Try: Throwing Some Clay to Find Some Peace

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Like most folks who come here to Beautifully Voyage, I’m a chronic overthinker. I’ve learned to compensate for the brain buzz by staying preoccupied most of my life. Until about 10 years ago, my main outlet for keeping myself busy was baking. Measuring the ingredients with a scale (like most serious bakers, I am OCD about measurements), following linear instructions, and producing something that gives pleasure quiets my brain from obsessing about, for instance, how in third grade I was waiting in line for recess and told my friend that I was going to die by the age of 45, and how I turn 45 next year, and, you know, what if that somehow comes true

But then I transitioned my career from graphic designer (also detail obsessed) into baking and developing recipes. I founded my blog Eat the Love, then wrote a baking cookbook called Marbled, Swirled, and Layered. And I started to find that the kitchen was no longer a place for me relax; now it was a place to work. Fun and satisfying work, but work nonetheless. My former space to get out of my head was suddenly a cause of stress. I needed a new hobby.

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In this age of social media, hobbies for the sake of private fulfillment are becoming a thing of the past. What used to be fun for the sake of fun has now become a public display of people who want you to know they are trying to #BeAuthentic, #LivingTheirBestLife, and #LivingTheDream. Also, Instagram and Etsy have made it possible to make hobbies into careers. That is wonderful for the few who bubble up to the top and actually make money. But it also means there’s pressure to both excel in your hobby and to make money from it. If you aren’t getting hundreds and thousands of likes on social media and money from Google Ads then why bother? There is no longer space for mediocrity and that’s unfortunate. Because sometimes, doing something for the sake of doing something is the whole point. 

About three years ago, I signed up to take a continuing education class in ceramics on a whim. I thought it would be fun to make my own plates and props for my food photography. I had taken a ceramics class many years in high school and I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up again. I figured wrong. Every piece I created was garbage. But a funny thing happened as I made my clunky ceramic pieces—I fell in love with making pottery.

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Here’s the thing about clay as a medium: it is both one of the easiest mediums to work with in the sculpture space as well as one of the most difficult ones. There is no other medium that allows you to immediately create a shape with minimal skill. If you want to create a dent in your piece, you just place your thumb into the clay and push. Every other medium has you carving, hammering or chipping away to get that dent. With clay, you just push and you have it. No other medium allows for this immediate result.

But unlike other mediums, the process to make that shape permanent, is fraught with potential mishaps. Drying the piece improperly can cause cracks in the clay. The dried, unfired clay (called greenware) is fragile, and be ruined if dropped or roughly handed. The clay can explode in the kiln for a number of reasons, including improper preparation of the clay, not properly drying it, or having air holes in the clay. Then, assuming you even get to the next step, glazing the piece poorly can result in in shards of glaze (which is basically glass) falling off. And if you work on the wheel throwing pots, the chances for error become exponentially larger as you try to center and pull each lump of clay into a perfectly symmetrical (good luck!) functional item. Even seasoned ceramic artists know that there is an element of surprise and magic in the outcome. Some of the best potters exploit that, creating unique pieces that are impossible to replicate. It’s a humbling experience and that’s exactly why I love it.

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I’m not the only person who feels this way about ceramics. A few years ago the New York Times wrote about how ceramics was the new pilates and last year Vogue declared it the new yoga! Ceramics not only requires an attention and focus on detail but it is also a way physically be in the moment, almost a form of mediation. Nearly everyone interviewed for the article talked about it as a form a therapy, as if the clay somehow is able to absorb your stress and emotions, while those quoted in the Vogue article refer to ceramics as a “holistic antidepressant.”

I’ve spent the last three years trying to master the potter’s wheel and I’m still learning. I recently started using porcelain, a type of clay that is notorious for its exacting nature, and I feel like I’m starting at square one again. It’s challenging and rewarding work though, as throwing porcelain clay will just make me a better, more refined potter.

I imagine working with clay will be a lifelong pursuit, as every time I learn something (or think I learn something) there are five more things for me to learn or deal with. I talk to potters and ceramic artists with 15 or 20 years experience and they say the same thing--at every turn, every step, something comes up that is potentially problematic. You can invest days, weeks and even months working on a piece, only to have it fall apart in the end. But when it does turn out how you expected--or even better--it’s a wonderful feeling. My professor likens opening the kiln doors to Christmas morning. You never know exactly what to expect but you’ll get something, even if it resembles a lump of coal.

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Working with clay is so absorbing for me that I can’t obsess about anything else. I can’t worry that I didn’t wash my hands after using my iPhone and then ate a handful of potato chips, which will surely give me a severe foodborne illness, because in my mind the iPhone is one of the dirtiest surfaces on the planet. I can’t fret that I inadvertently insulted a friend because I still haven’t written about her cookbook on my blog even though she totally wrote about my cookbook on her blog. All I can do is concentrate on the clay in my hands, especially when I use the wheel. I concentrate on wedging the clay, centering it, creating a hole in the middle then pulling the clay up into a cylinder; that’s it, but that’s everything. Any time my thoughts waver, the clay wavers too, so it takes all my concentration. And since my hands are dirty with wet mud, if the phone vibrates I have to make a choice between getting up and to wash and dirty my hands, or continue what I’m doing. I rarely choose to get up. For the entire period of my three-hour class I am usually unreachable and completely focused on the process. It’s a glorious thing.

But the biggest learning experience in clay is that sometimes (ok, often) the end result isn’t quite what you expect it to be. So instead of making that the most important part, I focus on the joy of the process and get lost in that, which many would argue is a good rule for how to approach life in general. That’s what I’m trying to do.

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But it’s hard. Up until this point, I’ve avoided selling my work and turning my hobby into something that creates money. I don’t want the pressure! But I also have so much pottery in my house, it’s getting a bit ridiculous. So I’ve started up an Instagram account dedicated to my pottery, but I know it’s risky. I can feel the old allure with each like and each follower I get. I’m trying to hold on to my love of clay and working without distraction in the studio. I don’t want to be the guy that has to check his Instagram posts every 15 minutes. I’ve been down that road before and I never want to go back.

For now, I’m just going to enjoy the soothing feelings of the mud slipping through my fingers on the wheel and remind myself I have plenty of time to figure out the rest. Right?

About the Author 

You can follow Irvin’s ceramic adventures on his Instagram account or follow him on his main Instagram account or his food blog Eat the Love to see his ceramics pieces in use.