Remember back around New year’s, when everybody was making their resolutions and vows to do more of this and less of that – well, I did myself a slimilar list of such things and among them was the wish to “make things out of clay”. What I had in mind was of course working on the potter’s wheel and after watching a number of Simon Leach videos on Youtube (him being one of the famous Leach family of potters and a great source of inspiration) I was singularly of the “how hard could it be” opinion.
I can’t say what drew me to it in the first place, perhaps it was the simplicity behind making such unique and beautiful pieces out of what is basically lumps of mud. Looking at master potters shaping those lumps into actual, useful items that look good at the same time is a humbling experience, they really do make it look easy. It might also have been the prospect of selling my wares at lively markets, meeting and bartering with people over prices like they used to do in the olden days.
Also the work process is quite different from your usual office workday. I currently work a couple of days a week at a bank, in a basement office where the daily routine is the same as it has been since the advent of computers. People there throw their lives away typing the same numbers into the same screens until it’s time to see the light of day for the first time at 3 pm. Then go home, watch TV, go to sleep, go wo tork again. I won’t say it’s a bad job, but consider doing that for 20 of 30 years – the comfortable mindlessness will suck you in and after all that time you’ll suddenly realize you’re old and aching, and you haven’t lived a day in your life – at least not really. It seems to me that especially the western world has gone crazy in the pursuit of financial and material wealth, sending us all into an unhappy downward spiral of working to live and living to work. So if I could somehow escape that modern-world slave-of-the-system trap and throw some nice looking beer mugs as well, that would be just fine.
So after looking at all those Youtube videos I decided to look for someone who knows how these things are done. There’s not a lot of them left here in Slovenia, though pottery was a commom trade especially in Prekmurje (if you consult the map, that’s the eastern part of the country or “the head of the chicken”). Otherwise it has mostly become a hobby for the odd enthusiast and as far as I know, not many people actually make a living out of it.
Imagine my surprise and delight when I found that there is in fact a community art center 5 minutes drive from where I live that tries to spark interest in such traditions by offering a meeting place with equipment, guidance and learning courses in pottery and many other local crafts. It’s located in the town castle in Slovenska Bistrica, with direct access to the castle’s inner courtyard where a market is held every saturday for just these kinds of things. I’ve walked through the courtyard numerous times and never noticed it, so discovering the center in that way made me feel quite delighted indeed.
After sending them an e-mail and waiting for some time for the reply I eventually found out they were planning a starting course in throwing and applied on the spot. Some more waiting and anxiety later, the day had finally come for the course to start – even though, as it turned out, I could have gone there any other day as well.
Given the general attitude towards pottery nowadays, it was interesting to see the reaction people gave me when I told them I was going to take such a course. It seems like nobody even thinks about pottery any more, so mostly what I got was doubtful looks and laughs of incredulity. “Interesting” was probably the most positive word, but not much interest was shown beyond that.
Still, the day came ’round and after all that waiting and video watching, it was time to try it out for real. There were 5 of us plus our mentor, a big, burly guy with black wiry hair. If you saw him on the street you could easily mistake him for a butcher, or a builder perhaps. As expected he was from Prekmurje, the region fabled for it’s pottery and himself a third generation potter with 30 years of work behind him. He also brought an old kick wheel with him, an old, crude thing made out of cracked wood and square steel tubing. You could even see the outline left by decades of kicking on the drive wheel – a bit like erosion, I thought.
To see him work, he made it look like a piece of cake. Take a lump of clay, plop it on the wheel, center it, make a hole in the middle, raise up the walls, give it a bit of shape, smooth off the edges with a piece of leather. Touch it up with a subtle decoration, give it some glaze and you have yourself a rather nice looking vase. But then it was my turn.
Each of us had an electric wheel and a set of tools ready. We kneaded our lumps of clay and went to work. About 5 seconds into it my proud confidence flew out the window and shortly after that I had no idea what I was doing any more. As I wrestled with the muddy earthen pile, much of the muck ended up on my shirt, my trousers and my phone, which decided right then and there to start ringing endlessly. I felt sorry for my apron and the scary-looking mentor who tried desperately to give me tips on how to place my hands and push the clay into some sort of shape. Though he made it look easy, it was all but that. Just keeping the clay centered provided a major challenge, and that’s just the start of it. It felt like it had a mind of it’s own, going up when I wanted it to go down and collapsing sadly when I least expected it. I was nowhere near that beer mug that Simon Leach throws so skillfuly.
After a while things started improving and I got a general idea of what I was doing. After much effort I managed to throw a flat bottom with some sort of an edge, smoothed it out a bit and ended up quite pleased and very dirty. Though the flat base wasn’t much, it gave me some realistic insight into the world of pottery and the skill needed to produce something that looks so simple and common. Nowadays we take so many of the things around us for granted, never knowing the energy and effort it took to get them to your local grocery store for a measly price.
Practice makes perfect, they say. The three hours I spent there went by like a breeze and all that muddy clay made me feel like a kid again. I made arrangements to come back and practice some more at the end of the week and try to improve my centering and flat bases – there sure is a lot of room for that. Rome wasn’t built in a day, they also say and I guess none of those pots were either. One thing’s for sure though – I’ll look at those Youtube videos a lot differently from now on. 🙂