By Anita Lo '16
Last Friday, I arrived at the Harvard Ceramics Studio in Allston on the 9:15 shuttle, full to the doors with standing students headed to Clay All Night, the annual studio party where undergraduates try their hands at after-hours pottery.
The pulse of off-center clay rotating on the wheel, the gray globes of clay resting on the carts and the ashy smudges of slip-on disposable aprons draped the room with an air of industriousness, but without the tension of a library or classroom. As students poured into the studio, a black-aproned instructor yelled “Demo! Demo right here!” and drew a crowd nearly as large as the bus-crush of students around another student throwing on a kick wheel. Student instructors crouched by their classmates and guided hands around inaugural clay pots, and the first-time potters laughed ruefully over the whir of electric wheels.
“I’m not sure what year it started, but it was always an undergrad-led event, to host a night where students could put on an apron, grab a ball of clay and really jump in headfirst,” said Kathy King, director of education at the Harvard Ceramics Program. “We just put tools out, have clay balls prepared and of course, buy food.”
There were indeed party attendees eating the grapes, crackers and pita chips out of handmade ceramic bowls in the kitchen, but so many more stared determinedly at rotating pots. Few parties other than Clay All Night could boast activities so engrossing that no one in the room is using smartphones – although this absence was maybe a practical one, as students rushed from wheel to sink with muddy hands held stiffly in front of them.
Bella Benduski ’17, the student event coordinator, said that Clay All Night and Harvard’s pottery classes were ways for her to enjoy ceramics outside of the classroom. “I came here thinking I wanted to be a doctor and thought I’d have no time for ceramics,” she said. “But that’s why I do stuff like Clay All Night: It’s kept ceramics in my life.”
Benduski explained that most undergraduates here have never worked with clay before: “Students get really frustrated, especially the first time they throw on the wheel. But it’s really exciting to just to see what people do with their first time.”
Alice Zhao ’15 was smoothing the sides of her bowl when I asked her about her time at Clay All Night. “It’s something I normally wouldn’t do,” she said, carefully accelerating the wheel with the pedal. “But it’s a fun experience. At the end of the day, it’s the power to create whatever you want, and any mistakes are all your own too.”
Marshall Zhang ’16, after carrying a miniature vase to the shelves to be fired and glazed, reflected on the realizations he’d had while throwing on the wheel: “Pottery has a lot of life lessons. Any little motion will change the direction of the whole thing, so it’s a constant battle to adjust your vision and be adaptable, sort of about how you roll with the punches.”
Eleanor Lieberman ’19 also attended as a way to explore ceramics at Harvard. “I’d heard about the ceramics program at the Office for the Arts’ Open House, and wanted to explore it a little bit, since I think it’s a great medium for sculpture and looks so polished when it’s glazed and fired,” she said.
“And,” she added, “it turns out the feeling of clay between your fingers is just really nice.”