Editor's Note: Studio Potter gave free access to the online journal to 387 educational institutions, supporting their unexpected transition to remote learning in the spring of 2020. We invited educators, from all classrooms, regardless of how “classroom” was defined, to give their students a writing assignment and send us the top three for publication consideration. Selected student authors receive a personal one-year membership to Studio Potter.
Caroline Trimmer: I wake up at 8:00 a.m. every morning, pour myself a cup of coffee, and eat the same breakfast I’ve been eating since starting college four years ago. Every semester I’ve taken classes in the same two buildings. This year though, my senior year, I decided to take ceramics. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. It was in a new building, at a new time of the day – 8:30 a.m. to be exact – early for a senior in college. But I’ve seen all of those satisfying videos on Facebook of people making work on the wheel, and I’ve thought, “How hard can it be?”
Rachel Gomez Hernandez: The first time I walked into the pottery barn, I was full of hope and ready to work with a new medium. I will not write about how cliché it was to sit at the wheel and think about the amazing pieces I would make. Nonetheless, as we smacked our lumps of clay onto the bat and fiddled with the speed, I did.
It was my freshman year in high school when I had my first experience with throwing. One of my cousins was taking ceramics classes on the other side of town and, when my parents were too busy to pick me up from school, he would take me with him. I loved being in that small studio; the class was always full of old ladies who would gossip. I could tune out of my life and listen to them while I worked on the wheel. The classes were expensive though, so after about a month I could no longer afford to go. The next year I signed up for a ceramics class at my high school, but I wasn’t able to get the same satisfaction I had in the community studio. I was in a class full of students looking for an easy “A.” All of the glazes had been mixed together over the years – every piece I made came out a different shade of vomit. My second semester my anxiety became so severe that I switched to online school and didn't have any more experiences in ceramics until I went to college.
Rachel: As the clay made its rotation, I wet my hands to shape the clay into a cone. It was an unfamiliar experience having a malleable object both listen to your actions but also do its own thing. I sat there trying to heighten the walls while being careful not to apply too much pressure. I pulled up the clay.
Many of my first cylinders were short and stout. They were no taller than three inches and were three inches wide. As I pulled taller cylinders, they became narrower. But I was determined to pull taller walls with wider valleys. Trimming allowed me to gain a bit of confidence. Although I dreaded destroying a good piece, I didn’t let the fear of fumbling keep me from working on this new skill. As I trimmed each piece, it became natural to place my off-centered cylinder on the bat, center it, and allow my trimming tool to shape the foot. The consistent chattering in my first pieces allowed me to reflect and assess. Soon, my pieces no longer chattered, they smoothly formed circles to hold themselves up. As my trimming skill improved, I became mesmerized by the ribbons falling off the tool.
Maddie: When I restarted ceramics this past semester, I didn’t understand why it was so difficult to relearn. I thought it would be like riding a bike, something you can learn once and retain the knowledge of how to do it. The first few weeks – after spending half an hour trying to center the clay, only to poke a hole in the form in the first minute of bringing up the wall – I would just give up. As time went on though, it started to feel more natural and I could sink into the meditational state my mother described when she spoke of running.
Maddie: My sister Allison was born three months early, leading to several health problems later in her life. At a young age I was always told how creative I was, but I tended to compare myself with others. I always loved art but thought that I was never good enough to create anything special. Because I’m the younger sibling, I usually compared myself to my sister. Her retinas were detaching at birth, requiring three laser eye surgeries before the age of one. The scarring left her mostly blind with no peripheral vision. Because of this scarring, the art she would make was two-dimensional and somewhat resembled Pablo Picasso’s work. When I was younger, I was always jealous of her style. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t make something like that.
When I reached middle school, my sister's health started to decline. Over the span of about two years she became so sick that she could no longer go to school and was in and out of the hospital constantly. My mother became her caretaker and my dad was constantly working, which left him with little attention for me. I would always bring school art projects home to show my parents, to try and earn their praise or approval. I knew that my sister's health was their primary concern, but I couldn’t understand why they weren’t proud of me.
Caroline: Michelle Obama says, “Just try new things. Don’t be afraid. Step out of your comfort zones and soar, all right?” Contrary to her statement, I found myself getting comfortable with my work, utilizing the same designs or simple glazes, and not challenging myself to try new things. Sadly, COVID-19 took the rest of the semester away, so I wasn’t able to try new and different forms or designs. Looking back on this experience, I realized that I tend to get into a habit and a routine in which I’m comfortable. I think for beginners you have to try to do everything possible to get the full experience – taking challenges, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Not being afraid to make a mistake is how you learn.
Maddie: Ceramics has slowly started teaching me that I can accept myself for who I am and be proud of what I do. Every piece I make is different – something new, with nothing else exactly like it. There’s no need to compare one work to another because you can’t compare apples and oranges. I don’t need to make art for anyone's approval except my own.
Rachel: Throwing became much quicker. The art of making handles also became an easier task. I tried to think outside of the box more often with decorations, but also with forms. While making the jars, I had multiple lids that did not fit properly. So I stacked them on top of each other to create a new jar. With the encouragement of my peers, I created something I never would have thought about. Every class, as I sat at a throwing wheel, bliss overcame me. Each ball of clay was dedicated to someone or to becoming an out-of-the-box experiment. I never gave up on a form. Each one reflected some part of me, and I wanted them to be as polished as possible. Persistence and patience molded every piece. I became so confident at the wheel that I began to be able to help others. I held myself to a different standard than I had before. I created my challenges. I pushed myself to create.
Maddie: My father flew up to visit me in February, and I took him to the ceramics studio, eager to show him the pieces I had made. I gave him two of my pieces to take home, but I was no longer seeking his approval or praise. I hadn’t realized, but the whole time I was in the class I wasn’t comparing my work to my peers. If I did, it was only to learn how I could improve. I became proud of my work, something I had never experienced before. Now I create and find my own pride.
Rachel: As I was led into the journey of ceramics, I found an adventure of self-validation.
September has arrived and COVID-19 still impacts our classrooms and studios, so more than ever, it feels like an appropriate time to run this braided essay. O’Connor’s hand in his students’ journey clearly lifts them to identify their personal exploration through clay. Studio Potter dedicates this story to all the teachers and students returning to the studio classroom this fall, whatever that may look like for you. If you are an educator, in any capacity, be sure to check out our Educator’s Package Membership and encourage your students to submit an article as part of your new curriculum.