Saturday, December 26, 2009

Playing in the Mud

After a twenty-eight year hiatus, I've come back to playing with clay, which is really just very stiff mud, relearning skills that I believe are some of the most natural inclinations of human hands. I'm drawn to this art form, partly because it allows me to work directly with materials that I can gather myself. Likewise, making twine has a certain elemental simplicity to me, because I can gather the plant fibers and transform them with my hands. A recent newsletter I received from another blogger named Dan Joseph illuminates another dimension related to turning pottery that is also true for me.

If you have learned to build on a potter's wheel, you may be familiar with some of the steps required to create a pot: First, there is "coning," which is the process of getting the clay into a moldable form and squeezing the air bubbles out. Second, you need to "center" the clay on the wheel so that the body of the vessel will be symmetrical and have even thickness. Third, you "open" the clay by pressing down the center and pulling the clay out. After this, you can begin to form the vessel by gently pulling up and out to create whatever form you imagine.

Dan uses the ideas of "centering" and "opening" as paths to the divine, which may be why making pottery is so therapeutic to me, and so fundamental to human civilization.

To access the divine, he says, you first need to "center your mind on a more inspiring, opening line of thought." This follows dispensing with the distractions of unproductive thought, which I relate to "coning," (more crudely stated, the process of getting your sh*t together!) Once you are centered, he says, you can "practice opening to the divine flow of peaceful, loving thoughts and feelings, and you can trust that they will flow through you into the world."

I like this metaphor, because when I am working with clay at the wheel or just with my hands, it definitely requires a certain clarity and focus to consciously create a form. If I am frustrated, distracted or angry, centering doesn't happen at the wheel, because my mind is not centered. Likewise for opening, because without a receptive mind, the clay often goes off center again, and I'm left with a formless lump of clay. TIme to go back to coning!

When the coning, centering and opening all go well, a vessel can be created. At this stage of my ceramics career, more often than not, the shape of the vessel is not necessarily intentional. But that is okay. The point is, the practice of pottery building offers a path to the divine, just as is any practice that someone chooses to engage in with an uncluttered and receptive mind. Unfortunately, I've still got a lot of coning to do, but every now and then, I manage to get centered and open, and produce a few pots.

If you are interested in Dan Joseph's newsletter, you can access it through his website at


Amber said...

I love it! Your works are lovely by the way - I meant to comment on fb when I saw them and the day slipped away. But seeing them again here with the process is even better. Thank you.

Allan Stellar said...

Now that you've done clay...why not graduate to play in our mud house? We have lots of mud to make later this spring... :)