A few weeks ago, Les and I were talking about what it might be like to be students again for a day to remind ourselves what it is to be a beginner at a new skill.
It was my birthday recently and my lovely wife Natalja bought me a days pottery experience at a local workshop called Loam. Having never done it before, I was looking forward to it.
The Loam studio is located in the South Downs National Park not far from Petersfield in Hampshire. It is run by Jack – a young, talented and enthusiastic potter and tutor.
There were six of us on the course that day and he welcomed each of us, chatted and remembered all our names all day!
The classroom was light and airy with previous student’s work waiting to be collected on the shelves. Each of us had our own wheel, water and tools to use.
To begin, we cut our own lumps of clay. 700 grams per lump, if I remember correctly. Jack then demonstrated the basic techniques required to get started.
It Looks So Easy . . .
As a professional at anything, we can make our craft look easy to onlookers. A deft move of a hand here, a twist of the wrist here and voila! it’s done. It takes many, many hours of practise to get that good, and to then copy that technique for the first few times is a challenge.
As a student again, It was surprising how much concentration is needed to alter the grip to keep walls thin and rising up from the wet clay in my hands. And strength, too! You need strong wrists in the opening stages in order to get the clay centered on the wheel and moving.
And here is my first ever piece of pottery! It’s a bowl with some coloured slip on it.
I’m happy with it. No-one should ever be disappointed with their first of something. ‘From acorns’, etc.
Jack was on hand to guide us through the pieces as we fumbled away at the wet clay. After a couple of pieces and some technique reminders, we were let loose with our imaginations to spin our own creations.
If memory serves me well, my second piece was this milk jug, again with a coloured slip on it.
Making the spout was not the method I expected. It requires a bit of a push in on the sides and a tug on the spout.
All the pieces I turned, I left with sponge marks on them to keep some obvious texture rather than attempt to smooth the surface.
Next was a bowl.
I wanted to see if I could spin a bowl similar in shape to the bowls in my woodturning. Trying my best to produce the same elegant curves using just my hands rather than tools was a challenge. Mostly they didn’t quite hit the mark, but the shapes I did produce were more than good enough for a first go.
The most interesting part of this was having to feel the shape forming between the fingers of both hands. The sides need to be raised up and pulled out at the same time. It was surprising how tricky it was to keep an even wall thickness. A simple twitch and the wall would be too thin, or even collapse.
I didn’t take pictures of the other pieces as I was working on them. I felt I needed to keep my eye and mind on the wheel, so to speak.
Afternoon Drop in Concentration
We were treated to a splendid salad and olive bread for lunch, prepared by Jack. Conversation in the group was largely about what we did in our day jobs. My companions for the day were retired musician, social workers and a mother and daughter on a joint treat.
Having relaxed over lunch, getting going in the afternoon was hard work and I made a few frustrating mistakes.
The morning had been quite intense with learning new techniques that in the afternoon, they blended into one. Jack was very helpful though and was on hand to get us out of trouble.
We each completed six items during the day and I think everyone was pleased with them.
Before heading home, we chose a glaze for those pieces we didn’t put any slip on. This would be applied after we left and before the pieces were fired (twice).
And here are the finished pieces, glazed and fired.
After we left, the bottoms of the pieces were finished off in a process called turning. During the firing process, the pieces shrunk by around 12%, leaving them smaller.
Now they are home, I feel the same happiness with them as I felt when I began turning back in 2014. Natalja will find them homes and functions at home, and I will be able to see them and enjoy the memories of making them from a lump of clay!
What Did I Learn?
Learning is fantastic, but I rarely learn new skills. To be back as a student for a day instead of the teacher was brilliant. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Jack spin his pieces and listened carefully when he came to my aid. I paid attention to what he said as I wanted to be the best I could be on that day. I think it worked.
When teaching woodturning, I find that students concentration and energy levels tend to drop off in the afternoon and found that mine did, too. Even though a good lunch is provided, it happens every time! I felt frustration making what I considered to be silly mistakes in the afternoon that I can only put it down to being tired. Perhaps I may have been a little confused, too. We learned just four or five different techniques for different things in the morning and in the afternoon, I must have muddled them up a bit!
A good teacher like Jack though, will be able to gently guide a student back to where they should be understanding that learning a physical skill is an intense thing to do.
We must remember that we cannot run before we can walk! The same with any practical skill, practise is required. Keep a realistic head on your shoulders as to what you want to achieve, and what you actually can achieve. Plus, it is important not to become despondent if things don’t quite work out. This was day one. No-one is ever brilliant on day one!
All in all, I had a brilliant day, and I am grateful to Jack for his patience and help.