Bowled Over

We Tried It: ACE Sarasota's Ceramics Class

Megan McDonald struggles at the potter's wheel.

By Megan McDonald December 30, 2016 Published in the January 2017 issue of Sarasota Magazine

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Image: Shutterstock

Buoyed by a positive pottery-class experience as an 8-year-old—my parents still display some of my pieces—I decided to sign up for Introduction to Wheel-Throwing, offered through Sarasota County Schools’ Adult and Community Enrichment. I thought the Monday-night class would be a relaxing way to start the week and to revive my, ahem, dormant artistic talent.

At our first class, our instructor, Andrew, a bearded young man in clay-covered cargo shorts and a plaid button-down, gave us each a bag of clay. “We’ll start by making cylinders because they’re the template for almost every piece,” he explained. “Bowls are easy. We’ll end with them.”

He sat down at a pottery wheel and effortlessly shaped a lump of clay into a tall cylinder that could turn into a beautiful vase. We five students—all working women in professions from arts to nursing—looked at each other in awe.

We took our places at the wheels. The gentle hum of the machine was an invitation to start working. I imagined making a pottery piece for each of my friends for the holidays, filling it with homemade cookies and humble-bragging, “Oh, I made this, but it was nothing, really.”

I centered my clay on the wheel, pressed down on the pedal with my foot and covered the clay with my wet hands. The wheel began spinning, but when I inserted my thumb into the center of the clay to form the opening of my cylinder, the whole thing collapsed. This happened not once, but six times.

Turns out, I was a terrible potter.

“How did it go?” my husband asked when I came home covered in clay.

“Oh, fine, we learned the basics—I’m sure I’ll have my first piece ready to firenext week,” I replied breezily, visions of beautiful pottery still dancing in my head. It was only Week One.

But my answer to his question was the same the next week, and the weeks following. My classmates had moved on to trimming and glazing their pieces; I was still trying to make my cylinder.

“Everyone is guaranteed two pieces—a mug and a bowl,” Andrew had told us at the beginning of class. Still cylinder-less at Week 5, I was beginning to question his confidence.

Andrew was attentive and helpful, but I still wasn’t getting it. “Try positioning your hands on the clay this way instead,” he suggested, demonstrating the proper position on Week 6. That helped, but I still couldn’t create a vessel without it collapsing. Every week, I’d re-bag a pile of used clay, glancing longingly at the shiny mugs, bowls and vases my classmates were making.

“I’ve only ever had one student not eventually get it, and she had a medical condition,” he reassured me on Week 7.

“Have a glass of wine before class to relax,” he suggested on Week 9.

Still, I was loving my new Monday-night ritual. After a long day in front of a computer, working with your hands—squeezing a wet sponge over your clay, molding it into a shape as it spins—takes you out of your own head and helps you reset. And I was learning.

Andrew’s instructions made me want to press on and learn more.

On the next to last week of class, Andrew told us not to start a new piece. “You can practice on the wheel,” he said, “but everything needs to be ready to be glazed and fired by our last class.”

My plan that night was to make a pinch pot—a hand-sculpted vessel that doesn’t require the wheel—but something told me to try to make a cylinder one last time. I prepped my clay, got in position and…“I did it!,” I squealed, 10 minutes later. “I made a cylinder! A week before our last class!”

The reaction from my fellow classmates was a mix of “yays!” and thumbs-ups.

“I see I need to give you hard deadlines next time,” Andrew said with a smile.

I stepped back and admired my piece, thinking about the colors I’d use for the glaze and taking a moment to revel in my glory. Then I snapped out of it. I couldn’t lose my momentum. Back to the wheel I went.

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