Thoughts in Slop

In the forming of the pot, it is the pushing from within that shapes the pot’s exterior. So too in our existence do our inner doubts and dreams shape the lives we live.

-Chris Staley, The Hegemonic Eye

IMG_9191During the thirty minutes I have for lunch, I am up to my elbows in the reclaim bucket, slopping out clay onto plaster slabs.  Plaster pulls water out of the slop, and by this time tomorrow the clay will be plastic again and ready to pug.  The work is messy and exhausting.  Inevitably, while my hands are mummified in clay, a student working independently in the studio asks for my help.  I clean my hands only to get them dirty again at his wheel, guiding him through the curve of a wall or the depth of a foot.

Then it’s back to the slop.

The messy process that claims my lunch period is one of the most magical parts of my subject matter.  My students and I can make and fail over and over again, without consequence.  Accumulative attempts in process lead to students’ grasp of technique and standards for the product increasing.  If the pot flops or breaks in the wet, leather, or greenware stages, we recycle it using the messy process of reclaim, and it can be turned into another piece – or another attempt.

Sometimes students even help with the process, although during a semester-long class I wonder how much time I should dedicate to the efforts of reclaim and studio maintenance.  Process takes time, hands-on learning takes time, technical knowledge takes time, philosophy and rationale takes time, and there just is not enough time for it all.  So I have to prioritize my students’ time, which leads me to spending lunch periods in slop.  Maybe I will figure out how to do this more efficiently meaningfully someday.

By contrast, once a piece is fired, the consequences are huge.  The fired ceramic object will be in the world for six thousand years or so.  Even if they shatter or erode, my students’ fired pots could be pieced back together to tell a story about our classes in a few centuries.  I love to catch my students’ reactions to this realization when it starts to sink in.  It usually coincides with some realization that their technique is improving.  A student will look back at the first few pots he finished and fired, and compare them to his most recent work.  He will pick up the first piece gingerly, wrinkling his nose, “What am I supposed to do with this?”  I smile and suggest he ask around in a few thousand years.

Sometimes when I really stop to think about this, or when a critical potter friend reminds me, this concept of permanence is enough to almost make me freeze up and stop my own making.  “There are already enough pots in the word,” he says. Occasionally he will throw in the adjective ‘bad’ before ‘pots’ if what I create when we throw together deserves it. I think his intentions are to challenge me to make better work, and I think he believes that I can do it.  So that’s hopeful. I wonder about the implications of his words for someone who teaches an introductory Ceramics class. I clearly never overthink anything he says, and a reader should take that statement with the sarcasm intended. I sometimes smash boards full of my greenware. No matter the intentions behind his words, they represent a complex challenge.

One of my heroes, the potter Malcolm Davis, noted in his 2010 NCECA closing address:

“…My greatest personal struggle has been to come to terms with the fact that I left the active struggle for social justice to make pots and dishes for the privileged, adding more clutter to the cosmic dump. Why do we make pots?  Do we serve any useful social function?  Is it merely self-indulgence?  Are we just fiddling while Rome burns?”  

These questions preoccupy me when I’m in slop clay up to my elbows, or when I’m loading and unloading kilns full of early pots.  In any stage of the ceramic process – the perpetual reclaim, the persistent making, the permanence of the fire, the teaching and the learning, the hard physical work – Davis’s questions are meaningful ones.


A centered moment.

It is my job to make sure that my students do not make bad pots when they are first learning to throw.  Clumsy pots, sure, that’s inevitable.  But I want every piece that they make to be attached to sensory learning, memory, and nuance.  I want my students to be able to tell the story of what they learned in these first awkward pieces, and about the value this work adds to their human experience.  If the pots are going to be in the world for thousands of years, someone should be able to tell that story, right?  When they sit down at a wheel or table to work with clay, they are participating in history that is far longer and deeper than our 21st century pushbutton culture.  In his essay The Hegemonic Eye: Can the Hand Survive, Chris Staley pinpoints the added value that I’m seeking:

In almost every other subject students are asked to use their eyes and ears to process information and expand their minds. The nuances of touch are rarely called upon by the academic institutions. The interconnection between the ancient art of making pottery and a generation of students raised in a new visual electronic world is profound. When students’ hands touch clay there is learning that takes place that goes far beyond just skin touching earth.

What the messiness of clay does is connect us to the cycles of life. In contrast technology is both “clean” and “efficient.” As a pot shrinks, cracks and sometimes breaks in the firing or when we are using it, we become participants in the evolution of a pot’s life. As our own bodies change with time, a pot’s fragility can be humanizing.

Humanizing.  We could all use a little of that.

Malcolm Davis answered his own questions eloquently in his speech, delivered just about a year before he passed away.

Let us take pride in the choice that each of us has made to work with clay, to give it all our knowledge and our skills, our energy and our insights, our intuition and our spirit.  The important thing is to make good, honest work, personal work that comes from the heart, work that speaks your language, sings your song, and leaves your hand/heart print.  It requires hard work and discipline, but most of all it requires love.  Love of the material and of the process, love of the focus and discipline.  Love of creating for the self and for others.

When I watch my upper-level students work in the studio, I see them speaking a language that they love.  When I am exhausted with hours of reclaim ahead, it is love of the material, process, focus, and products that keeps me going.  But you seldom find that love in a semester.  I certainly didn’t.  Maybe you have some fun, maybe you make a few pieces that you care about – but fun and love are not the same thing.  It took hard work and discipline to get to the point where we do not mind the exhaustion or the frustrations, and where we embrace the hard questions – for my students and for me.  How to nurture the love through hurdles of getting past technical challenges, making early pots, and developing studio discipline?

I don’t have any answers right now.  It has been a challenging semester.  I have become acutely aware that words are not like reclaim.  You cannot discard or reclaim what you say or write without consequence; words have more immediate impact, for better or for worse.  But I am not convinced that that words have more power.  Clay is about the long game – the effort, patience, persistence, work ethic, discipline, and acceptance when things do not go as planned.  I love teaching this long game, especially when – as Staley noted – it is rare in the academic world.

For me, the push-and-pull of balancing clay and words is a charged and sometimes maddening place to be spending some time.  The clay physically exhausts me, and then the words won’t let me sleep.

In the meanwhile, we will be glazing some of those first pots soon.  I am excited to share the magic and transformation of glaze firing with my students, and to experience alongside them what it is like when the slop bucket comes full circle.



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