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I’ve been an art teacher for 25 years now.
I’ve taught mostly children, but have recently been teaching adults how to make pots on the potter’s wheel. In the pottery game, we call it “throwing on the wheel.”
I love teaching art for many reasons. The most inspiring is the honor of watching people glimpse their potential while learning a skill that is tough to master. Whether it be painting, drawing, sculpture, or throwing, the act of teaching engaged students offers so much joy and fulfillment that I feel like I might burst sometimes.
Last week I was teaching wheel throwing to a group of adults. Most of them had never touched clay before. They were learning how to work with the medium, how to find and use their energetic core to throw, and how to allow the clay to be and work with it.
The thing about clay is, it’s alive. Like people, animals, plants, or anything with a soul, clay can act as a mirror when we truly engage with it. Things happen with clay that you might not predict or plan. When you allow space for that to happen, you open to a freedom that can grow exponentially as your practice expands.
After a couple of weeks of throwing on the wheel, the students were so tender with the pots they were able to throw. It was a privilege to witness—those moments took me back decades to when I first learned to throw. I found myself in the process.
“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.” ~ Kurt Vonnegut
I remember one such student, let’s call her Mary. She’d thrown a bud vase perfectly. It was symmetrical with a simple, but pleasing shape. It was the best thing she’d thrown since she started coming to the studio including between classes to practice. Mary put the pot on the wheel to trim it—the term we use for trimming unnecessary clay to reveal a more pleasing and functional shape. Her perfect bud vase flew off-centre and caught the wheel’s edge where it tumbled until she caught it. To say she was crushed is an understatement. The class, which was always supportive and encouraging, let out a sympathetic groan in condolence.
Before she was able to throw the pot away, I stopped her. I told her that although this pot wasn’t what she wanted it to be, it was now an extraordinarily beautiful example of chaos and organic happening. I let her know that just like her perfect pot, she was full of potential that she had yet to glimpse. I told her that if she could move to a place where she could accept what this pot had become, if she could let go of what she wanted it to be, then she could do the same with her expectations of herself. I told her that her potential is greater than she could imagine, and if she just allowed it, it would appear.
She sat in silence, looking down at her pot. I became nervous because there are times as a teacher when saying less is more. Sometimes my exuberance can come across as a lecture or a scolding. I was worried I might have gone too far.
She looked up at me with tears in her eyes. Her mask covered the rest of her face. I was unsure if I had hurt or inspired her. She lowered her mask and mouthed, “Thank you,” through her tears. I nodded and walked away slowly, feeling full of love, hoping the process had revealed more to Mary than she was expecting.
These moments are not super common in teaching, but many like them are—magical moments when a person achieves something beyond what they thought they could do. Once people get a taste of this kind of magic, they start to realize they can find it elsewhere.
This process is how I learned to love and accept myself. How I learned to celebrate even the smallest victories. If I can give the opportunity of self-exploration through making to even one person, I will not have wasted this life. I believe deeply in the magic of making—allowing yourself to be messy, flawed, and awful is all part of finding the magic that hides deep inside of you. Once you understand these things are linked, you’re able to face them with curiosity and confidence that inspires you to risk, take chances, and face your fears with newfound courage.