Growing up in Baltimore, my mother and father home-schooled me and my siblings for my middle school years. We bought textbooks and went to our weekly co-op meetings, where other parents would teach us new skills and we would hang out with kids our own age.
During that time, I learned the value of real independent learning. When I entered high school, it was difficult to adjust in reading and math, but I was deeply empowered to use every tool at my disposal to learn what I wanted. Baltimore was a big reason I could do that.
That’s what drove me to start “Class Stories,” a series in which I’ll be sharing occasional stories about classes I’m taking to introduce readers to different ways they can learn new skills. These courses are typically run by a local organization, and my goal is to give readers enough information so they can walk into their first class ready to learn — without first-day jitters. The first one I took for this series was a beginner wheel throwing class at Baltimore Clayworks.
Clayworks’ basic wheel throwing class is a powerful entry point to the intimidating world of wheel. The potter’s wheel is where mugs, bowls, plates and other circular items can be made out of clay. The class costs $400 if you are not a Clayworks member, and $385 if you are. A Clayworks membership is about $60 per year (but it’s less if you’re over 65 years old, and more if you buy a membership for your household) and it gives you access to early class registration, discounted courses and even local business perks.
During the summer session, each course is 8 weeks long. The course fee covers instruction, the cost of 25 pounds of clay, as well as access to the Clayworks studio by appointment. In addition to those perks, students can purchase a clay tool kit for $29 at Clayworks when they come for the first class.
Walking into class, it’s important to know you will get dirty. No matter the effort to come out spotless, it’s inevitable. Clay is just very wet mud, and working with it can get you fully covered in it. Clayworks sells aprons, but really any old apron will work.
With the mess comes the need to clean. As a notoriously messy person, I am still learning the value of keeping my creations clean. My girlfriend, who co-enrolled in this course with me, is a printmaker. In our home studio, there’s a print on display that reads: “Clean hands make clean prints.”
The same could be said about clay. Keeping a towel next to your wheel can get excessive “slip” (wet clay that lubricates your hands so it glides over the clay smoothly) off your hands. Many processes in clay require dry hands or wet hands, rarely damp ones. Without a towel, I found it difficult to switch to a new piece because I needed dry hands to wedge the clay. My apron could only hold so much before it became a stiff piece of clay waiting to be fired itself.
My instructor, a retired public school teacher who had been throwing pots for years, had the patience of well … a retired school teacher. As a writer — not a potter — my visual acuity is lacking when it comes to throwing clay. When my instructor told me to “compress the bottom by moving back and forth with your sponge,” I had to truly ask, “What do you mean by back and forth?”
She sat with me, hands on mine, and guided me on how to compress the bottom so it wouldn’t crack in the kiln. The kiln — a large oven with high heat used to change the clay’s composition — is where a lot of ceramics go to die. It makes the clay porous but hard, and then in its second firing, the glazed material takes on a glassy finish.
Throughout the eight-week session, my instructor taught me many hands-on lessons that didn’t quite stick. The wheel is a difficult tool. To create the desired shapes, a potter must guide the clay where they want it to go. It’s necessary to keep the body rooted and still while the wheel is moving.
But with multiple pounds of clay moving quickly in a circle, staying still is difficult. A lot of my pieces were misshapen because I allowed the clay to “push” me out; I wasn’t grounded enough. These pieces were often scrapped and put back into the 25-pound slab of clay they gave me. At the end of my first session, I had nothing worth keeping.
Clayworks encourages people to sign up for multiple “beginner wheel” classes until they get the hang of it. My girlfriend is in her second session and has been making bowls and mugs for our home. Respectfully, I decided that clay is not the medium for me.
For my next class session, I’m planning to learn garment making at Domesticity. Know a class you want me to take after that? You can send me an email at email@example.com.