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.

SHAWN O’CONNOR , adjunct assistant professor of visual arts and associate director of galleries and museum at Sweet Briar College in Sweet Briar, Virginia, gave his students a few prompts to inform the essays they submitted. In the three submissions he presented, each student worked from the prompt, “What have I learned about myself by learning to throw on the pottery wheel?” O’Connor’s classroom philosophies came through their voices; while he laid the foundation, each author had a strong sense of their own journey. Their writings are presented below, unified as one essay portraying the student-teacher relationship. 

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. 

Maddie Schulman: My mom always told me that when she had too many thoughts in her head she would go for a long run and use it as a sort of meditation. The repetition of her feet pounding the ground would put her in a sort of trance, until she had run nearly five miles without realizing it. I hated running. It wasn’t until I was spinning clay that I found the same kind of peace of mind. 

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.

Caroline: On the first day, the professor showed us how to center the clay on the wheel and how to make a cylinder. He told us not to get frustrated, that centering would be hard. Our first assignment was due the following week. I sat down at my wheel with three balls of clay ready to be centered. I plopped the ball of clay in the center of the bat. I doused the clay in water – “Beginners usually use too much water,” my professor had said at the beginning of his demo. I realized that he was right because a huge puddle had formed as I tried to get the clay centered. By the time the clay was decently centered, half of it had been lost. I had never been so dirty or messy while making art. I had clay in my nails, on my forehead, and even in my hair. I felt like I was part of the clay itself. None of my previous work had been so involved. The professor made the demo look so easy, as if anyone could do it. I learned that first day – I was going to have to practice outside of class to get better. And so, when I wasn’t doing work for my other classes, I was in the studio working on new techniques and watching videos online. Time flew by, and as harder assignments were given, I had to learn new and difficult techniques. I fully immersed myself in ceramics. I wanted to be the best I could be. Working with clay is a challenge and you aren’t going to get better if you don’t put the time and effort into it.

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. 

Rachel: Our first project called for six cylinders, approximately seven to ten inches tall, decorated, and trimmed. I felt confident about the pieces. As the deadline closed in, I dedicated my time to decorating my pieces. I decided I wanted to try three different decorating techniques: mishima, sgraffito, and paper resist. I sat in the pottery barn for hours making every piece. Sometimes I spent one hour, other times it was three. Every time it renewed my commitment to creating clean pieces. The most time-consuming works were my most treasured objects. I carved into the mugs, tried to mimic Mexican Talavera patterns, and even pressed leaves into bowls. My first completed piece was a small, five-inch tall green cylinder, three inches wide and decorated with leaves. I was proud of it. The leaves climbing up the surface were a shade darker than the transparent green that covered the whole piece. The bottom – I trimmed into a small circular foot. I was impressed by how well it turned out, despite the height requirement. I didn’t hesitate for a second to give it to a good friend who showed interest. 

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.

Rachel: While working on our six mugs assignment, where each form had to be identical, I decided I wanted to make art that reflected my heritage. I took on the challenge of making my mugs in reference to Mexican jarras de barro, or clay jugs. Each evening, I came into the studio to work, but I felt hesitation; I couldn’t create a single mug I liked. Professor O’Connor reassured me that my pieces were great. “Okay,” I said, “I think I just needed validation from you.” But once the words came out of my mouth, I regretted it. I understood that everyone will have their own opinions, and even though the professor is the current master of ceramics, I could not work simply to please someone else with my art. As soon as that realization set in, I made mugs non-stop. Each mug had its own personality. Each mug had a different decoration that emphasized its form. Those finished mugs were satisfactory enough for me. As the second semester began, I settled into a sense of confidence and excitement. I watched many pottery videos, even a season of The Great Pottery Throwdown. I was eager to get back to throwing and making fresh forms. The second time around, we had the same projects, but now doubled. Practice. Practice. Practice. 

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.

Caroline: I’ve learned how important the viewer is. When I paint, I think of what I want and not really anyone else, but with ceramics, you have to think about the person who might be using what you make. How functional is this object you have made? When painting, I think about what interests me. When I’m finished, the work goes on the wall and I don’t really think about it again. With ceramics, though, I learned to think about others and thus acquired a new perspective on my artwork. It has changed my perspective on this form of art as well as my painting. I’ve come to realize that I should challenge myself more often and shouldn’t be afraid of making a mistake, because then I’ll know what to do the next time. Trying something new may be scary sometimes and intimidating, but it will be worth it in the end.

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.