My friend Terri is here for her first lesson in throwing on the wheel.
It’s my first time to formally give a lesson, so I’ve made all the preparations: a pristine studio, towels, aprons, tools, and clay cut into orange-sized chunks.
Terri’s a brilliant, funny Brooklynite who’s got a million friends, and has her hands in a million different projects. I have never seen the woman sit still.
So it’s appropriate that the preliminary stages of the lesson involve drinking plenty of Margaritas and eating guacamole and chips. I ask Terri what she expects from the lesson. She has a clear concept of what the process involves, informed by the movie, Ghost. “I want Patrick Swayze,” Terri says dreamily. “I want an orgasmic clay experience like Demi Moore.”
I checked. Patrick Swayze is booked elsewhere for the night. Looks like Terri has only the clay to rely upon for her orgasmic experience. But that’s a good thing. I think.
Two hours later, after exhausting all topics involving men, women, love and sex, we’re ready to begin. Woozy as hell, we wobble outside to my studio.
After putting a bat on the wheel head, I sit to give a little demo first. It’s been a year since I’ve worked on the wheel and I’m being very careful of my still-injured elbow.
“I’m lazy.” I tell Terri. I like to do as little as possible to center the clay. “So, with the wheel turning slowly, I use both hands to pat the lump of clay almost into center. See? That’ll make it easier.”
I increase the wheel speed; then cone the clay up and down a couple of times. It’s centered. Wow, I think to myself. I miss this. My elbow twinges a little. I nudge the clay off center again. “Now you try it.”
As I watch Terri’s hands being moved around by a little lump of clay, I realize there is more to teaching than meets the eye. There are a million steps to this process, and most of them, for me, are unconscious.
Terri has an uncharacteristically relaxed expression on her face. Is it the tequila or is it the clay? “I love this feeling,” she says. “The clay feels fantastic slipping between my fingers.” Terri has the perfect attitude. She doesn’t expect to walk out of here with a salad bowl. I decide to focus only on centering the clay.
“Do you see how you’re allowing a lump of clay 1/100th of your body weight to move you around?” I ask. “Try bracing your elbows against your body or your thighs, and keep your hands braced against each other as you center the clay–like a lobster claw.”
Like magic, Terri has the clay nearly centered. I’m impressed. She’s better than I ever was in my first lesson! I, Teri Hannigan, am a wonderfully adept teacher. I almost re-injure my elbow patting myself on the back.
I wake from my reverie as the bat flies off the wheel, nearly decapitating me. Terri’s so lost in the feeling of clay between her hands, she’s forgotten to keep her hands and the clay wet.
“Use plenty of water to keep everything as slippery as possible.” I suggest, securing the bat on the wheel. “Friction is not your friend.”
After an hour, Terri seems to have a good handle on centering. ‘Can I make something now?” she asks.
I do a little demo on making a bowl, showing her how to open the clay and pull up the walls. “Now it’s your turn.” I tell her.
Terri centers the clay and starts to open it, but seems to have forgotten the centering tricks I taught her. “Elbows!” I chirp. “Lobster Claw!” Ack! I’m revolted to hear myself bastardizing the terminology of my former teachers.
Terri opens the clay and starts to pull the walls up too quickly, getting massive spirals in the clay. “If you move your hands with the rotation of the wheel–no faster– you won’t get those spirals and the walls will be evenly thick.” I remark.
I excuse myself to make a phone call, and when I return, Terri is crowing. “Look, I made a bowl! I made a bowl!” For a few seconds, there is something resembling a bowl-like shape turning on the wheel. Then, it collapses. “Wow! You did really great!” I say enthusiastically. “Let’s try again!”
“Can’t I just fix it?” Terri asks, doggedly attempting to poke and prod the exhausted, waterlogged thing back into shape.
“No, it’s too late for that,” I say calmly echoing the words of my mentors. “Once you’ve pushed the clay as far as you can push it, there’s no going back or fixing it. You have to ‘flop’ to the final form. At this point, It’s easier to just start over.”
Terri spent the rest of the evening practicing, and even though she had nothing to show for it, she accomplished a lot.
The next day, we were hiking the loop. “You know,” Terri said of her first adventure with clay, “my arms and hands are killing me. It’s nothing like Ghost. But I want to do it again, anyway.”
What a good sport.