“Nobody throws up the same way.” With this kind of humor from our instructors offered early on, I knew I was going to enjoy this week-long class for beginning potters taught by Ken and Melody Shipley.
As I’ve done for over a decade, I made my way in late June to Brasstown, North Carolina, in the far western reaches of the state and the home of the John C. Campbell Folk School. You can Google FolkSchool.org and read all about the school and the fine wonderment of choices in classes that are offered. They range from beginner to advanced student in the arts and crafts and blacksmithing, woodworking, pottery, quilting, chair caning, photography, basketry, book arts, calligraphy, cooking and baking, dance, drawing and painting, glass, jewelry, knitting, carving, metal work, music, nature studies, spinning, weaving, story telling and everything in between. The school was founded in 1925 as a result of the work of Olive Dame Campbell, Marguerite Butler and the people of Brasstown, who created a unique institution that seeks to bring out the best in people.
The school is a mecca to reground yourself, a place where Director Jan Davidson says has worked “to bring people toward two kinds of development: inner growth as creative, thoughtful individuals, and social development as tolerant, caring members of a community.” The individual expression and social interaction that are encouraged through music, crafts, nature studies, gardening, cooking, and dance mark the Campbell experience. As Davis concludes, “Materials, tools and motivation for these traditional arts have changed, but the satisfaction of developing skills in a non-competitive, supportive environment are useful correctives to the hard-driven, often dehumanizing, regimentation of much of today’s world.” Best of all is the window one can find into the lives of others as we all join together for a week of learning rooted in the traditions of Southern Appalachian culture.
So arrive I did on a recent Sunday afternoon after a delightful weekend with friends in Asheville, my home away from home. After check-in and finding where I would be staying, it was time for orientation followed by the first of many delicious meals. That evening we rendezvoused with our instructors and marched away toward the studio which would become our workshop for the week. Ken and Melody both teach at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tennessee, and have many years under their belts conducting classes in pottery. My fellow students ranged in gender, age, and geography. One thing in common was that they were all good folk. That evening we introduced ourselves and told why we were there and what we wanted to get out of the class.
Ken started the evening by defining clay as an earthy material that is plastic when moist but hard when fired and is composed mainly of fine particles of silicates and other minerals. When dry, clay becomes firm but when fired in a kiln, permanent physical and chemical changes occur. These reactions, among other things, cause the clay to be converted into a ceramic material. Different types of clay, when used with different minerals and firing conditions, are used to produce earthenware, stoneware, and porcelain.
With that little bit of background, we were taught that learning to “throw” a piece of clay into a recognizable shape can be done in a number of ways but is more than just slinging some mud into a shape that will eventually hold flowers or candy. Ken and Melody wanted us to think of clay in its historical setting and how it has been worked into both utilitarian as well as artistic shapes and forms. Pottery has spanned time and cultures and has thus served as part of the continuing chain of civilization that is linked by man’s ingenuity and creativity. As we learned, some of the earliest pottery has been carbon dated back to the Jomon period in prehistoric Japan from about 14,000BCE to 300BCE, when Japan was inhabited by a hunter-gatherer culture that reached a considerable degree of cultural complexity. From ancient Greece, we have vases of proportions that are still standards in artistic creations. And of course, clay tablets were used as the first known writing medium, inscribed with script through the use of a blunt reed called a stylus.
In gaining a new respect for the long and venerable art of making pottery, we were constantly reminded how our knowledge today has been built on the shoulders of all those who came before us. We wouldn’t be where we are without gleaning from what our many forebears had learned and passed on. As Einstein said when asked for the definition of genius: “How well I hide my sources.”
For his part, Ken especially disdained the title of “master.” To him, the process is one of constant motion in learning, just getting to another level in an endless staircase. In his humorous way to avoid getting too cerebral over the process, he finally admitted to knowing the definition of a “master”–someone who knows how to fix a screw-up. We gave him plenty of opportunities to shine during the week.
In addition to being great potters, Ken and Melody are committed to giving back to their communities as well as contributing to overseas endeavors to promote education and to help in social causes. Their upcoming venture is to make 5,000 bowls to give to non-profit organizations in the hope of raising money to help alleviate hunger and homelessness.
As we listened to Ken and Melody talk, we had before us our individual 25-lb bricks of “B-mix” clay which is a blend of porcelain and stoneware raw material which can be fired up to 2,350° F or Cone 10, a measure when a small piece of clay in the form of a cone melts in the kiln. Since forming clay is an intensely physical activity, we were seated on stools with adjustable legs that could tilt you into your wheel and thus reduce back strain. We were also constantly reminded to get up and stretch as often as we liked to keep the cramps at bay. Ken also showed us his movement style using his full body when preparing the clay. It was somewhat like watching Roger Clemens throw with his whole body rather than just his arm.
With some theory behind us, we proceeded up to the tables to cut off some chunks of clay (passing it through a taut wire the way one might cut soft cheese) and then try to imitate the method Ken and Melody had shown us on how to prepare or “wedge” (a kneading motion) the material so that it is of even consistency and has the air bubbles forced out of it. This “simple” little chore was a motion that was anything but simple. So slam bam, thank you clay, we hammered three or four pieces together and then started “wedging” under the careful eye of our instructors. I’ll hear Melody’s melodious voice in my ear forever, guiding me: “Too much pressure. Just relax and use the palms of your hands to push and pull the clay.”
After the clay was sufficiently prepared, or so we thought, it was over to our individual wheels where we took our clay which had been formed into spheres a bit larger than baseballs but smaller than softballs–a little over a pound–and slapped them down as close to the center of the wheel as we could manage. On went the variable speed wheels–again, Melody echoing the words of Goldilocks as she reminded me, “Not too fast, not too slow, just right.”–as we held the clay with one hand pushing down to prevent it from flying off while the other hand pushed into the clay horizontally to force it to “find center.” If your piece of clay wobbles on the wheel, then you’ll have problems later when you throw or pull the clay up into its cylindrical shape. Again, easier said than done. Later in the week, Ken joked that finding center is easy. According to his comic side, the center is already there. All you have to do is pile the clay up around it.
Our check list reminded us to keep our hands resting on something solid, to keep a finger from one hand in touch with the other hand, and to press our elbows in toward our bodies to keep control. The key to success comes through a fluid motion that is slowly developed after years of practice.
Next step was to to “open” or make a void in the the clay that was now centered by sticking our middle and index fingers into the the spinning form and then pulling them toward us. Ken told us we were now in the initial stages of making an object and should have an idea in mind about how it will eventually look. He continued to say that he was mostly interested in the idea of “form follows function.” Assuming that once we learned the basics of how the clay responds to our tactile touch, we’ll want to know up front what shape we want the final product to take to suit its function. Melody also has a fine touch for shape but takes a slightly different approach to her art and has developed a variety of techniques to embellish the surfaces of whatever she is making.
So with the clay centered and with an opening in it, we next try to pull or “throw” the clay up. It’s almost magical to watch as we use fingers from both hands working inside and outside the squat clump to lift the clay up to a higher form. The procedure is usually repeated three times to get to the correct height you want. Sounds easy, right? Not so. What is easy is to push too hard from either the inside or outside and weaken the wall so that it collapses. Another problem is just skimming the outside rather than lifting the clay. End result is a donut that peels up to the the top of your clay form and lifts off. Some people learned the technique faster than others. I ended up with a lot of short vessels and some misbegotten pouring cups.
By the end of the day, we were all about pooped, with stiff shoulders and sore muscles in our chests and triceps which we hadn’t used for a while. Ken and Melody discouraged us from returning to the studio in the evenings, since the work was so intense. We needed to step back and get away for a while.
When Tuesday morning rolled around, we were learning the techniques used to form bowls rather than cylinders. Again, Mr Right Hand and Mr Left Hand had to work in tandem as we tried to follow the demonstration techniques and pull the sides out while compressing the bottom. As you can imagine, there were a few jokes along the lines “Does this clay make my bottom look big?” Lots of compressing the edges and re-centering after each effort. At this stage, you don’t want to push or pull too hard and ruin your piece. “Tragedy” at this stage is defined as watching your clay suddenly go “wobbly” on you.
Now that we had a small cache of shapes drying in a specially heated convection type of closet, we could start thinking of our first firing. After trimming and sanding the dried items, they went into the kiln where they baked a good 14 hours or so at about 1825º F. When they came out, they had metamorphosed into the “bisque” phase, the stage of pottery after the initial firing where the pieces are pink to white, will not melt back into clay, and are porous so that they can absorb glaze.
The next day we were introduced to the world of glazing which adds color and design to the surface of clay vessels. The complexities of the chemistry came quickly into play as we learned a bit about how the process nears its climax. We had plenty of choices of glazes that Ken and Melody mixed up. After some instruction on how to immerse the vessels in the buckets of glaze, we proceeded to color our work in ways that final results were impossible to predict. It was a time of heightened anticipation marked with serious uncertainty.
Best of all, we would have a chance to fire some of the glazed pieces outside in the Raku kilns. The word means “enjoyment” in Japanese and certainly lived up to its billing. We had had a roller coaster of weather throughout the day with a series of rain bands coming through followed by flashes of sunshine. As the day grew on, the mood turned to keen excitement. Pottery was going to be more than just chemistry, tactile manipulation, and form. It was about to become ritual, a primeval celebration of the classic elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Wood and Metal. In ancient China, these elements were understood to be the prime energetic building blocks of which all material substance in the world is composed. Overall, the teaching was intended to help us learn to live a life in harmony and balance, or as the Taoist scholars called it, a “life in the flow.” How fitting in the Campbell setting.
So as night slowly fell on us, Ken stacked our vessels in the Raku kilns, lowered the hoods, and ignited the gas. Some ninety minutes or so later, we all gathered around–one student suggested we don war paint and strip down to loin cloths, a good idea but one we didn’t act on–as one person pulled the heavy counter weight pulley to lift the hood releasing the heat and exposing the glowing pieces. Ken, wearing heavy gloves, then reached in with tongs to nab a piece as Melody opened the lid of a garbage can cushioned with saw dust and wood shavings. When Ken placed the item inside, another one of us tossed more shavings on the sizzling hot pottery as Melody slammed the lid back on. We repeated the process until we had four cans filled with our efforts. Lots going on in those cans as the objects oxidized and gathered carbon deposits on their surfaces. They were to remain in the cans for about thirty minutes before we came out again to fetch the products out of the cans and into cold water. Then to the sinks with a scrubbie to remove the ash and see what our patterns and colors had developed.
Needless to say, the exercise couldn’t have gone better. Fantastic colors, some unexpected, along with patterns that boggled the mind. We were all hyped by the excitement and enthusiasm over how events had played out.
At show and tell the next day where students from all the classes displayed their wares, the fruits of the potters’ wheels got more than their share of admiration. We had come a long way from a chunk of moist grey clay to some beautifully colored and graceful vases and bowls.
When Ken had quipped earlier in the week that potters and pigs were two of the few animals that could always finds ways of having fun in the mud, we all laughed. But now that we had actually formed our vessels, dipped them into the glaze, and hooted and hollered when they came out of the fire, we knew that the man or woman who is willing to invest the time and work required to become a potter has made a noble choice.
If the lyrics of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s old song “Sixteen Tons” are even remotely correct that we poor mortals are simply made “outta mud and muscle and blood” and come from little more than a clump of clay and some water fired by life and glazed by experience, then as potters our passage on this Earth will be well founded and transformed into beauty and elegant form.