The Teachers of JB 11

A talented BFA Ceramics teacher, throwing mugs in the sunshine.

It’s a hot day, a last sort of school day. Really, it’s the second-to-last day we’re working with wet clay in Ceramics 3, where I’ve been filling in for a colleague on maternity leave for the last month or so.

The seven students, mostly seniors, are buzzing about, putting finishing touches on their pieces. They dip them in buckets and bring them out dripping with yogurt-thick glaze. They hunch over teacups with sharp pin tools, scratching away dark engobe to reveal the white clay underneath. They trim their bowls, sending whirling ribbons of red clay to all corners of the room. We are busy.

Studio Assistant is recycling clay, pulling lumpy grey piles from buckets on the floor and feeding them through the pug mill, from whence the clay emerges in cold, sticky cylinders, to be placed on the table and then kneaded–or wedged–back to perfection, ready to be reused by next years’ ceramics students.

“You know,” I comment. “I took Ceramics 1 years ago, with Miss B, and we pretty much only used recycled clay. And we didn’t even have the machine! We were just wedging all the time.”

The students gasp, half-mocking, and I realize I sound old. They start telling stories they’ve heard from older siblings.

“I heard they didn’t used to do wheel-throwing, because they didn’t have wheels,” someone ventures.

“And that the room was so small,” adds a classmate.

“It was pretty small,” I shrug. “But they totally had wheels. Like, two. Or one, and a kick-wheel, that you did with your foot. And they did really well with that one wheel.”

The students shrug, going back to their mighty circle of five working pottery wheels, incredible richness by seven-years-ago’s standards.

As they work I try to plan for the immediate future, making imperfect calculations about kiln firings and how much time students “really need” to glaze their pieces and wrap up the year (as opposed to the three extra weeks of all ceramics, all day, that they’d probably love). And yet, no matter how seriously I try to focus on the tasks at hand, this room draws me irrevocably to the past.

I remember the first ceramics teacher I met here. Warm and spontaneous, a lover of picnics and travel and teacups without handles. Genially adventurous and fluent in German, she introduced me, in many ways, to this place that I love. Two of her cups still sit in my cabinet, neatly stacked, favorite vessels of red wine and pomegranate seeds.

I took my first ceramics class from her, a fun and invigorating semester that taught me most of what I know about art terms like contrast, balance, hue and shape. The classes were smaller then and, as I shared with these students today, more manual. Students worked hard for their creations, wedging mountains of clay, and were patient with one another, sharing the 1.5 pottery wheels.

First Ceramics Teacher left after my second year at BFA. I went to her wedding that summer, and came back to Germany to find a new teacher in my second-favorite classroom. It took another year–a busy year of teaching, Department Heading and getting engaged–before, one day, she offered me an open spot in her Ceramics 2 class. This second teacher I got to know first in the classroom, where she taught me to throw cylinders out of wiggly wet clay, where I made impractical sculptures and glazed them colors that inevitably disappointed me. I was then newly married, and she was my one of first also-married friends. We bonded over Pacific Northwest origins, a love of the outdoors, and of course the antics of my classmates in Ceramics 2 and then 3.

I remember throwing pottery together during summer and spring breaks, sometimes outside and once when my mom came to visit. Sometimes talking, sometimes working, enjoying the focused silence of friends creating together.

I once went with Second Ceramics Teacher and her class of AP Art students to a farm in the mountains, where an earthy German potter fed us Japanese food and showed us how to make square trays and wheel-thrown teapots. My square plate holds a sunflower in the windowsill, and my best bowl from that weekend, now salt-fired to rose gold, holds only the best apple slices. Meanwhile, Second Ceramics Teacher’s work is everywhere: in my house, on my desk at school, in the cupboards and on the counters of most people here. “Is that Jen’s?” people in the know will ask. And we just nod.

We got pregnant around the same time, Second Ceramics Teacher and I, and went back to the Pacific Northwest, where our newborns could be close to their grandparents. We visited each other that year, playing with clay in my parents’ freezing garage and introducing our babies. But I came back, eventually, and she teaches art in Oregon. I returned to a third teacher in this familiar room, who, at the end of the summer, casually mentioned that “I heard you used to come here and throw sometimes, and it would definitely be OK if you’d still want to do that now.”

I don’t know her as well, this Third Ceramics Teacher, though I’m starting to, in her currently Harry Potter-decorated classroom. She likes drawing on her pieces, little pictures that look like tattoos, delicate and whimsical. Up in my cabinet are four dessert plates that look like cabbage leaves, so that I can feel healthier about the chocolate cake the plates contain. I’ll be excited when she’s back, excited to share stories about these last weeks and hear about this chapter of her life, swapping mom stories as well as classroom ones.

As seniors get ready to graduate and scatter, as they always do, it’s tempting to complain that too much leaving goes on in this place. It’s true, I realize, looking around this classroom, not mine, where I’ve spent a good amount of time with three teachers in the last seven years. I guess the goodbyes are painful, yes, and there is always that feeling that my heart is stretched across oceans and continents. And yet…

Now I know three incredible women.

Don’t get me wrong; there are real losses to working in such a transient environment. None of these teachers, these friends, replaces the others. But they’re different, each unique and wonderful in their own ways, and I’ve gotten to know them all. As we reach the end of the year, when melancholy is tempting and goodbyes are looming, I’m going to choose to appreciate that as a gift. Three teachers. Three women. Three wives and mothers. Three friends.


A Million Right Turns

Making a butter dish! Photo: Donna Dahlstrom

Making a butter dish!
Photo: Donna Dahlstrom

“I don’t get attached until after it’s trimmed,” my classmate tells me, looking up with apprehension from the pottery wheel across from me, where she’s just finished shaping a tiny cup.

It’s seventh period in the ceramics room, where I spend the ends of most days taking Ceramics 3 as a student. Though I’ve taken the classes slowly–three in the last four years–I’ve come to love these sweet hours in the clay studio, times full of creativity and casual, pleasant conversation with students I love. This semester has seen us beginning to make–or throw, in ceramic terms–ever more complicated forms on the pottery wheel.

Mom with her finished pot.

Mom with her finished pot.

The language of pottery is familiar to me. I grew up listening to my mother tell stories about her own ceramics classes in high school and college, and saw their artifacts all over the house. In our retreat-center days, I remember watching-dozens of times–an anonymous potter’s hands on an evangelical video that drew heavily on the metaphor of Potter & Clay. Towards the end of my own college career, Mom went back to take more ceramics classes at Seattle Pacific University, filling our cupboards with earthy bowls in blue, green and grey. When the opportunity came for me to “audit” the classes at Black Forest Academy, taught by two dear friends, I jumped at the chance.

Still, I know what she means, my classmate leaning over her just-finished cup. My own work today has been uneven. One cup with an uneven rim slumped over before I could even get it off the wheel, and now I hold my breath as I slice this one–still imperfect–off the slowly rotating surface. It will have to dry, first right-side up and then upside-down, before I can even approach my classmate’s least favorite step, trimming the bottom into a smooth, grooved foot.

Jennifer throws in her studio.

Jennifer throws in her studio.

I recall a conversation I had with my mother in September, when she came to visit and spend the day with Jen and me in the studio. “There’s just so many points it could go wrong,” she said then. “From when you’re throwing it at first, to moving it, to drying, to trimming.”

“And you still have to glaze it,” I had sighed, citing my least favorite part. “You could want it to look one way, and then it could–well, look like anything else.”

Mom laughed. “Now you understand!”

I did then, and the thought has lingered ever since. Here’s something that we do–for fun–at which we can be thwarted half a dozen different ways before the end. There’s so much that can go wrong.

I’m drawn to metaphor–perhaps more than is good for me or anyone–and tempted to think beyond pots. How much of life consists of such endeavors, projects threatened by disasters, seen or unseen. What if? But that could… How will I know if…? If I’m looking hard enough, trouble is lurking everywhere, enough to make it feel like a miracle that anything works out, ever.

1185700_10205290413484064_565090307768442962_nMy own cup comes off of the wheel in reasonably good shape, and I set it in the cupboard to dry, turning my attention to the finished pieces that line the shelves around the room.  I have things to glaze, but I don’t like glazing, so I stare at the glazing done by others. Even some of my own work catches my eye.

I remember what I thought each piece would look like, almost never the abstractly-colored pieces that ended up warm in my hands. Sometimes my vision of perfection was met, but seldom. Occasionally this ended in disappointment, just another wrong turn, but more often something unexpectedly beautiful emerged from the flames. More interesting and complex than I could have planned for, glaze works mysterious magic without the help my imagination.

Practice and plan though we might, we can’t always avoid the ways things go wrong. This has never seemed more true than this last week in Germany, as every day brought a horrible new revelation of a plane that crashed for a reason no one ever worried about. It’s as if one of our whirling hunks of clay flew off and caught fire spontaneously. We hadn’t even thought of that.

The glaze, though, is the rest of the metaphor. There are many ways that everything can go wrong, but just as many unforeseen ways for it to go right. I can’t avoid every wrong turn by worrying, but I’ll miss many of the right ones if I’m not paying attention. A million serendipitous turns have taken my breath away with their unforeseen joy, a rightness infinitely better than the right I’d been planning. And though I’m still not wild about glazing, that imprecise variable, it’s brought more beauty than heartbreak when I’m willing to step back and see it.

Of Hands and Wheels

Mugs“Um, I’m not good at this.”

She’s hunched over a pottery wheel, the “gumdrop” of grainy clay whirling beneath her beginner’s fingers. This is her third day throwing on the wheel, and it’s not going the way she expected. I know how she feels; it’s only my second day.

Knit into the busyness of these fall days–a thread running between planning lessons, Rome trip, wedding and future–is fourth period Ceramics 2. I took the entry-level course a few years ago, back when it was taught by one of my close friends. This year, at the encouragement of the new teacher, I’m back.

The other students in the class–proper high school students who earn grades and take tests–found it amusing but charming that I was there.

“It’s like, you’re a teacher. But also you’re learning!

This revelation of my capacity to learn out of the way, I enjoyed the time in the studio with these nine girls, hearing about their busy lives and sharing about mine. For a few days I comfortably planned out a slab lantern, a feat of engineering but also of the familiar processes of slab-making, cutting, slipping and scoring pieces of just-damp clay together. I was rusty, but it didn’t take all that long for me to remember those earlier classes.

This wheel madness is another story entirely.

I grew up hearing about pottery from my mom. She’d taken classes in high school and college, and later continued her ceramic education by taking classes at SPU for the last few years they had a studio. We even have a wheel in the basement of our house, but I only saw her throw once, a Sunday that she created pottery as a living sermon illustration of the Potter and the clay. It was beautiful, mesmerizing and looked so easy.

I look across my own wheel at my classmate, who’s also one of my seventh-period Honors American Literature students.

“We’re just new at it,” I shrug, trying to brush a stray hair out of my face with my shoulder, the only part of my arm that is still clay-free.

feel new at this. The clay under my fingers is wobbly and unruly, feeling more like a squirmy wet puppy than a docile substance for my confident fingers to shape. I remember what my friend, Ceramics Teacher, told us about posture, and brace my forearms against my knee and the wheel, leaning even further toward the whirling mass.

Last week, in the wheel throwing demonstration, she reminded us again and again that centering the clay on the wheel was more a matter of firmness and balance than wrenching it in place with sheer strength or will power. “If you are stable,” she demonstrated, holding her hand firmly against the side of the clay, “it will center. It just will. You can’t make it happen. You just have to be firm and calm.”

I think about all of those analogies of the Potter and His clay, and how often I must feel as out of control as this lopsided clay. I’m thankful that my Potter has a firmer hand, bringing me back, again and again, with gentle stability as He shapes me into what He has in mind.

I’m just a novice potter, learning to be still, to feel, to realize that patience is as important as strength. Yes, it’s another hour of the day, but always one from which I leave having learned about more than clay, having grown more than in my skills with the intimidating wheel.