Several years ago I was teaching a week long pottery workshop at a mountain retreat center. My ten pottery students were away on a day trip when I was approached by the leader of a creative writing workshop. She said six of her students wanted to learn to throw on the potters wheel. We looked at her schedule for the day (mine was open because my students were away for the day) and the only time all six of her students could manage to come for a wheel class was during the afternoon “quite time”. We talked about how strictly they had adhered to the 1 – 3 p.m. quiet hours each day of their two week retreat.
Loving the challenge I said I’d teach them from 1 – 3 p.m. in complete silence. What a class, what an experiment!
At noon I went to the clay studio and arranged batts, tools, clay, towels and then sat myself down and tried to imagine using body language to teach people who had not thrown on the potter’s wheel. Promptly at 1 p.m., six shy, smiling people filed into the pottery studio door. I motioned each of them to a stool in front of their wheels and I sat on my stool in front of my wheel.
I then motioned for them to remain seated and I got up, got a batt, tools and water bowl which I filled with water. I placed everything at my wheel. I went to the wedging table, cut a square of clay from the bag of clay, patted the clay into a ball and returned to my wheel ~ 10 of the 120 silent minutes had ticked by and all seven of us hadn’t stopped smiling.
For the next fifteen or so minutes I silently demonstrated how to turn on the electric potter’s wheel, use the foot pedal, attach the batt, slap the ball of clay on the batt, center, open, pull up the wall and form a simple bowl. I nodded at my six silent students and they got busy ~ in a very orderly, quiet fashion.
It was like being in a dream state with seven of us quietly moving about the room. There was some noise ~ the running of water, scuffle of shoes, scrape of stools, clicks as wheels were turned on and the hum of the wheels. There was no chatter and oddly no awkwardness.
Each student watched closely as I cut a second piece of clay, patted it into a ball, slapped it onto a batt. I motioned for them to begin their throwing. I quickly threw another bowl then got up and went from student to student gently touching their shoulder to get their attention then pressing in or down on an elbow that need to be braced or to change a hand position. Moving behind each student was like floating in water ~ I’d hover, touch a shoulder, make a correction and move on.
For the next hour and a half we quietly made pots, mostly small bowls, cylinders and lumpy vases. Twenty minutes before the end of our two hours I motioned for everyone to watch as I switched off my wheel, put my slop clay in the recycle bucket, wiped and washed my tools, removed my splash pan, cleaned it and the wheel I’d used.
This time together felt like being in a trance but the best was yet to happen.
I walked over to a chair in the corner of the pottery studio and sat transfixed ~ it was like watching a silent movie. The six individuals worked at their last pot and as each completed their piece they moved around the studio in an almost choreographed manner. As one student finished a pot, cut under it and got up to put it on a shelf another student would lean over and wipe off the first student’s tools as a third student would clean out their splash pan and a fourth student would be washing another student’s tools.
This helping of one another became contagious as they realized they were all doing a bit of clean up for someone else as another person was cleaning up for them! I sat back in amazement as they helped each other. By 2:55 p.m. we were all sitting watching the studio clock. At 3:00 p.m. on the dot we stood up, hugged each other and began to laugh.
What a remarkable class ~ what an experience.