Get Your Hands Dirty

Get Your Hands Dirty

Christina Erives working pottery

There’s nothing like the feel of clay, says Christina Erives, “from its first touch all the way to seeing it being unloaded out of a kiln – as solid and as permanent as stone.”

David Cuatlacuatl

There are periods in life when you feel stuck and out of sorts – and then, amazingly, something shifts. Whether you resolve a health problem or make a new friend or have a breakthrough of another sort, you suddenly find a new groove. I’m attributing my own recent renewal to a pottery class I started taking in September. Somehow, now that I’m spending three hours every Saturday throwing pots, I feel more balanced, energized, and optimistic.

Like a lot of people these days, I live a good chunk of my life virtually. By “virtually,” I mean online, of course. But think about that phrase: “Living virtually” suggests a simulated life, a hedged life, a life that falls short of complete. And I could argue that, when I’m chatting with friends on social media or looking at Instagram pictures of nature rather than at nature itself, I’m not really living as fully as I can. I’m distracted, I’m dwelling in my head.

But hand me two pounds of B-Mix clay and ask me to make a cylinder with 5-inch stick-straight sides, and suddenly my body is on alert and my mind is focused. I’m awake, I’m alive.

Glenn Adamson, in his powerful new book Fewer, Better Things, eloquently describes the consequences of a society, en masse, sleepwalking on the internet, living virtually. He’s worried about kids who swipe at print magazine covers expecting to move to a new picture, kids who surf the web with ease but can’t throw a ball or thread a needle. He’s worried about the unprecedented decline we’re seeing in material skills among people of all ages.

Getting your hands on any material – wood, paper, yarn, bread dough – organizes your attention and builds physical skills; it moves you from the virtual world to what’s now winkingly called the “meat world.” And working with clay is perhaps a particularly material challenge. For a good part of the creative process, your hands are directly on the clay; there are no mediating tools. If I’m going to center that mound to make a cylinder, it’s up to me and my hands, braced against my hip bones, abdominals engaged. It’s a corporeal act that takes muscle and knowhow and perseverance. There’s no way to fudge it in Photoshop. And when I leave class, it’s clear I’ve had a real-life, flesh-and-blood encounter; there’s clay in my hair and under my nails, and my shoes are a mess.

As we put together this issue, I pondered clay’s profoundly visceral, earthy, and essentially human qualities. People have been making clay pots for millennia. Like many ceramists, Jami Porter Lara forages her own material near her New Mexico home. Anita Fields says working with clay reminds her of “making mud pies under the hot Oklahoma sun”. Courtney M. Leonard works in many materials but says “clay grounds me.” There’s nothing virtual about it.

My own ceramic training is a slow, sometimes frustrating process; one false move and my cylinder’s a shambles. I don’t get those rapid-fire serotonin hits that I get from scrolling Twitter. But I get a deeper sort of satisfaction. I’m making tangible progress, which makes me long for my next adventure at the wheel.