Get lost in clay, even if it's just for the weekend

The First Art Newspaper on the Net    Established in 1996 Sunday, May 19, 2024

Get lost in clay, even if it's just for the weekend
A photo provided by Claire Brassil/Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts shows Ariela Kuh, a ceramic artist, leading a workshop at the Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, Maine. Pottery workshops are filling up with people who want to connect with others instead of screens. (Claire Brassil/Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts via The New York Times)

by Ainara Tiefenthäler

NEW YORK, NY.- The challenge: Make 10 small clay objects in 18 minutes — one minute each for the first five pieces, two minutes for the next four and five for the last one.

Ariela Kuh, a ceramic artist with a bright demeanor and a yellow apron, set a timer on her iPhone as she explained the drill to the 14 of us attending her workshop in April at the Watershed Center for Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, Maine.

“Remember what it was like to touch clay as a kid,” she advised.

As I prepared 10 tangerine-size balls of clay, images from childhood flashed through my mind: the blue shelves at my after-school pottery program, the bulbous terra-cotta vase my mom made at one of the countless cancer facilities in the months before her death, the small elephant at the center of a red ceramic plate that my tiny hands had formed sometime in the mid-1990s and was now collecting dust.

“Go,” Kuh said, and there was no more time for thinking. Clay shapes appeared and multiplied, each maintaining a vague resemblance to the previous one, like snapshots of sea creatures undergoing evolution, all shells and tentacles. By the time the final phone alarm blared, I was giddy with the uninhibited joy you experience when letting go of perfectionism.

Earth meets water

“Clay is the opposite of the cellphone,” said D. Wayne Higby, an artist and the director of Ceramic Art Museum at Alfred University in Alfred, New York. “This stuff is real, takes up space, it’s dirty. There’s just this physicality that is very different from what we experience six or eight hours a day sitting in front of a computer.”

This might partly explain pottery’s recent resurgence in popularity.

Clay educators, artists and industry experts from across the United States told me of people flocking to pottery classes and workshops, studios trying to get a handle on expanding waitlists, and ceramists racking up huge online followings. (There is even a television show for aficionados of the craft: “The Great Pottery Throw Down,” a production à la “The Great British Baking Show,” streaming on Max.)

And maybe because it provides a tactile alternative to the flattened reality of the screen, clay kept drawing in new devotees even as much of the world ground to a halt during COVID lockdowns.

“Pottery wheel sales doubled and tripled during the pandemic,” said Bryan Vansell, the owner and president of the Laguna Clay Co., a leading provider of clays, glazes and equipment for ceramists in the United States. “The pandemic brought people back home, put people into their garages and offices, spaces to make into studios.”

Now, many of those potters are looking to share their passion, and get their hands dirty, with others at summer residencies, classes and workshops at places like Watershed.

“Our programs all fill, they sell out, and we’d love to do more,” said the center’s director, Liz Seaton, who uses gender-neutral pronouns. A lawyer by training, they recently left their job as the policy director at the National LGBTQ+ Task Force in Washington to turn their lifelong passion for pottery into a career. “I like to build things. One of the reasons I took this job was the challenge of taking this organization to a point where we have year-round facilities.”

Watershed was founded in the mid-1980s on the site of a defunct brickyard. Its 54 acres of rolling hills quickly became a haven where potters could deepen their understanding of the medium, and one another. During the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the 1990s, Watershed invited people living with the virus to explore the creative and therapeutic potential of clay.

In my own search for the magic that happens when earth meets water, I had left behind my pottery studio on the Upper East Side of Manhattan for a long weekend at Watershed, along a section of coastline where fingers of land seem to grasp the ocean.

A vision in the woods

Off a stretch of U.S. 1 littered with signs for pottery shops, I turned onto a country road on a crisp spring morning. I was greeted by the sight of a dappled pig chasing after birds, ears flapping in the sun, on the family-run farm next to Watershed. Sheep and their lambs were baaing, and a herd of brown cows gazed at my car.

The timeless beauty of its bucolic setting did not betray the transformation the center had recently undergone.

In a clearing in the woods, the old wooden chicken barn, which served as the pottery studio until 2020, had given way to a sparkling, corrugated metal building: Watershed’s new state-of-the-art ceramics facility. It was equipped with 35 work tables, numerous electric potter’s wheels and a glaze-spraying station, as well as sophisticated water- and air-filtration systems. An adjacent shed contained six kinds of kilns — including electric, gas and wood. Nearby, several modern cabins — cubist and gray, quietly hiding between the trees — had sprung up to serve as lodging for program participants.

Watershed currently hosts artist residencies, professional development programming for teachers, and public workshops. Operations have historically slowed down during the winter months, but with the inauguration of its new, winterized spaces and the construction of a remodeled commons building to begin later this year, it is solidly on the path to Seaton’s dream of a year-round operation.

Shaping clay and bending time

“I like some organic wonkiness,” said Kuh as she freehanded a rectangle out of a sheet of clay and seemingly effortlessly curled the piece into a cylinder, then did the same with a circle, turning it into a cone. “I’m not a rule follower. There’s a reason I didn’t become a woodworker.”

The three-day class I was attending focused on how to build geometric objects from slabs of clay and then use those to assemble more intricate creations. Unlike wheel-throwing — where clay is molded on a spinning disk — this technique, known as hand-building, can be used to make a wide variety of forms and larger works.

As we broke into 25-pound bags of clay, the room filled with the smell of damp soil and a studious silence, punctuated occasionally by the sound of hands slapping and dropping the material to give it the right texture.

A sign proclaimed the studio a no-cellphone zone, and there were no clocks. As I bent, squeezed and smudged the gray dough in my hands, a smooth and cool sensation spread from the tips of my fingers to my head, pooling there, then drowning out anxieties and washing away my sense of time. Shapes of clay morphed on the canvas-covered work tables, and trapezoids of sun crept across the polished cement floors.

A medium that contains multitudes

Watershed is far from the only place in the United States where potters can experience the fresh country air while exploring the craft and its traditions.

Founded in 1929 to give Appalachian women a means of earning a living, the Penland School of Craft in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina — where clay was designated the “official state art medium” in 2013 — draws artists and hobbyists with a range of programs in different media. Summer clay workshops generally last between four and 12 days, during which participants live on the 420-acre campus, and focus on a range of functional and decorative aspects of pottery.

A three-hour drive east, the town of Seagrove, which has one of the highest concentrations of working potters in the country, advertises itself as America’s pottery capital. The area is home to more than 50 pottery shops, studios and galleries as well as the North Carolina Pottery Center, a museum dedicated to the craft. Among its residents, Seagrove counts eighth- and ninth-generation potters, as well as a growing number of young apprentices and clay artists.

Tipping the scale from the utilitarian to the artful has long been the mission of the Archie Bray Foundation for the Ceramic Arts, in the foothills near Helena, Montana. Nearly three-quarters of a century after the Bray was founded, the world appears ready for its contemporary take on clay.

“Somewhere in the pandemic,” said the foundation’s current director, Rebecca Harvey, “whatever that hierarchy was, whatever that boundary between art and craft was, seems to have just evaporated.” She pointed to the expanding number of artists, galleries and museums — among them, the Metropolitan Museum of Art — that in recent years have started to embrace clay work.

For those interested in exploring, the Bray offers two-hour experience classes open to the public in July and August. Pieces are fired at the end of each class and ready for pickup two weeks later. Starting in 2024, there will also be short-term workshops year-round. Artist residencies and symposium-style programming are ongoing.

Helena is home to a lively ceramics community. Each summer, local artists open their studios during the two-day Montana Clay Tour. On July 14, the local Blackfoot River Brewing Co. will have a celebration and a special “Bray beer” on tap to kick off the weekend.

Pleasure over productivity

Kuh was trimming away the excess material from a vessel reminiscent of an oversize dumpling, slowly imbuing it with the delicacy of a curtain fluttering in the spring breeze.

It was the last day at the workshop, and she was going over the finishing touches.

“Everyone has a different favorite part of the process. I really love this refining part,” she said, shaving off ribbon after ribbon of drying clay. “It’s like in writing, I like the editing part.”

Because of how long firing ceramics takes, we would not be putting raw clay pieces, known as greenware, in the kiln, but wrapping them to transport home.

Having flown to Maine and knowing this type of clay would melt in the high-temperature kilns at my studio in New York, I realized early on that my pieces would not be returning with me. The thought was weirdly freeing.

Like many hobby ceramists, I had been drawn to pottery because of the sense of purpose it gave me: making planters for my friends, bowls for my family, a little cave for my fish, knickknacks for my girlfriend.

I looked at the objects in front of me. One resembled a muscular set of shoulders with a long and skinny neck; the other reminded me of a volcanic hillside or tubular coral reef. What use would I possibly have for them?

Maybe they could be vases or lamps. Or perhaps their sole function was to bring me closer to the joy of playing I had so rarely felt since childhood.

And why shouldn’t that be purpose enough, I thought, as I dropped my creations into the reclaim bin, where scraps of clay go to await their next adventure.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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