3 things pottery taught me about life

‘It’s so hard to do pottery when you’re feeling miserable’ is what my teacher said, after watching me struggle with the clay for an hour. All I’d managed to do was spin it into slippery puddles of mud, no matter how hard I wished it was a bowl.

It was my first week in the pottery class. Still raw from stress-induced burnout, I was trying pottery as a kind of art therapy. I went in as a beginner with the lofty goal to make a set of bowls.

It was apparent very early on that it was going to take more than good intentions to form a bowl. But surprisingly – and unlike me – I let go of the idea of making the perfect bowl and was transfixed by the sensory experience of the clay. It naturally slowed my rhythm and took me out of my head and into my body. The chattering monkey that had taken up residence in my mind took a 20 minute nap while I was playing with clay.

I kept going back, and week after week I was deconstructing myself and rebuilding. Looking back I can see that there are things that I had to learn in the pottery class (and later when I had my own pottery studio) that became lessons for my life.

Lesson one: do one thing at a time, and do it well.

Pre-Winterwares I was the woman who tried to squeeze every ounce of time out of a day like squeezing juice from a lemon. I was obsessed with productivity hacking. Proud that every line in my weekly planner was accounted for with /doing/ things. I was so good at the doing, I forgot about just being. Old me scoffed at the idea of doing one thing at a time – ‘what a waste of time!’

I was so wired to multitask, I was even productivity hacking my downtime.

‘Look at me! I can watch Downton Abbey and return that ASOS dress I regret buying at 3am and make a Pinterest board for the ultimate Star Wars birthday party cake. 

and get on top of my work emails for next week – I’m nailing it!’

We’re dizzyingly busy. Our attention is pulled in every direction. We invite the bleakness of the world into our intimate moments and spaces. Tweeting from the toilet, scrolling 24 news feeds from our beds. We don’t allow ourselves the luxury to just be. To have moments where we can stare out the window or sit in the sunshine without a phone in our hands.

Working with clay forced me to slow down. There are many phases in the process from clay to finished bowl and each step can’t be rushed.

If you rush the prepping, you get bubbles in the clay. If you rush the forming, you get cracks in the rims. If you don’t wait long enough for them to dry, they explode in the kiln. If you open the kiln door too early, the glaze splits.

It was a revelation to me, there was a process that I couldn’t make go any faster. I had no choice but to do one thing at a time and do it well. If a customer wants a plate next week, I have to say no, sorry, it takes three weeks, I can’t physically make it go faster. It was so bizarre to me, and exactly what I needed to retrain my brain.

I started to apply the same principals at home, to do one thing at a time and do it well. I couldn’t do it all, so I said no to the things that weren’t essential.

Lesson two: keep perspective.

I was a few months into my pottery classes and filled with beginners optimism I decided I would have a market stall. My plan was to have one kiln load (around 80 pieces) of ceramics. I didn’t have my own kiln at the time. My friend was generous enough to loan me hers.

The thing with handmade ceramics is that you’re very much at the mercy of the kiln. It’s what makes handmade items so covetable. You hone the clay and the glaze and there’s still room for variables in the intense heat of the firing. If a firing fails, which can happen for a number of reasons, it takes minimum three weeks to make enough to fill the kiln again.

I was feeling confident and optimistic as I loaded ALL my wares for the market into the kiln – five days out from the event. Can you see where this is going?

Three days later I opened the kiln door and it had overcooked. The kiln was so hot the clay blistered and the glaze bubbled and cracked. Out of 80 pieces I had about half a dozen.

I moved through the five stages of grief in about ten minutes.
(Denial) ‘oh no this isn’t happening!’
(Anger) I swore, a lot.
(Bargaining) ’it’s OK I can tell people they’re modern art pieces, they’re supposed to look like that’.
(Depression) I slumped to the floor and had a little cry. And then,
(Acceptance) I took a couple of deep breaths and thought, you know what – does it matter? In the grand landscape of life, is this important enough to lose sleep? Does anyone care?

And the answer was, no.

I shifted my focus, instead of using the market to make revenue, I thought, I’ll use it to make relationships. I printed dozens of postcards. I had my few pieces of pottery as ‘display only’ and made to order. I didn’t get many sales in that first market day but I had lots of conversations with people who still keep in touch with me.

It’s helped me keep perspective, on what is worth stressing about and what isn’t.

Lesson three: there’s beauty in imperfection

‘Close your eyes’ I say to the group of people who are in my studio for their first pottery workshop, ‘and picture your perfect bowl’.

‘Imagine holding it in your hands – see the shape of it, feel the curves, imagine the weight’.

‘Now, take a deep breath … and open your eyes …’

‘… and forget that picture. Because your bowl ain’t gonna look like that. Not even close.’ It gets a laugh and everyone relaxes.

If you’ve never done pottery before (and even if you have), there are so many factors beyond your control. You’re rarely going to make a bowl that will look exactly like that picture in your head.

Sometimes the unexpected results are better than anything I could have imagined. I tried once to mix a grey glaze, and I made a mistake with the recipe. And it came out the prettiest eucalyptus shade. The soft green ombre in the base of the bowl and on the rim where it was thinner there was a golden seam, just like on the edge of a leaf. (If only I could remember what the mistake was with the recipe so I could replicate it!)

I realised that when I let go of my expectations of how things would turn out, I could enjoy the process. And not only that but when I let go of my rigid ideas, I am surprised by the beauty in the unexpected.

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