It begins with a 25-pound bag of clay, plastic-wrapped and twist-tie sealed; the bag sits in the center of the studio with my name inked on its side. Joyce isn’t here yet; she’s somehow late arriving to her own home-studio. It’s just the clay and I; so, I approach the rectangular block of mud. I tentatively pat my autumn-cold hand on its topside. I twist open the bag, like I would a bagged loaf of bread, only instead of fluffy wheat, there is dense mud to find inside. I finger the clay, one brave finger skimming the surface. It’s smooth, and colder than I thought it might me.
What will I make of this? I wonder.
I look around the snug studio space. Baskets of unfamiliar tools, gallon-size buckets full of glaze stacked precariously on shelves, mugs hang from hooks on the walls, above the sink, along the shelves, all at eye-level. I imagine if a breeze crept in, how the mugs might all move at once, so many colours, so many different forms, the chatter of mugs jangling together. There are test tiles, tiny squares of ceramics, collected in corners, forgotten in bowls, left in unfinished dishes, all displaying different glaze options. Three small stools and three knee-high throwing wheels take up half the room, and where everything else is cramped and tight, the wheels are all given plenty of space. At the wheel, I will soon learn, I will need space to breathe.
I’ve decided, even before meeting my instructor Joyce, even before feeling the moistened squeeze of clay in my hands again, that I will love it here. In the midst of this dusty, muddy, burnt, colourful chaos, I will spend hours and hours and hours. And in the midst of this cluttered, crammed studio madness, I will find such stillness of mind and delight over the purposefulness of task: creating physical, useful things. In the studio, I’ll return to myself, I’ll be pulled away from technology, and books, and dumb thoughts of boys and essays and futures and texts and weather and jobs and life, and I’ll still my mind. And I’ll center myself in the clay.
The canvas-wrapped countertops are stained several clay tones – reds, greys and porcelain whites. They are layered with a fine coating of clay dust. The dust takes flight when I lean in and exhale. This is when Joyce hobbles in.
“You don’t want to do that,” she says, stern but patient, as if she’s said this dozens of times a day for dozens of years, which she has. “Silica – or clay dust,” she says, before formal introductions take place, “is toxic if it gets into your lungs. Here,” she hands me a damp sponge to wipe the countertop with. No more dust. I wet it back to mud.
Joyce has been teaching pottery for over thirty years. She put herself through the arts education program at University of Victoria when she was in her thirties and already busying herself as a mother of three, and taking care of her aging mother. I’ll hear all about it in the next few months, as Joyce never really allows true silence to enter the studio. Joyce doesn’t believe in silence. She talks and talks and tells her story in a detailed, repetitive fashion, which I will soon come to realize, does not rely on responses to be fueled. So, I’ll sit and “u-hu,” and “yea-h,” and “oh, really?” or answer in concentrated silence; not even trying to fake listening. I’ll come to realize the continuous dialogue Joyce maintains is uninterruptable, and there is some part of Joyce that really needs to tell her story. It doesn’t bother me any, so she talks. And in her continuous talk, I somehow find an even deeper focus, lulled and comforted by her monotonous dialogue.
Joyce is nearly seventy. She should be retired, tucked away in her small upstairs unit, surrounded by grandchildren and cats. And she could do just that, but doesn’t. She keeps the studio running because she loves what she does; she loves teaching people the craft, and loves talking to people. Later, she’ll admit to me she wouldn’t know what to do with her days if she didn’t have the studio and students to talk at and fuss over. So, she keeps going. She only teaches a few students and due to circumstance or proximity, she’s selected me as one of the lucky few. Joyce is my neighbour; her home-studio only two blocks from my front stoop.
And as I say, Joyce is nearly seventy. And not exactly slight. When she walks, her body strains her little legs, they bow out and buckle under her. She confesses to be rather arthritic and in need of a new knee, or two. She shouldn’t be straining herself so, but who am I to fuss over her? So I keep silent, but sometimes I allow myself to fuss. ‘Sit down,’ I’ll scold, as if I actually understand something about growing old, or loneliness, or life. As if in my twenty-two years I’ve actually learned some big lesson on pain or suffering, or deterioration of the body. ‘Oh, sit,’ I’ll say and shoo her away if she hobbles over to help me. So, Joyce mostly stays parked on her stool, which is conveniently on wheels, allowing her to scoot-scoot around.
On this first day, Joyce gestures to my 25-pound bag of clay and says, “Let’s start by throwing a two-pound mug.” The clay stands like a street-preacher on a soapbox, about to say something very important, or maybe nothing at all. “Cut two pounds from the top.” I approach the bag once more and pick it up, supported by its sides like I would a baby with a full, sagging diaper.
She motions to the tool that will most naturally slice off the top – a length of metal wire attached at both ends with clothespins to grip. I eyeball two pounds, pull the string through the clay, and drop the slab on the scale: 4 lb. Bad eyeball guesstimate; I’ll work on that.
I cut this into two. Joyce takes one square. “May I?” I nod, and she shows me how to knead the clay, warming it up and popping all air bubbles in the folds.
“This is called wedging,” she informs me. I follow her lead with my own two-pound cube, warming the clay, waking it up. We then tumble them along the slightly wetted canvas counter, as if the clay is the rolling pin and the counter is the invisible dough we plan to flatten. We roll like this for a while, until she picks hers up and shakes the dildo-esc tube of mud right near my face.
“Make yours like this,” she says. “No air bubbles. Air bubbles explode when it’s being fired and will explode everything in the kiln.”
We shape the rods into spheres with gentle yet vigorous rubbing between palm and counter. Then thump one end down and pat-pat-pat it until it is a half-globe, a well-rounded mountain mound.
“Now, take a seat at one of the wheels.” I choose the one in the far corner. “You said you’ve thrown before?” Yes, I admit, but not since childhood. And then, my plates came out thicker than apple pies and my wheel-thrown mugs were deep enough to hold only a few drops of water. But, yes, I know clay.
I wiggle my bum until I’ve found comfort in the stiff seat, then turn on my wheel. She instructs me to secure my clay ball onto the slightly moistened wooden baton. I eyeball center and thrust the half-ball down, it hits the wood with a fierce splat. It’s off-center. I’m in trouble.
“Never,” Joyce says, “throw clay like that in my studio. This isn’t anger management. This isn’t therapy. Be gentle to the clay. Massage it. Gentle like.”
I puppy-eye up at her, then scrape off the clay, and sculpt it back into its half-moon formation. And try again. With my nail, I trace a perfect circle at the center, place my mound within its ring and pat-pat-pat it down, thumbs massaging deep but not too hard. And it’s attached. My right foot moves towards the pedal and I press it.
And we’re spinning. The wheel kicks off with an electric hum, my foot tap-tapping gentle like, finding that perfect speed. And the wheel buzzes, hissing off a light mist of clay water off the edge and onto my black pants. Note-to-self: next week, don’t wear black.
My clay is almost centered, but not quite. It spins and spins, sprays and sprays, and the mound loops ever so slightly.
“Not centered,” says Joyce. “See? It’s very obviously off-centered.” I watch the mound go round and round. My eyes spin dizzily, drying to follow it. It dips out with every rotation, ever so slightly. It’s twisted. Alas, Joyce knows how to control the two-pounds of disobedient mud.
“Beginning with an off-centered bit of clay will make it damn near impossible to throw a proper mug, or a proper anything. You’ve got to get it centered first. Foundation is everything,” she says. I wrestle it, but the slight wiggle moves my entire upper body. The clay is winning.
“Use that thick part of your thumb. Look,” she says, tapping the thick of her own thumb.
I’m trying, but the clay does not respond.
“May I? She asks as she digs her strong, old paws into mine. I pull away and watch her muscle the clay into place. Her skin is aging but younger than I’d imagined old potter hands to look. Her rolled-up sleeves expose black arm hair, contrasted drastically against her so white winter skin; skin covered in dried and grey dust.
“Now, you try.” I take a breath, stack my hands on my arms and tuck my elbows into my ribs, and with this leverage, I nudge the clay and, I feel a slight shift. Then, I finally center my two-pound mound. I pull my hands off it and watch mound goes round on the wheel. I exhale. I’ve won this time. The clay has complied.
Before I realize the only thing I’m thinking about is clay, I have this thought and it interrupts my singular concentration. Is this meditative? Is this hypnotic wheel tranquilizing my ever-jittery mind?
I’ll come to recognize, when I’m having particularly off days, the clay will be challenging to center. I’ll feel futile, battling with a few pounds of mud, and loosing. These off-days, if I’m alone in the studio, I’ll sulk at the wheel for a while, trying, trying, trying, maybe eventually succeeding, or maybe quitting.
If Joyce is in the studio, I’ll plea her arthritic hands to help center the clay. Some days she’ll comply, but most days she’ll stay on her stool, giving me vocal advice and support. “You’ve got to learn to do it on your own,” she’ll preach. And I know she’s right.
And over these next few months, I’ll come to understand something about the importance of human connections, and relationships, and about teachers. Joyce has taught me much more than how to manipulate mud into mugs and other forms.
Joyce scoots her stool snug up to my wheel.
“You’ve got potter’s hand,” she says. “Thick and strong; not very feminine. Like mine.” She waves her wrinkled, clay-covered hands through the air, admiringly.
I smile; I think that’s a compliment.
“Now,” she says, “You’ve got to open up.” She digs her paws into mine, this time I keep my hands on the clay with her. And like this, her hands guide my thumbs deep in, applying pressure, and I feel the clay displacing beneath the push. It juts up to the sides and rounded walls develop around our thumbs.
“It’s essential,” she says, “to press down into the bottom like this,” she digs her thumbs into my thumbs. She holds down, as the wheel spins and spins. “Reinforce it. Do this and be sure your foundation won’t crack.”
“To pull up, this is how your fingers should look.” She holds out her hands – thick, steady, grey hands – two fingers on both hands cocked like mocking guns. “These fingers,” she says, “don’t pinch together. They stay parallel and pull, slow, stead, up, up the walls and thin your cylinder. Coax the clay up, don’t force it.”
I give it a try. The clay lumps and slips between my parallel finger-guns. Like this until I’ve reached the top. Here, I pause. “Take a slow breath in, and as you exhale gently let your fingers off.” I exhale, and release my fingers. She seems to be holding her breath while I do this. “Good,” she says, “And again.” I do it a second, third, then forth time. My tube of clay is wet and thinning quickly. It’s a tall, elegant cylinder, but weakening.
“You’re done,” Joyce says, almost upset. “You got to know when to call it a pot. Don’t overwork it,” she says.
I look at my two-pound tube of clay. This isn’t a mug. Not yet.
“Shape it. However you please.” My hands instinctually cup around the tower, hovering for an instant before touching. The lightest touch allows the clay to move with ease between my fingers. It is manipulated with ease, willingly shaping into a mug, and like this, the distinct shape of a mug forms out of the mud. I squeal, and do a little happy dance in my stiff seat. Joyce sighs with pride, as if this is the first mug she’s watched a student make.
“It’s cute as a button,” Joyce says, genuine satisfaction for the completion of the task: I’ve made a mug.