Feel good art… or the art of feeling good

I love art. This is one thing that I’m not sure a lot of my good friends know about me, because it’s an interest that I never had in high school. It started with my freshman humanities class at Millikin. My dad has always been great about exposing my brother and I to many different learning opportunities, and so the St. Louis Art Museum was a regular stop on summer vacations. Since college, I’ve been able to spend a lot more of my time and energy just enjoying whatever I encounter, either at SLAM, art fairs, or special exhibits in the area. And I especially enjoy checking out the art creations of the students at my school. Some of them are so very talented. In fact, a student painting is the centerpiece of my living room decor now.

I’ve always enjoyed art for the aesthetic. I’m just an appreciator. I’m not especially knowledgeable about art history, art movements, art techniques. I just like looking at pretty/interesting/strange things and losing myself in whatever they make me think about. It makes me feel good, and y’all know I’m a sucker for a good story. Most art has fabulous stories if you take the time to read the little plaques on the wall. I must confess, sometimes I spend more time reading about the piece than I do actually looking at it. I also have an appreciation for the process… the difficulty in creating a thing… though I don’t know much about it and don’t have any practice in it.

Well, yesterday I took my first baby step in moving from appreciator to creator. I took my first art workshop – a ceramics class taught by high school students. Right away I knew that I was in trouble when all I had to do was “wedge” my clay (beat the clay onto the table to eliminate any air bubbles) into a square, I mean a cube, and I couldn’t do it. That’s right, I couldn’t pick up a wad of clay and drop it on a table properly. But art isn’t about competition, it’s about expressing what’s inside, right? No biggie. So next, we were encouraged to create a “pinch pot.” Such a cute sounding assignment is not at all threatening, and therefore, a perfect assignment for a beginner class. Better yet, the lady who can’t even wedge. And I must pause here to say that our teachers (three of which are former students of mine) were so patient and kind, and they really know how to teach. Pinch pots are little hand sized pots (or slightly bigger or smaller) made by “pinching” out the clay into a container. It can be circular or square. The goal is to have uniform thickness around the sides and bottom. Simple enough. Yeaaahhh. Um… my first pinch pot was an utter disaster. In fact, I set the whole wad of clay aside and started over. Second try wasn’t much better. I scrapped that attempt and practiced honing my lacking rewedging skills for our second assignment.

Assignment two was to build a container using a coil technique. For all you play-doh fans out there, that’s where you roll out a snake and you coil it to make a base. But you must remember to “score” and “slip” so that the dern things hold together. Then you must roll out uniform sized “snakes” and coil it around the base, remembering to score and slip, to build up the size of the containers. Now, if you’re imagining this as just a glorified play-doh session, let me tell you that clay has much more of a mind of it’s own. It’s stickier when wet, tougher when dry, and is more sensitive to pressure. You’d think rolling out a uniform piece of clay into a snake would be easy. Not so much from the girl who got a D in wedging and an incomplete in “pinch pot.” By the time I got my coil as uniform as it was going to get, scored the sides, I was breaking a sweat. I think it was painful for “E,” one of the student helpers, to watch. I was trying not to feel self-conscious. I was happy to have my container about a 1/2 inch high, but I was surprised at how much concentration all this scoring, slipping, rolling, and coiling took. Isn’t it supposed to make us feel good? After hunching over my coil for about 10 minutes, I stood up, looked at E and pleaded, “This is hard! Can’t I just read something?”

I did get my coil container to stand about 1.5 inches high. It’s lopsided. The coils are not uniform, it’s lumpy. E and another teacher, M, were very encouraging. I knew it was a piece of ceramic crud, but it was my ceramic coil crud. Plus, striving for perfection is completely contradictory to the learning process. As an educator, I know that. But as a gal who often excels, it’s hard to go back to square one and try something completely new. But it is good for us to do so. Other students made much prettier, uniform, smooth ones. Other’s made lumpier, uneven (but taller) ones. But I decided that I didn’t care. I worked hard on it and I was satisfied. It will be a good piece on which to practice glazing, and it will look great on my desk as a paper-clip holder.

Next came throwing on the wheel. Now this is what I came here for. I have heard a lot from my coworker, MB, about throwing on the wheel this year. It has always fascinated me, but the most I know about it is that scene in Ghost where Demi Moore is throwing and she has this impressively tall piece in the works, and then Patrick Swayze comes in and ruins it with all his shirtless sexiness. I was actually annoyed with that love scene between two beautiful Brat Packers, because I wanted to watch her work with that clay on that wheel more. Who cares about sweet love on a couch with the Righteous Brothers playing “Unchained Melody” in the background? Especially when there’s clay to be thrown?? I mean, seriously, that’s when you know you’re an art fan.

I couldn’t wait to watch someone do this process from beginning to end. I had a front seat to M’s demonstration, and watched, impressed by how she could do this so easily, and explain so clearly, what she was doing. This girl, I think, really has it in her to be a teacher. I watched her hand positions, listened carefully to her explanation, and the clay took a beautiful shape, and she made it look so effortless. But what was the most thrilling was to watch her mom and dad watch her. Her mom’s face had this beautiful combination of wonder and pride. Her dad’s face was not as easy to read, but his eyes were riveted to his daughter. I’m sure they’ve always known how talented M is, but to see her demonstrate, to teach, and to create so effortlessly, I think, made quite an impression on them. I was excited just to watch the process, and I opted not to try throwing on the wheel this week.

What I did do is I tried another pinch pot while I watched M’s wheel demonstration. MB had said that some of her students find that they do better by feeling the clay rather than looking at it. So, I kept my eyes on M, her hands, the clay, her parents, and lo and behold! I had a nicely rounded, uniform sized, smooth little pinch pot. And it is cute, just like its name.

So, I left the class a little wiser. Art makes you exert yourself. This is something I’ve always known but never really experienced. Kind of like when you watch an avid runner and they make it look so easy. You think to yourself, “Man, I’m going to start jogging. It’ll be good for me.” Then you jog to the end of your street, or in my case, to the neighbors’ house, and you realize that jogging=agonizing death unless you train for it. I never saw my life flash before me as tried to coil, but I did feel like I was being pushed. I was extending myself into something. And unlike my preferred medium – words – I couldn’t just hit the delete key and pick up where I left off. Scrapping a pinch pot meant re-wedging, something that’s already a challenge, and starting again with a material that just didn’t feel natural to me. But, it felt good to give my creative muscles a work out. I’m not sure that ceramics will ever be my medium, but the clay certainly felt more friendly after my successful pinch pot. We’ll get along just fine for the next two Saturdays. I am looking forward to throwing on the wheel. Most importantly, I left class feeling good.

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