#86: Wet Clay

Snowy street at night, tire tracks carved into driveway. Streetlight glare, a couple of porch lights and garbage cans.
Islandview, Detroit, MI

For years I’ve wanted to take a wheel throwing class, an idea that first occurred to me after I’d left my job in advertising in 2008 and was freelancing, and not all that unseriously considering a year or longer of sensorial study (ceramics, along with massage therapy, would’ve been in the “touch” category). Then life carried me in a new direction: I started a company, applied my spare time toward writing a novel, subsequently forgot about potter’s wheels save for the occasional sprawling conversation or park meadow daydream. Until this past Thursday I’d made only one thing out of clay and I’d made the thing in second grade and the thing was a Ninja Turtle.

If there’s a place to take a pottery class in Detroit it’s Pewabic. The ceramics studio has existed for over a hundred years, as the landmark plaque by the entrance will tell you. Pewabic tile graces many of the city’s tudor-style mansions, not to mention churches, museums, fountains, schools, other public buildings, in the rest of Michigan and the U.S.

The eight-week class meets for three hours every Thursday morning. There is a mix of skill levels – myself and two blonde-haired women from St. Clair Shores have never thrown before; a couple others are here who have a great deal more experience, who stick around after class to take advantage of Pewabic’s open studio hours. Our instructor Rick narrates as he turns a lump of clay into a tea bowl before our eyes with the ease you might expect from someone who’s been throwing for forty years; with the efficiency of someone who has worked production in the studio and had to make thirty-five of the same bowl day in and day out.

The first time I turn on my potter’s wheel there is a silvery crash. I’d placed my tools on the wheel and flipped the power switch without realizing that the pedal, used to control the speed of the wheel, was fully depressed. Rick lifts up my water bowl. “Just be glad it wasn’t this,” he laughs gently.

There is a muscle that runs from your pinky down the edge of your hand and I don’t know how to use it. I forget to keep the clay moist and my bowl-like object rips in two. I try to make a more vertical shape and end up lifting off the bat, the flat disc that slides onto pegs on the surface of the wheel. I try to coerce it into non-ugliness but the clay does what it wants, and what is wants is to be a wobbly bowl. My first two results look more or less the same and the third has a fat lip. Maybe there is an incantation that I am not saying. The fourth comes out a little better, thankfully; a lot of work was required to make it not like the first three. I have learned that it helps if the clay is, you know, perfectly centered on the wheel before you start doing stuff.

After class I go downstairs from the studio past the production furnaces, through the Pewabic shop, where perfect bowls, mugs, vases, tile from local artists on the shelves tell me, in a kind of Greek chorus: Have patience, child. It is only the first week.