I hunch over my heavy wooden work table. It is early morning, but I am sweating already as I pick up the heavy hunk of orangey-red clay and fling it forcefully down on the table, then knead it, then fling it again, over and over. There must be no air bubbles left in the clay, or it will explode during firing.
Using heavy wire twisted between two stick handles, I cut the clay in half, checking the inside. Still some visible air pockets. I begin flinging the clay down again.
When it is as smooth and malleable as I want it to be, I roll it into something more or less round and take it to the wheel. Sinking onto my familiar stool, I scoot up so the wheel is in just the right spot between my knees. Using about half the force I used at the table, I smack my lump of clay down in the center of the wheel and begin to push it into position. Years of experience make it easy to center, and I begin kicking the lower wheel slowly, then more quickly. One of my waterproof pots in easy reach holds water, red with clay, and I keep my hands very wet as I begin to squeeze the sides of the clay to get it even more perfectly centered. Looking down from above it, I can see a slight lopsidedness, and I exert extra pressure there to correct it.
It is nicely round now, glistening with the water as I keep rewetting my hands. Carefully, I push my thumb down in the center of the pot—I can see the exact center as the part that is not moving. A hole begins to grow. When I can fit my hand in, I keep my right hand inside and my left hand outside as I slowly, carefully, and very evenly begin to pull the clay upwards. It starts to look like a vessel.
I am so involved in my work that I barely notice someone has come to watch. People like to watch—I admit it looks like magic.
At this stage, my clay could be nearly any kind of vessel. I have pulled the shape outward, and it looks like a large bowl, though it is much too thick-walled to fire. I have a narrow-necked pitcher in mind. I rewet my hands again and begin to pull the walls higher and inward toward each other. Soon I have the general bowed shape of the body of the pitcher that stands, perfect, inside my eyes.
Carefully, I begin to form the flaring lip.
No. I lean back for a minute, looking at it. That’s not quite right—not how I imagine it. It’s okay; some people would be satisfied with it. I shake my head.
“What’s the matter?”
The voice at the door startles me, and I look up. It’s that prophet of doom, Jeremiah. Most people think he’s crazy, but me…I wonder.
I hear my voice take on its teaching tone. “Any artisan will tell you that the materials we work with have properties, oddities, almost personalities of their own. Aaron the woodworker complains of sudden irregularities in wood grain that turn his chisel and mar the work, and my wife spends time getting coarse guard hairs out of the wool she prepares for spinning.” I have stopped the wheel and am feeling along the crooked rim of the pitcher.
Jeremiah nods. “The metalsmiths pay great attention to burning out impurities.”
“Right. Well, in clay, there can be larger particles, almost lumps. As carefully as I worked it, I often don’t get them all out the first time. They show up when I start forming the clay for its planned purpose. Ah. Here it is.” I dig out some course particles of sand. Then, with one punch, I smash the vessel down into a lump of clay again and take it back to the work table. “Now I have to work the air out again.
“Why do you take so much trouble?” Jeremiah asks.
“This is beautiful clay. I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on it, and I have a vision in my head of what I want it to be. Maybe it sounds silly, but…it’s a vision of what I almost feel the clay wants to be. You’ll see; it will be worth any amount of trouble.”
I work the clay over again, go back to my wheel, and start over. This time the walls glide smoothly up between my hands, and I get that feeling of…I never know what to call it. Joy. Satisfaction. Completion. Carefully, I pull the flare out from the narrow neck.
Ah! I sigh a little, and use my sensitive, experienced fingers to go over every inch of the walls as the wheel slows, checking to be sure the wall thickness is even all over. I have forgotten Jeremiah again. I gently smooth the edge and sides with a wet piece of soft leather. Then I stop the wheel, wet my hands, stand, and gently, almost holding my breath, pinch the spout into the flaring edge.
I stand back and look. I smile.
“You’re right,” says Jeremiah quietly. “It was worth the extra work.”
He slips away, and I leave my beautiful pitcher to dry a bit, so that it will be stronger when it comes time to remove it from the wheel. I carve another chunk of clay from the supply in my barrel. It looks a mess—rough, lumpy, straight from the riverbank.
I smile again. I have a vision for this clay. It will be worth the work.