I thought I was centering clay. Turns out, it was centering me.
Illustration: Kim Sielbeck
I don’t like not being good at things.
I’m OK with being OK at a lot of things—a jack of all trades, but a master of none. That doesn’t bother me so much when it’s just a hobby to pass the time because it’s the act of doing, more than the end result, that I enjoy.
Not so when it comes to pottery.
On a whim, I signed up to take a wheel-throwing class from the Hawai‘i Potters’ Guild. I always enjoyed art classes in school and have tried hand building before, but figured my parents deserved to have some functional pieces around the house instead of that weird slab of my face that I made as a kid. I thought I liked learning. I must have misremembered.
Turns out, having skills is great, but learning sucks unless you’re a natural, which I’m not—at least not at the wheel (which also applies to driving. I couldn’t get the hang of reverse parking so I didn’t get my license until I was 24).
The first two weeks of my pottery class made me miserable. I felt like I was wasting time and money because I wasn’t getting results. Heck, I couldn’t even get my clay to stick to the wheel sometimes. I’d spend hours hunched over, trying my hardest to get this stupid ball of mush into the center of the wheel and making a huge mess before it was time to clean up and go home, with nothing to show for it other than sludge-stained jeans.
One of the reasons Hawai‘i Potters’ Guild appealed to me was because, during the session, you can use the studio anytime you want, even if you only have class once a week. I thought I would go every weekend, maybe even some nights after work, cranking out pot after pot as gifts for all my friends and family. I was spending hundreds of dollars on this—unlike my other hobbies—so the pressure was on to make it worthwhile.
But it wasn’t fun. I dreaded the thought of spending my free time there, ruining more clay and making a fool of myself. I watched YouTube tutorials, read manuals and got angry at the Instagrammers who made it look easy. I’d made zero progress two weeks into my 10-week session. I needed someone to be the Patrick Swayze to my Demi Moore in Ghost. And then it hit me—I signed up for class with an instructor who could help me, if only I would ask. Duh!
So I did. For one, I was spinning my wheel the wrong way, he said. My body position was wrong. I was supposed to squeeze the clay, not pull it. And somehow, I wasn’t using enough water.
Not 5 minutes later, I managed to center my clay, which glided through my hands with ease. I formed two small pieces that night. In the next class, I finished prepping them for the kiln. That weekend, I actually went in on my own time and made a plate. For the first time in the class, I felt accomplished.
As the weeks flew by, I kept improving and making more pots. I got in the zone, focused on nothing but the spinning wheel and transforming an amorphous mass into a beautiful bowl. I learned how to glaze it. It got easier. I finally had it.
Finding my first finished piece on the shelf after it came out of the kiln was something else. A beautiful purple dish with blue tentaclelike lines dripping toward the center. It’s very me, the way nothing I find in a gift shop will ever be. I signed up for more classes.
Then, a few weeks later, I messed up a piece and had to start over. But now I know it’s OK. That’s just part of the process.