The story of how I became a potter, or should I say I am learning pottery, and the two key life lessons I have learned that I think have helped me become a better man, a better father, husband, grandfather, and follower of Jesus Christ.
In my corporate career, I was focused on leading sales and marketing teams, driving national brands at companies like Nestle, A.Lassonde and Sobeys, being responsible for profits and sales exceeding $200M annually. ( No stress at all!) My wife of 42 years every once and a while would tell me that I should think about getting a hobby to relax and for something to do when I retire.
For some strange reason every once and a while I had thought about learning pottery. But where do you start? And when? And how? This is where my story starts. Well, sort of. Let’s first go back to the late 70’s. During those crazy days of longer hair, carefree living and nothing but life ahead, I drove a motorcycle, had a 67 Belvedere Convertible, and a couple of other sports cars - Fiats, MGBs. (You can tell I love cars) I played drums in a band. Not a great band, just a band, during my school years.
Our bass player’s mom was a wonderful woman who was talented in so many areas, one of which was pottery, and when I married Joanne a few years later she gave us a couple of pieces of her pottery, one of which I still have in my office right now. Who would have thought that 25 years after her death, she would influence my new craft/hobby and how it would come about?
After my friend’s mother passed away, the band broke up and he moved to Toronto and become a robotic engineer. We kept in touch every couple of years and would meet for a meal when I would be travelling through Toronto or when he would come back to visit his father, who never remarried or moved from the home he had built with his wife years earlier. I heard that he didn’t want to move because from that location he could visit his wife’s grave every day, say a few prayers and have a chat with her at her grave site.
Just over 3 years ago he got sick and had to move to a senior’s home, passing away last spring, and the house needed to be cleaned out and sold. Over dinner while my friend was cleaning out the house, I asked him, “what ever happened to your mom’s pottery stuff?” He told me he was having difficulty getting rid of everything and that his dad had virtually left her pottery studio totally untouched – a fully operational pottery studio. So I told him I would buy it, sight unseen – “right now!” His response, “Nope. We will give it to you if you can clean it out totally within a day.” So I called a friend with a truck, and we loaded it up. As we pulled into my driveway my wife met me on the door step before I could even go into the house to explain, and with a questioning look exclaimed, “I though we were de-cluttering, not applying to be on the show ‘Hoarders’!” My quick response, “you told me to get a hobby, so here it is!”
When I explained, she again, in her wisdom, very clearly told me that “normal people” do research, read some books and take a course, all before they fill a truck and bring it home. I thought that made some sense so I agreed to take her advice and if I was not a potter I would find someone who might be and give them everything I received from my friend to “Pay it forward”.
First stop – the Halifax library. I checked out all three of the pottery books and after reading them cover to cover, my first impression was that this was a wacky craft. The main theme was that pottery was the “Pilates of handcrafts”. You need to be “one with the clay” and I was wondering what they had been smoking while writing those books. I also learned that there was a lot to learn if I was going to be a potter. I was not sure if I was up for the task but I kept moving forward.
Next step – take a course which I found being offered in Seaforth, (out past Lawrence town beach) which is a 60 minute drive from my house each way. Located on a little slip of land jutting out into the Atlantic is a pottery studio, a two storey building. Up on the second floor are the 6 pottery wheels located right in front of 6 windows all with beautiful views of the ocean. One of the wheels was the same make and model as the one I had just inherited. So that became my spot.
My first class is still etched in my memory. I was expecting theory, rules, and regulations but we got right into it and got our hands dirty.
Now for those of you who have not been lucky enough to sit at a pottery wheel, the hardest thing to do in pottery is to center the clay. You start with the ball of damp clay that has been weighed to build the desired piece, wedged to get the air out and slammed on the wheel to set the clay. Then the fun begins…
with the wheel spinning at top speed in a counter clockwise rotation,
your hands wet with slip, (a watery clay mixture)
one elbow firmly tucked into the side of your thigh,
the other hand cupped over the other side of the clay,
as you try to move the wobbling wet ball of clay to the center of the wheel.
If you want to create anything, it all starts here and is absolutely imperative that you center the clay correctly. Not close to the center, not a hair’s breath from the center – absolutely dead center – or nothing you try to create will look like anything that resembles pottery. Now there is no marking on the wheel that you can see. It’s all in the feel of the clay and the vibration that makes it so.
This step is so hard to master and most beginners take weeks, months or even longer before they can get the clay centered properly and start to create with consistency.
So that evening I put five wet balls of clay on the wheel one after an other and by the end of the night, I had created three pieces: a coffee cup, a bowl and a whiskey mug. (Or so I call it!)
When the teacher asked how long I had been doing pottery, I said this was my first class, it was the first time I had held clay, but I had a wheel, a kiln, more tools than I knew what they were, and it was a long story for another night.
After my class on the long drive home, I was laughing so much I had tears in my eyes. So much so that I had to stop my car and compose myself. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. Yes I was excited, so I e-mailed my friend back in Toronto a picture of my three pieces and he called me right back to say that he thought I had some talent and that his mother would be so happy to know that someone she knew way back in the day would be using her studio equipment and enjoying it as much as she did.
So over the next year and a half, up until Covid started, I would make the trip out to Seabright once a week to throw clay and make things: coffee cups, shot glasses, cereal bowls, larger salad bowls, wine goblets and a lot of crazy uneven pieces as well, pieces I would see at a restaurant – take a picture and then show it to my teacher and ask – “I would like to make this tonight”, and she would gladly keep a watch over me to see how I was doing.
About a year into my classes I had two ah–ha! moments. I was in class one night before heading out the next morning to Toronto for a couple days of heavy meetings and I had a lot on my mind. At the wheel I went through all of the preamble until I tried to center the clay. Nothing was being centered. The clay was not willing to let me center it. Nothing was working. Trying to center the clay was just not happening. My teacher noticed my frustration, as almost every previous time I sat to center the clay, it had become so effortless – but not tonight. She came over, put her hand on my shoulder and said, “You are having an off night”. I explained that I was heading out early in the morning to tackle Toronto and she said, “You realize you can’t control tomorrow. Tonight and right here, right now, what is on the wheel in front of you is the only thing you need to think about. So why don’t you take 5 or 10 minutes, relax, watch the ocean and the waves and give up your worries about tomorrow, then when ready, come back to your clay to see what happens.”
I took her advice, offered it up to God to help me when I was at those meetings the next day. I said a little prayer asking for help to clear my thoughts so that I could create something. I watched a few more waves hit the shore line for I don’t know how long, then I turned the wheel back on, started to center the clay and created a bowl with no problem at all. So having this craft has taught me to relax, focus on what I was doing right then and there and to let go of what could or would happen the next day.
The second ah-ha! moment came a few weeks after that when I was centering the clay. Sometimes you really have to work hard to get it centered, adding more slip, pushing harder, watching my hands shake like crazy at the start. Then, as I was able to push the clay every so slowly to the center of the wheel, with the wheel spinning at full speed, I noticed my hands would slowly start to shake less and less and when I hit the center point, wheel still spinning at full speed, my hands grasping the wet cold clay would become quiet. No vibration. No wobbling. Just spinning fast and smooth. And a calmness would come over my body like an ocean wave gently washing over me from top to bottom. My mind clear. My hands quiet. My clay spinning. And it was then, and only then could I create anything.
I didn’t really believe what I was feeling so I would force myself to be aware of my body tenseness, stress levels, clearness of mind for the next couple of weeks every time I was centering the clay, until I realized that every time I found the center of the wheel with the clay I was also centering my self. A sense of calm would wash over me and I would begin to create. “This must be what the books were talking about regarding ‘being one with the clay’”, I thought.
It was and is an absolute wonderful feeling of peace, tranquility and then creativity. It was clear that in order for me to create – I needed to be centered as well.
So, my message is simply this, from my experiences at the pottery wheel, I firmly believe that if we are not centered, If we have difficulty quieting our minds and hearts it must be so much harder for God, the ultimate Potter to work with us.
I truly believe that we need to be more like the clay (not cold and wet) – centered, pliable and willing to let the Master create something special with each and every one of us.
Just like in pottery, not every piece turns out perfectly every time, but the potter keeps creating and working until he is satisfied that it is good.
So many things can happen after the first step of turning a ball of clay into something. After the piece is made it is said to be “in the leather state” where it is still pliable and able to be trimmed. It is easy to damage the creation at this stage and you must be very gentle when handling it. Next when firing to a bisque state, the pottery can crack or explode in the kiln and be totally destroyed. The next step is glazing to create the wonderful colour or design. You start with the end result in your mind, what you are expecting it to be when finished, but the glaze can do many things under intense heat. You never know until you open the kiln. Sometimes it’s a disappointment, cracked, pitted or even broken. Sometimes it’s perfect. But almost every time what comes out of the kiln is never what was planned. However, it is unique and can be absolutely magnificent, just as individual and unique as you and I are.
No two pieces are ever the same – but every piece is beautiful in its own special way.
Just the way God created everyone of us.
HE IS THE POTTER AND WE ARE THE CLAY