Weighty Matters

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When to Muscle, When to Finesse

on September 27, 2014

Earlier today I did something that I’ve been interested in trying for years.  A friend and I took a pottery class.  Even before Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze made it look sexy as all get out in Ghost, I’ve wanted to experience sitting down at a pottery wheel and attempting to work with clay.  I don’t know why since my elemental truth is that I have zilch artistic ability for anything other than writing and needlework.  However, want I did and since the last couple of years have been about me trying and doing things I’ve always wanted to, I finally did it.

We had a great time.  “Throwing” pots isn’t easy.  Clay might be malleable, but that doesn’t mean you can automatically get it to do what you want it to.  The teacher, an experienced potter, was terrific.  Very patient and encouraging.  Luckily, she’d prepared many balls of clay, knowing that we would undoubtedly mess up numerous attempts.  So, the first reason to like trying this art is that if you mess up, it’s okay.  The clay doesn’t go to waste.  It can be gathered up, dried to the right consistency, and reused.

The first thing we had to do was learn how to center the ball of clay.  We were told to set a good speed for the wheel, rewet the clay as needed, keep our forearms propped on our thighs, our arms close and our hands steady.  “Brute strength is okay at this point,” said the teacher.  We had to muscle the clay and center it on the wheel.  Equal amounts of pressure – pressing down on the top with the flat of a hand and simultaneously pressing against one side, keeping our hands as steady and unmoving as possible.  Like I said, not so easy.

Then it got even more challenging.  Once the clay was centered, we had to “open it up”, pressing a thumb in the middle and then with finger on the outside, opposite the thumb, start “coaxing” the clay up and out to take the shape we wanted.

Honestly, I just wanted to have it do something, anything, even.  I had no pre-set image in my mind as to whether I wanted a bowl, a vase, or whatever.   My first couple of efforts failed.  My hand placement was wrong.  I put too much pressure for too long in some spots and thinned out the clay until a hole opened up.  I just couldn’t get the hang of it.  Over and over the teacher reminded me that in this stage, I needed to use “finesse”.  I couldn’t pull the clay where I wanted, I had to coax it to go where I wanted it to.

My friend referred to it as “listening” to the clay.   For me, that meant that I needed to get out of my head and stop over-thinking the technique.  The harder I tried to think about what I was supposed to do, the less well I did and the more times I had to scrap that lump of clay and start all over again.  Finally, I just tried to feel the clay sliding between my fingers.  That’s when I stopped trying to force the process and caught onto that “coaxing”.  I understood more clearly what she meant by using finesse.

I lost count of the number of balls of clay I actually went through but I ended up with three different vase-like creations.  The last was by far my best, most symmetrical creation.  It’s also, not surprisingly, the one where I felt like I most connected with the clay, guiding and coaxing it instead of trying to muscle it in the direction that I wanted.

When we were finished, I looked at my little creations and smiled.   They aren’t perfect.  I’m sure an experienced potter would look and laugh at my amateurish first attempts, but I’m proud of them — and proud of myself.  For a first time effort, they aren’t embarrassing in the least.

They’re far from complete at this stage.  We go back during the week to learn to “trim” them.  Then we have glazing and firing work.  These are all part of the process.  I can’t wait to learn these next steps, too.  Yes, when they are finally all complete, I’ll take and post pictures.

I kept thinking about what we experienced today and comparing it to other areas of life.  Just like with pottery-making, there are situations  where we need to use muscle to achieve our goals, while other things require finesse.  If we employ force at the wrong time, we can push things out of shape and cause them to collapse all together.  We have to know when to keep up a steady pressure and when to coax or guide.

Earlier today, I expected to have fun.  The life lesson reminder was a bonus!

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One response to “When to Muscle, When to Finesse

  1. hoperoth says:

    Nice thoughts! A bunch of my friends took pottery in HS. They let me try it out a couple of times, but I only ever managed to make ash trays. :p

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