Years ago, I was a potter’s apprentice. I had recently graduated from college with a degree in comparative religion, and was also an aspiring poet. Learning to center clay on the potter’s wheel held a near-mystical significance for me. I felt the implicit metaphor in the power of craft. To have the clay become animated in my hands, that we shape and are shaped, added to the spiritual dimension as well. Before I could make any shapes, though, the clay had to be in the center—like a hub on a larger wheel—so that the pots could rise evenly as the wheel turned.
Then, as now, the world felt out of balance. “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold . . .” William Butler Yeats wrote in “The Second Coming” about an earlier era, but when I read that poem in college for the first time, it was speaking directly to me in my time, as all the best poems do. I wanted the center to hold. My center, the world’s center. And this was a world that I wanted to be physically and figuratively in touch with—to get a hold of things.
I didn’t come from a family where working with materials was a regular part of daily activities. If something broke, you didn’t repair it, you called someone to fix it. You didn’t look under the hood and try to figure it out. As a result, I didn’t have a sense of the life of materials—how clay responds to touch, to water.
Centering was a challenge, what with my spiritual burden and my lack of confidence in my hands, and I spent many hours at the potter’s wheel trying to get it right. Remembering to breathe while you’re working helps. Over time I began to envision my hands as my teacher’s hands—and developed a feel for pushing the clay down and across the wheel head so that it could find the center. Or perhaps the center found me. The first time when my hands rested on centered clay felt like a miracle. It was a moment of transformation, like balancing on the bike when the training wheels come off, and you’re embarking on a journey in another world.
After I learned to center, I practiced the other skills of opening the clay with my fingers and pulling up the walls of the pot. I could feel the emptiness inside the vessels as the walls thinned. The wet pots sat on a ware board after a morning’s work. They looked like something that had just been born.
The dominant aesthetic of that time was an almost machined look—as if the potter’s wheel was a lathe. I appreciated the precision, but I was looking for something else. It was after I’d been working in clay for a year that someone showed me how to make a form by pinching. Using my hands only, my thumb on the inside and my fingers on the outside, I turned and pinched, the symmetry coming from my other hand rotating the clay. It was balanced, but the lip was slightly uneven, the body pushed out in one place more than another. It looked more vulnerable than the pots that I’d made on the wheel. I could hold this simple vessel in both hands, an extension of how we can form our own hands into a cup to gather water. A metaphor for what sustains us.
I began making the bases of these small pots more rounded, so that they lifted off the surface of a table. This aesthetic gesture meant that the cup would wobble a bit, always suggesting the possibility of tipping over, a reminder that our balance can be precarious and that vulnerability is our constant companion.
Image at top: Stuart Kestenbaum, pinch pots 3.5 in. tall, left: soda-fired stoneware, right: oxidation fired stoneware.