By Karen Mannino Monday, Nov. 11th, 2013
A lump of clay weighing about two pounds waits on a low bench just on the other end of the potter’s wheel. Between me and the clay stand one perfectly round and level wheel head, a plastic mixing bowl full of warm water, a few bits of wood and rubber which I use as tools, one sponge, and my ability to use my most complicated tools; my hands.
The most crucial (and difficult) part of throwing on the wheel is getting the clay centered. I’ve formed the lump into something like a sphere, smacking down hard edges and anything else that sticks out it with the palm of my hand. The wheel head is scored with concentric circles to help me place my clay in the exact center, like hitting a bull’s eye. But if that happens, it is mostly luck. The clay lands somewhere inside the two innermost circles anyway. The wheel whirrs up to speed, flinging the first sponge of water I pour over the clay onto the sides of the splash pan. I brace my elbows on my knees and take a breath before pushing the heels of my hands down and forward onto the clay.
If I thought the clay was round when I put it on the wheel, my illusions are quickly destroyed. Every irregularity hits my rigid palms, sending shocks up my arms and into my shoulders. A firmness, setting from my core to my fingertips slowly proves itself stronger than two pounds of wet clay. I hold firm until the jerking stops.
The smaller irregularities take the most effort to correct. I move my left hand slowly inward, pushing on the base of the clay lump. The top rises into a narrow cone. This pushes any air bubbles out of the clay and gets all of the tiny clay platelets “marching around in a circle together,” as one of my teachers put it. The skin between my forefinger and thumb, pulled taut, scrapes away the slip; fine particles of clay that have mixed with the water to lubricate my hand against the clay. I can feel the friction growing to heat on the surface of the clay. The water in my bowl is full of ripples, vibrating with the motor of the wheel, and broken by my hands dipping. The cone rises up, and then sinks again into a low hill with a flat top.
Resting both my hands lightly on top of the clay, I can feel the subtle jerking and wobbles which will certainly throw a piece off balance if not corrected. I push the heel of both hands into the base of the clay at the center. My wrists are touching together and bent back so that the strength of my arm, with the weight of my body behind it, can push straight into the clay. My right wrist feels like blunt teeth are biting into the bones and muscle, grinding them to pulp.
Between violin, painting, drawing, typing, not to mention taking hand written notes in theology classes, my right hand is stiffer and weaker than my uncoordinated left. I can’t win. But I have ways of compensating. I shift my body so that I can brace my right elbow against the top of my hip. I bring my right hand to the center of the clay and put my left hand on top of it. My left thumb supports and pushes against the back of my right hand, while my left palm and fingers push down on my right thumb (which doesn’t do this motion on its own without causing small but painful explosions up my arm) so that I am pushing the clay from the side, and also from the top. The slip running off the clay is caught between the side of my hands and the wheel head. The wheel may as well be coated in sandpaper for all the friction. I am always a bit surprised that I have any skin left on that side of my hand. But at least my wrist doesn’t hurt anymore.
For a few more seconds I don’t even breath. No motion. Just firm, unyielding control of every muscle, of every pound of pressure available to me.
Then, slowly, I ease off. I breathe. I have a rapidly spinning lump of clay that is so perfectly centered that it looks and feels as though it is standing perfectly still. The last few seconds were so easy. The clay seems to relax into a form that gravity pulls at from all sides equally. It is a perfect symmetrical impression of the space under my hands; that specific position that I found to keep my wrist from hurting. The clay is centered. Now I am ready to make something out of it.
I cannot make vessels that do not correspond to my body. I am limited, in throwing, by specific physical characteristics. My hands are only so big. My left wrist bends a little further than my right. I have only the weight and strength of my body to push against the spinning lump of clay. The tiny ridges and valleys that make up my finger prints leave corresponding ridges and valleys in the soft sides of a newly formed mug. They will remain there and become permanent when the clay goes through the fire to become ceramic; perhaps a work of art.
My body has a physical core which balances me. I can make it discipline it, to allow me to move with more grace and precision. My conscience and my soul must also be disciplined by something to make me a strong character. The culture I live in, the events of the time that I live in, the very geography of the inland Northwest, pushes and yields at one spot or another as time goes on spinning. A thousand things and people define the shape of my character. I can easily let these things center me. I also have a choice. The question I must ask is, whose finger prints do I want left on my soul when I go into the fire?
Karen Mannino has a BA in Studio Art from Aquinas College. She spends about fifteen hours a week with clay under her fingernails. She would spend more if she had her own wheel. In which case she would probably be too busy making mugs to write for this blog.