazes and equipment for ceramists in the United States. “The pandemic brought people back home, put people into their garages and offices, spaces to make into studios.”
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Now, many of those potters are looking to share their passion, and get their hands dirty, with others at summer residencies, classes and workshops at places like Watershed.
“Our programs all fill, they sell out, and we’d love to do more,” said the center’s director, Liz Seaton, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. A lawyer by training, they recently left their job as the policy director at the National L.G.B.T.Q. Task Force in Washington to turn their lifelong passion for pottery into a career. “I like to build things. One of the reasons I took this job was the challenge of taking this organization to a point where we have year-round facilities.”
Watershed was founded in the mid-1980s on the site of a defunct brickyard. Its 54 acres of rolling hills quickly became a haven where potters could deepen their understanding of the medium, and one another. During the height of the H.I.V./AIDS crisis in the 1990s, Watershed invited people living with the virus to explore the creative and therapeutic potential of clay.
“I like some organic wonkiness,” said Ms. 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.
Ms. 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.