Molding and Mingling at Harvard's Ceramics Studio

by Minji Kim

Tucked away in the basement of a long, light-green building at the end of North Harvard Street is the ceramics studio, a warm hub of three-dimensional creativity.

A thin layer of clay dust covers the wall, shelves, floor, evoking a time long past. But of course, the ceramics studio is now. Laughter and voices mingle with the whir of the spinning pottery wheels, occasionally interrupted by the instructor’s advice: "Now pull gently…use the rib...Keep your hands at 3:34…". It seems like a secret ceramics code, but after a few minutes of observation, I know that "pulling" means developing the bowl from the bottom center inside out, the "rib" is a curved piece of plastic for smoothing and shaping the surface, and the time references direct the positioning of the hands.

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Shawn Panepinto, our instructor for the evening, takes the wheel to demonstrate throwing a plate. ("Throwing" doesn’t denote any sort of violent hurling; it is the official term for crafting something on a spinning, circular plate.) With the wheel spinning, the amorphous ball of clay gradually and effortlessly takes form within her hands. More gentle pushes and pulls. The clay melts and molds, the sides oscillate with the slight quiver of her fingertips. The long cylinder spinning in front of her finally breathes and pulsates into a vase.

It’s no wonder the famous sensual scene in "Ghost" involved claymaking (Patrick Swayze, rest in peace). The intimacy with which Demi Moore caresses and massages that hunk of clay is obviously much more sexualized, but it’s not far from the gracefulness of working with clay in the Harvard ceramics studio. There weren’t any attractive, half-clad lovers involved (though I did learn about a technique of firing called the naked raku) or making out over the wheel, but that same sense of intimacy surrounds each potter at his or her wheel. There’s something mesmerizing about seeing a solid form taking shape, gradually changing and responding to the artist’s slightest touch.

This grace is misleading, for molding clay requires a surprising amount of core strength. Much of the instruction and repeated advice was related to the physical: Keep your arms steady and planted on your thighs, use the heel of your hand to firmly mold the shape. The clay was malleable enough to allow for spontaneous creativity, but it was also stubborn enough to require muscle work in controlling the clay. Too much force from the fingers leads to a floppy pot. Balance is key.

I quickly learn that ceramics are neither for the feeble-handed nor for the feeble-hearted. Shawn showed me into the kiln room, where enormous, gaping, stone mouths wait to enclose and fire the bisqued pieces at 2361 degrees F. There are different types of kilns one can use, one of them being a soda kiln that is becoming rarer and rarer each year. Even off, this kiln sat at a whopping 2100 degrees F, and a protective whole-body suit is required to work with the raku kiln.

As for making the actual bowl, here is what I’ve gathered in summary: Once you have your round piece of clay centered on your wheel, you wet your hands and the clay and step on the pedal to spin the wheel at a relatively fast speed. It is necessary to massage and coax the clay by building it up into a cone shape and then building it back down into the blob again. You then carefully insert your thumbs into the center to indent and pull back an opening for the bowl. All this time, the clay should be centered and appear to not be having spasms while the wheel spins. With your left hand on the inside and the right hand on the outside, you gradually "pull" the edge of the bowl upward, building up the height as well as thinning the thickness of the bowl. Once satisfied, you can "round off the lip" with a sponge, cleaning up the edge for a nice finish. Instructions are rather abstract and difficult to understand unless you are doing the clay-molding yourself, but with practice, it’s clear that one develops an intuitive, sensory memory.

The most satisfying thing about working with clay is that it’s a truly spontaneous and thus exciting process. Because the clay responds so immediately to the artist’s direct touch, any kind of unplanned gesture—an indent here, a bigger-than-expected curve there— can lead to a wholly different piece.

The long trek over to the studio seems endless in the biting cold, but being able to take advantage of the wheel and kiln is definitely worth the time. I myself have begun to take a bowl-making class. Join me?