As many of you may have noticed, I’ve had a bit of an obsession with pottery as of late. For the past three weeks, this has been exactly the case.
Last semester, during the Art History final, we obviously weren’t actually taking a final, so we convinced Houchins to let us try to use the wheel. Obviously, this didn’t go anywhere. After the AP test (for the two people that took it), we again had nothing to do in Art History. Instead of leaving the class every day, I eventually decided that I should try to get Houchins to teach me how to use the Potter’s wheel.
The first, and quite frankly, hardest, step of throwing pottery is centering the clay. This step is surprisingly hard. First, one presses the clay on the bat (the part that spins), making sure to seal the edges to the bat, which, if not properly attached and sealed, will cause the piece to fly off at the most inopportune times and force one to start over. Then, spin the wheel up to full speed, and try to push the clay center with as steady of a hand as possible.
This task sounds simple; what is to stop one from simply pushing the clay inwards until it is completely circular? The answer here is that it is extremely difficult to hold one’s hands exactly steady. When trying to push clay into center, if one’s hands aren’t completely steady the following process occurs: first, the clay will have some places where it isn’t round; the force of the wheel spinning pushes these against the hands. Then, the beginner reacts to this force, pushing back against the clay. However, as one reacts to the force of the clay, the wheel has already turned to the other side, where, as the clay is skewed towards the other side, offers even less resistance. As such, the clay is pushed even more off center.
I don’t have any pictures of this step (as it’s not very interesting), but after I managed to learn that step with some consistency, I began to learn to form basic shapes.
This is the first thing that I threw. It’s an attempt at a bowl; the sides and bottom, however, are exceedingly thick. The following day, I made the much better attempt number 2:
To form pottery on the wheel, one centers the clay and shapes it into a roughly square cylinder (height=diameter); then, one presses into the center until the desired depth is reached. Next, one inserts a finger into that hole and carefully pulls the sides out and up. This thus forms another challenge: on each of these steps, one must be careful to go slowly, or some aspect, such as the thickness or height, may be off center; these imperfections accumulate, until a piece is irredeemably off center, after which one’s only option is to throw it away and start over. These pictures document only attempts that made it off the wheel; things thrown, but immediately discarded, were not counted, and occurred with great frequency especially towards the beginning.
Here is my third attempt at making a bowl, and a successful one. I neglected to take a picture of the bowl after it was thrown, but this is a picture of it after trimming. After a cup or bowl is thrown, it is then cut off the bat, and mounted upside down on the wheel; cutting tools are then used to precisely shape the bottom to form features such as a lip, grooves, or more importantly, a perfectly centered base. As you can see, the bowl, after trimming, is mostly circular, although not without imperfections.
I believe that, at least with low fire clay, making cups is more difficult than bowls; when pulling up clay, it tends to go outwards as well, thus naturally forming a bowl. When throwing a cup; one must overcome this to keep the edges straight up. Of course, as with any complication, this introduces an additional place to mess up and get off center. The first cup I made (pictured above), was discarded during trimming because it was far too much off center.
This second cup, on the other hand, was acceptably centered, and made it to completion, complete with a handle (pictured here upside down, because the handle was not yet completely dry).
After successfully making a cup (with, as you can see, pretty thin walls), I went back to try to make a similarly circular and thin bowl.
And finally, a smaller cup:
In addition to these four, I also made a pencil cup, bowl, and another cup out of high fire clay, and finally, a teapot. In the end, I went way further than I thought I was going to, and actually want to make pottery again at some point in the future, which definitely would have been a surprise to past me from 3 weeks ago.