Why you should take a wheel pottery class
Updated: Apr 1
Late last year, I tried my hand(s) at a wheel pottery class for the first time.
Six humbling sessions every Saturday afternoon at L'Atelier de Sabine in Madiwela, surrounded by a hard-working and hilarious bunch of masked women crafting everything from ceramic cat-faced bowls for their nonchalant fur-mates to ashtrays designed to stick it to the patriarchy. (Ask me about this in private. Pun intended.)
There, I learned the basics of slapping and wedging the clay, centering the wobbling mass on the wheel and moulding it to my will (read: trying to mould).
Here, in no particular order, are a couple of reasons why everyone (but especially creatives) should take a wheel pottery class:
1) There are absolutely no guarantees in wheel pottery. You can spend hours working that whirling dervish of dirt without making anything worthy of the kiln. If you so much as smuggle in an air bubble during the wedging of the clay, your well-intentioned piece may explode during the firing. It's a powerful exercise in releasing expectations and relinquishing control.
2) Wheel pottery doesn't lend itself to shortcuts or quick results. You might shape a bowl on the wheel during your first class but if you think you'll get to take it home anytime soon, you're wrong. It'll take a week or two for that bowl to dry well enough to have some structure and heft to it. Only then can you 'finish' it, which involves slapping each piece back on the wheel, trimming off the excess clay with loop and ribbon tools and sponging out imperfections. Thereafter, it's time to paint a design of your choice. That is a bit of a gamble in itself because no colour ever turns out as it looks in the tin! (To wit: I had a weak purple turn into a rich cobalt and a deep turquoise turn into a shy teal.) Once that's done, your handiwork undergoes a first firing in the kiln (which gives you bisqueware). This is followed by the glazing of the bisqueware and a second firing to create waterproof ceramic ware that can actually hold food and beverages. The beauty and discipline of wheel pottery is that it demands you go through all of these motions without the guarantee of a pleasing finished product. Even if your pot passes the the first firing, there's no guarantee that it won't die a dramatic death in the second. The whole process is the very essence of delayed gratification; teaching you to divorce effort from outcome in the best way possible.
3) The movements at the wheel aren't particularly intuitive. You feel the need to be gentle when you actually have to apply pressure. Your elbows pop out of their own accord when they actually need to be locked in place against your body. The silent dance of the hands takes ages to master and don't even get me started on coordination with the foot pedal. It's a reminder that everything is learned; every movement requires practice. You aren't born knowing how to wield a chisel, knowing color theory or understanding the properties of clay. Mastery takes time and there's honor in being a beginner.
4) The experience is meditative and visceral. You come to class expecting to get muddied and doused in slimy flecks of earth. There's no room for pretension or to compete with others because you need to focus wholly on your lump of clay. You can't be on your phone or multi-task because the work is physical. Whether you're splashing water on the clay, sponging off the insides to create spirals or slicing pot bottoms with a fine wire, it's all about getting your hands dirty and being on your own journey.
As a creative at heart, the best thing about trying something new is that it can give you a fresh mental model that strengthens your broader creative practice. In a culture of quick wins, instant gratification, attention deficits and highly-curated aesthetics, it's helpful to deliberately do something that goes against the grain. It builds discipline and maturity into the creative process. Even if you're not remotely creative, I'd still recommend a wheel pottery class - if only for the stress relief and the satisfaction of eating out of a bowl you made yourself.