In September and October I did a short pottery course at Brighton's Painting Pottery Cafe - six evenings, once a week.
Week 1: throwing
It is surprisingly hard to centre a lump of clay on a wheel. It helps to have plenty of water, to turn the wheel very fast, and to lean over the wheel. Rather than grasping the clay as if I'm trying to hold it down, I'm taught to squeeze it between the palm of one hand and the fingers of the other. But I'm also using my shoulders and weight. We work the clay up into a cone and then back down - it gets water into the clay while centring it (and, I think, "primes" my hands for the work to follow). I make some simple cups.
Week 2: throwing
[Teacher's excellent pot on the right.]
Ther turning process is a matter of your touch, speed and weight. But first of all it's very much of matter: clay's substantial thingness (perhaps in exactly the opposite sense to Heidegger's jug, whose thingess is constituted by the empty void it shapes), its heft. Turning clay demands your attention - it's quite easy to de-centre it, or to collapse it by making the walls too thin. What a change from mashing spreadsheets and reading contracts all day.
Our pots from week one are in plastic bags, as if they were evidence. Katy says that next week we will turn our pots (turn them upside down and put a base on them). Then I think the last three weeks will be something sculptural (she suggests self-portraits but I think that Ada would like to see some small animals), and then a return to the wheel.
Week 3: turning
When the clay is "leather hard" (great term), we put them back on the wheel and carve the bases. It's materially very different now - I can cut into the clay as if it were a soft wood on a lathe.
Week 4: turning and handles
The turning, like last week, went ok - it helps to have chunkier pots. Pulling handles is difficult, affixing them too.
Here we are using earthstone clay, which can be fired at lower temperatures to earthenware or higher temperatures to stoneware. Other types of clay include terracotta, porcelain and bone china. "Porcelain has a very strong memory, and when you fire it it tries to turn back into a ball."
Week 5: sculpture
Hybrid, woodland animals for Ada: rabbitcat, duckrabbit, katangaroo and rookits.
Week 6: throwing
We return to throwing clay, and try larger pots. It's much harder - I need to use much more weight to centre the clay.
Painting and glazing
In the weeks that follow, the pots are fired. Then Ada and I paint them together, and finally they're glazed. The finished pots:
The white bits are unpainted. Themes that interest me in pottery:
- simplicity, handmade-ness (Wabi-sabi, Raku)
- (vs) machinemade-ness (eg Pyrex lab equipment or Jonathan Keep's extraordinary experiments with 3D-printing clay pots)
- animal totems
- Susan Williams-Ellis's pottery for Portmeirion, of which I have inherited my mum's set of dark green Totem pattern
- Why does clay look so good when it has been extruded (eg Martin Westwood)?
- Hybrids between these themes, generally.
But more than anything, the way that clay pots are simultaneously true to all three of the clay material, the hand and the wheel. The rotational symmetry of a wheel-turned pot is the machine's mark.