Fear, Art, and Mud


My first attempts on the wheel.
I've been making ceramics for about four years, but today was the first time I'd ever thrown on the wheel. My husband, Alex, and our various ceramicist friends have offered to teach me many times, and several art schools in the area offer beginners' classes, but I've never tried.

Part of the reason I've never bothered with the wheel is that I really like hand-building. I like using firmer clay and really manhandling it. I like the organic wonkiness of the pinch pots and sculptures I've made, and I don't really want to make functional ware. Truly, I've never wanted to use the wheel. Lately, though, I've been wanting to make bigger things, sculptures that would be difficult to fire if they were solid, different kinds of vessels. There are things I want to make now that I need this other skill to accomplish, but I've waited to ask to be taught because I've been a little scared of not being any good at it.

Fear is part of art. One of my poetry mentors used to ask me often, "What's at stake in this poem? What are you risking?" If you're not risking something, if you're not a little scared, you're not doing the work. If you know for sure that it will turn out well, you're not trying hard enough, you're not "reading beyond your grade level," to borrow an idea from my 4th grader's FCAT information night.

I like to think of myself as being a little bit brave. At least I like to think of myself as a person who isn't afraid of failing, an artist who believes in the experience more than the outcome, so I was pretty annoyed to realize that it was silly, self-conscious fear that kept me from trying the wheel. I was embarrassed to be a beginner. As Alex was showing me how to center the clay, I found myself giggling nervously, and I was glad that he knows me well enough to show me the steps and then leave the room so that I could figure out the details in private.

As you can see, I've got a long way to go before I can throw the larger, sculptural shapes I've been imagining. I might not ever get to those imaginary shapes. I might really suck at this and give it up as an artistic false start, but it won't be fear that keeps me from trying.

So, I fired my dragon pieces and here they are mounted on a crazy bright panel. It's not what I imagined when I sculpted the dragon, but it's something and I kinda love it. I had some other broken pieces and made another, smaller painting with those. It might become a whole series of mixed media pieces based on failures in ceramic. Lord knows I have enough of those. :)
I've been sculpting dragons in clay. They're cartoonish, primitive, wonky. They're also pretty thick-bodied, which I know is a bit dangerous in ceramics. More clay means more chance of air bubbles and other flaws that might cause a break in the high temperatures of the kiln.

Last night, we did a bisque fire of several pots and four dragon sculptures. This morning, the kiln is full of half-baked pots and shards that were my dragons. There must have been an air pocket in the largest sculpture. I think its shattering caused the one beside it to break along some internal fault line into the four pieces you see above.

I've fired enough ceramic not to cry about this. You don't count your ceramic dragons before they've hatched (if that's not an old potter's saying, it should be). Of course, I'm disappointed. I spent hours carving these, finding their personalities, imagining what they would be when they were fired and glazed. No matter how much I tell myself not to get attached to things, I do.

At my parents' house in Frostproof, where we raku, there is a pile of red brick against the pasture fence left over from building the house I grew up in. It's covered in weeds and spiders, and when we break a piece in a raku firing, we take out our frustration by hurling the fragments against the brick pile, shouting for the necessary catharsis. This morning, unable to hurl and shout in the early Sunday quiet of the apartment complex, I unpack the kiln carefully. Half-fired ceramic is brittle and easily shattered. I burn my fingers on the hot clay as I examine each piece, analyze this failure, look for where I went wrong. I find things I can salvage.

These pieces are broken cleanly. I'm going to fire them as they are. If they survive, I will glaze and raku them. I will imagine a new life for them, a new personality. Maybe a mixed media piece called "Deconstructed Dragon." I will make something of my failures. I will call it art.