An interesting thing happened today. Something that would have frustrated me a few weeks ago but thanks to recent lessons and Bernard Leach's book, I found satisfying.
Most days I am down in the studio along side Jennie, doing various tasks, asking questions, watching, or cleaning. She works away, not really paying attention to what I am doing but I do see her peeking over to check on the status of things. When she needs to, most of the time because she senses my frustration, she speaks up and corrects or encourages me. I work on my own but with the source right with me.
Today, I was on my own. At breakfast she went over the shapes she wanted me to make, the amount of clay, the measurements, left me a list and some drawings and was gone. I felt fairly confident, although in the back of my mind I felt a numbing sensation: I had a few hours alone, after which she would arrive and find me either glowing among maybe two or three close to perfect shapes or covered in clay from wiping the tears of frustration from my face and nothing to show for my hours of labor.
I pulled my apron over my head and wrapped it once around, tying it in the front. I warmed up by trimming a few of my own bowls and uncovering some things. Then I wedged reclaim and cut, weighed, and balled about fourteen 1.5lb balls of clay. By weighing the clay, I know my bowls will be the same size... essentially. My assignment? Large soup bowls, low and wide, with a large, flat rim. The dimensions for the bowls seemed enormous to me! But thankfully Jennie mentioned that the size, as you throw them, can seem comical (giants eat soup?!) but they shrink so you have to be sure to compensate.
I wrapped up the wet balls of clay and took out my sketchbook. As I glanced from Jennie's drawing and dimensions to my blank page, I began to sketch out the shape, the rim, the profile, and the process. Thinking through, from ball to bowl. In sketching it I wasn't trying to produce a drawing, I was trying to walk myself through what I was about to do in clay... visualize. I thought about the base shape, the inside curve, which rib I would use, the shape I needed to create before laying out the rim (a delicate procedure that can flop easily if done too soon), and the rim's width.
With this done, I sat down to throw. The first few would be smashed, no doubt, because there is very little likelihood that an unseasoned potter such as myself could sit down and get all this right on the first try. I knew I should throw a few, just trying to master the shape, before measuring. I have to say, the visualizing really helped! I was pretty happy with my first two attempts and held the ruler up to them. They were way off the mark. I don't mean a centimeter or two, I mean inches. Inches?! I couldn't believe it. I felt the thickness of the bowls and frowned, they didn't have too much excess clay. I checked the dimensions again and looked at the bowls. This was going to be harder than I thought. I had to get at least two more inches in height and an inch or more in width out of that 1.5lb ball of clay. I felt a challenge coming on.
So, I threw another bowl. Again, the shape fit the profile! This time I had thrown it even thinner, brought it out wider, and saw that it was visibly much larger. I took the ruler out again. Again, at least a whole inch off! I squished the first two bowls and threw another. Thinning, stretching, pushing the limits, trying new strategies... Nothing. Inches away from what it was supposed to be. I squished a few more (can't keep ones that don't fit!), always leaving at least one good one for a 3D visual of the shape. I finally threw one tall, thin bowl just to see if that amount of clay could even get as high as I needed it to. NOPE. So, I'm not just a junk potter, I thought! Something must be off! I need more clay. Now, this may seem obvious to you at this moment but to me it was a revelation.
Sure enough, Jennie got home and realized that she had given the wrong weight of clay for those bowls. She apologized profusely and said that she wished I had just called or something. I had to re-weigh and ball the clay at 2lbs. each and squish the rest of the bowls.
But, you know? I wasn't frustrated. Not in the least. I had thrown some darn good bowls from that challenge. Yes, they were all smashed now but the product isn't the point. I figured out on my own that I needed more clay. I pushed the clay for that shape farther than I thought I could. I learned more about that shape, dealing with it at it's weakest (being so thin), and could feel where it would give and where it wouldn't. With my correct 2lb balls, I easily turned out a board of those bowls. That was an incredibly clear view of how mistakes can make you stronger. You don't always get a view like that... and man, I loved it.