Ceramics: The Art of Letting Go

10.11.2021

During my summer internship in the Decorative Arts department at the RISD Museum, I worked with ceramics regularly. One of my first tasks was cataloging the almost two hundred pieces of pottery collected by former RISD President Eliza Radeke. While I knew practical information about these works, like dates and countries of origin, I knew little about the process of creating them. Throughout my internship I’ve received a recurring piece of advice from staff across all departments: familiarize yourself with the medium you are working with. This is what I set out to do by making a ceramic object.

I came to the RISD Museum not as an artist but as a historian. My analytical brain is trained to see objects in museums as parts of a larger puzzle, something reflecting a larger artistic movement or historical period. But through the creation process, I hoped to reset my brain to fully appreciate individual artworks for their craftsmanship alone. To do this, I first had to overcome my artistic anxiety.

My fear of creative endeavors stems from two concerns. The first is originality: I often feel that every unique idea has already been done. Therefore, anything I create would be merely a poor imitation of something someone else had executed much better. My second fear is the dreaded “phony” label. As a non-artist, I have always assumed inspiration comes from some undefinable, supernatural source, as if a temporary demon possesses an artist’s body until the idea is exorcised. Since I am not spontaneous by nature, I assume anything I create would be too coordinated and, therefore, disingenuousor even worse, kitsch. I did not want to be the Thomas Kinkade of ceramics.

Thankfully, ceramics are the perfect medium for facing these creative anxieties. The medium is defined by unpredictability. Some glazes, like crystalline, form irregular patterns similar to jewels. Copper glazes have a wide range of reactions to heat depending on the heating method. If the glaze is not exposed to oxygen while firinga method known as reductioncopper will change from green to red. The chemistry of the firing process adds an element of unpredictability, something ceramicists have learned to embrace.

The first challenge I encountered in my journey was my lack of access. Ceramics is a difficult medium to enter because of the required materials. Everyone can pick up a pen and paper to draw, but a kiln is a luxury even few ceramists can afford. Many ceramicists pay for time in studios to access a kiln. And while I found studios offering these reservations, I needed an instructor. The few classes I did find were long-term adult programs, quite a commitment for someone who has never laid their hands on clay.

Eventually, I discovered The Clayroom in Brookline, Massachusetts, which offered an introductory clay throwing session with an instructor and a painting session. So on Friday, July 23rd, I set out on the commuter rail to Boston.

After my belated arrival at The Clayroom, I was surprised by how casual the environment was. Other participants, representing a variety of age groups, sat listening to music and painting their pieces alongside studio employees. My instructor, Jana, was extremely supportive and helped me photograph the endeavor.

The first step was kneading the clay, which was done by rolling the clay on the table and folding it in half with each cycle. The clay felt foreign in my hands, and I immediately felt awkward in my technique. I also struggled to get my clay to stick to the wheel. Instead of slapping the clay onto the center, I dropped it like a sack of potatoes, with no force behind it. These problems stemmed from my fear of handling the clay since each encounter carried the risk of messing up. Of course, this was something I quickly forced myself to get over since force was necessary to create any form. After some assistance from Jana, I was able to get the ball to stick and secured it in place with water.

Next was the actual shaping process. This is the cliché picture of pottery-making most people have in their heads. The wheel spins while the ceramist manipulates the clay into a form of their choosing. I choose a bowl: something simple and, hopefully, usable. To transform my lump of clay into functioning pottery, I had to repeat several techniques. First, I straightened the sides of the clay by sandwiching it between my two hands.

Next, I cupped the top of the mold to flatten the piece. But the most transformative move was when I pushed two fingers into the center of the mass, instantly transforming it into a hallowed container. These steps were repeated again and again, and with each cycle, I became more comfortable with the material between my fingers.

 My favorite part of the shaping process was creating the rim of the bowl. For this step, I simply pinched the edge of the bowl with one hand, while also flattening the rim with a straightened finger on the opposite hand.

Although I felt more confident manipulating the material, there were still some issues. The piece was slightly lopsided, likely from unequal pressure on the sides. While trimming the excess clay from the base, I made more than a few notches. But the most detrimental mistake happened when I removed the piece from the wheel by slicing through the bottom with a wire. During this step, I created a crack in the center base of the bowl, rendering the piece non-functional.

Still, my first attempt was better than my second. I entered a trance-like state, thanks to the repetitive motions. What began as the world’s thickest shot glass, I soon flattened into a plate. The change happened subtly with each cycle and then all at once. I felt like I blinked to find an entirely different shape. In the end, the plate was too thick to be supported by its tiny base and collapsed.

The employees at the Clayroom fired my bowl in their kiln the following week. When I returned, I found the firing process had turned it white and chalky. Besides the crack at the base, I was fairly impressed with the form. It was plainly a bowl, and I could make it functional by applying a generous coat of paint to seal the split.

I went into my painting session with a general idea of what I wanted to create. I considered painting several small flowers, but I feared my hand wouldn’t be steady enough to create a uniform pattern. I stuck to the naturalist theme and decided to create a sun. I choose my colors following this theme, including warm tones of red, orange, pink, and yellow.

The first thing I did was choose a focal point. I have always enjoyed the secretive nature of designs hidden inside the well of containers. In that vein, I decided to make a red bullseye in the center of the interior, which also allowed me to repair the crack.

I wanted the sun to be abstract, so I started by using lighter hues radiating from the center to communicate sun rays. However, I eventually gave in to my kindergarten impulse to add lines around the circular sun. I’m happy I did! The lines reached out from the bottom of the bowl towards the rim, creating an interesting three-dimensional effect.

For two hours, I applied layer after layer of paint to ensure I covered the whole surface. Since the colors are much lighter before firing, I had a difficult time seeing where I have painted. But overall, the painting was the most user-friendly portion of the ceramic process. Anyone who has attended elementary school can succeed and have a good time doing so.

Hailey Morales was the 2021 Andrew W. Mellon Summer Intern in Decorative Arts and Design and is a graduate of the University of Massachusetts Amherst in History.