Back to the Bucket

February 21, 2014

When I signed up for a pottery course I thought it would be fun, but, in the back of my mind, I was also worried. What if I was completely incompetent? What if I just couldn’t handle clay? And I knew that throwing pots on a wheel can’t possibly be as easy as it looks. Well, I thought I knew that. I assumed there would be a steep learning curve at the beginning, but, in a ten week class, I figured by the third week I’d be like Demi Moore in “Ghost”, only not married to Patrick Swayze, and with less plastic surgery. What I didn’t count on is just how steep the learning curve is, and what I really didn’t count on was that I’d be like a character from another film, one I’ve seriously underestimated in its influence on my life. I’ve mentioned “Bucket of Blood”, the horror film my parents went to see back when they were dating, before. It’s the tragic story of Walter Paisley, a busboy who wants to be an artist, and who, lacking any talent or, more importantly, patience, starts murdering people and encasing their bodies in clay.

The instructor had walked me through throwing a small pot on the wheel in a previous class, and it turned out pretty well, so I felt confident enough I thought I could fly solo. I took some clay and after about three thousand tries managed to get it centered on the wheel, which is important, and, which I’ve been told, is the hardest part of using a potter’s wheel. It’s not easy—try throwing a lump of clay as hard as you can onto a wheel and getting it in the exact center—but I don’t know who got the idea that it’s the hardest part. As the wheel started turning and I applied my hands to the clay it sort of kind of started to look a little bit like what I wanted. Gradually it build up, and I accelerated the wheel a little, shaping it more, raising the walls, trying to judge the depth of the base to prevent it from becoming too thin. Then, just as it would start to come into the shape I wanted, the whole thing would fall apart. I went through this six times, and by the end I was ready to throw the whole thing across the room. The only thing that prevented me from doing this is the fear I’d hit one of my classmates and possibly kill them, and even if I weren’t in a room full of witnesses encasing someone’s body in clay and selling it as art just isn’t my thing. Hey, I’m neurotic, not crazy. The instructor sat down and explained some of the mistakes I was making, but also told me it had taken her about seven years to master the potter’s wheel. That was seven years of working at it every day. I have to admit I heard what she was saying but it wasn’t until I was on my way home that I really took it in. I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes. On the way home I realized I’d been having a Walter Paisley moment. What truly makes Walter’s story tragic is he looks up to other artists, but doesn’t see the effort. Early on in the film he thinks he can sit down with a lump of clay he’s just bought and, without any kind of training, with only a few seconds of kneading and muttering, he can make something beautiful. And it’s an easy illusion to fall into. When we look at a finished piece of pottery it’s hard to see the years of patient practice and training that went into it. This is a lesson I should have learned, and probably did learn, sometime before puberty, but it’s an easy lesson to forget, and I’m grateful to Walter for serving as a reminder of what happens when you lose your cool with clay and accidentally kill someone.

And I’m glad the instructor was patient and generous and talked me down. Even though I’ll never master pottery, even though I may never even be good enough to throw a simple bowl without a lot of help, I’m going to keep at it. There’s something deeply satisfying about making something with my hands, and if I get really brave at some point I might try making an ashtray with my feet. The real downside of something like pottery isn’t the time and patience and training that goes into becoming better. The real downside is that it’s one of those hobbies that requires a lot of space and material and equipment. Back in the early 20th century when artists flocked to Paris and lived together in collectives a poet friend of Picasso’s made fun of painters. Painters, he said, needed paint, canvas, brushes, studios, and all sorts of other crap, while he could compose a poem in his head just walking in the rain. It’s a fair point. I’m not knocking poetry, because I’ve dabbled in that too, but it is a lot easier, not to mention cheaper, to practice at becoming a poet than it is a painter, or a potter, especially now that there are so many office supply stores around. But my instructor also said she spent seven years working at becoming a better potter because she really wanted it. Time and money were just a couple of the obstacles she had to overcome, and art is, at least in part, about overcoming obstacles. So maybe I’ll get better, or maybe I won’t, but I won’t let that keep me from trying. Maybe some plastic surgery would help.

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