The Soul of Ceramics

Sitting in on ARTS 272

by Bella Hoodle | 02.08.23 | Arts, In Focus

I dodge puddles to keep my shoes dry as I make my way to VIU’s Visual and Applied Arts building. Still, they’re soaked in minutes. I know that I need new ones, but I can’t afford them.  Just like the soles of my shoes, I feel exhausted and worn out. I’ve been on campus all […]
Illustration of a VIU student using the wheel.

I dodge puddles to keep my shoes dry as I make my way to VIU’s Visual and Applied Arts building. Still, they’re soaked in minutes. I know that I need new ones, but I can’t afford them. 

Just like the soles of my shoes, I feel exhausted and worn out. I’ve been on campus all day, running from class to class. The sky is dark and the lamp posts along my path shine as I step inside building 325. 

I can smell the clay already. 

I’m excited—and nervous. I’ve always wanted to go to a ceramics class, but I didn’t think I had enough patience to be successful at it.

Luckily, I don’t need experience join. Students from any program can take part in the ceramics course. 

I’m 15 minutes early, but the room is already filled with students working on projects. Blocks of clay are kneaded against a wooden table, and the pottery wheels spin in sequence. I wonder if I’ve got the time wrong. 

After meeting a few students, I understand why everyone is here already.

There’s nowhere else they’d rather be.

Here, they’re part of a community of builders and artists creating something beautiful together, unleashing their inner child as clay slowly climbs up their arms. Adding completed projects to the row of sculptures and brightly painted masks along the white walls is secondary. 

I’ve always been a shy kid. Talking to new people is terrifying for me (great trait for being a journalist, I know). When I walk into the ceramics room and see the existing friend groups, I don’t know where to go first. 

In the back corner there are three students. One of them has cool tattoos on his arms. I think to myself, If he can sit through one of those, then he might be able to sit through a conversation with me.

His name is Winslow. He’s an English student who took ceramics last year and wanted to take it again. 

“This shit rules,” he says. 

And it really does. 

As class begins, I sit by Winslow, take off my mom’s old jacket, and pull out my notebook and pen.

The girl sitting next to me says her name is Isabella. We become instant friends based solely on the fact that we have the same name. She tells me that I’m the first Isabella she’s met at VIU.

I ask why she chose to be in ceramics. “It’s a stress free zone,” she says.

Scott Leaf, the ceramics professor, walks into class and begins by showing us a video about the importance of the bowl’s foot.

Leaf has taught at VIU for the last 18 years. He decided to start teaching it after enrolling in a ceramics class while he was at university.

“I just fell in love with it,” he says.

Leaf’s undying passion for the craft comes through while he teaches. The first thing he says to me is, “I hope you brought your throwing clothes.”

Meaning I get to take a spin at the pottery wheel. I’m thrilled—I thought I would have to bribe him for it.

I’m also nervous. I’ve never used one before. 

“It’s a very forgiving art form. If you make a mistake, you can always remake it,” Winslow says. 

I watch Leaf’s demonstration of creating the ‘foot’ of a bowl. It’s mesmerizing to watch how he carefully balances out the sides with a steel scraper. The leftover clay twists into small snakes before flicking off into the bottom bin. 

He effortlessly pulls up the sides of the clay to make the bowl’s walls. It’s simple and elegant. 

Then, using a wire, he cuts the bowl in half. 

I couldn’t help but cringe alongside some of the students. It’s for educational purposes—to show the foot’s thickness—but it was like taking one of my poems and ripping the page in half. 

Isabella said to me earlier that she feels so connected to her work because it’s her own hands forming the clay, creating shape from nothing.

There’s so much more than the physical touch. There’s a release of emotion that weaves into the clay, the artist’s soul living in the finished piece through their sweat and fingerprints.

Ceramics can also be therapeutic. A mental health treatment centre in PEI plans to treat patients using pottery, as it is known to help ease PTSD symptoms. 

“The experience of working with clay can be very immersive,” Leaf says. “Humans have been addicted to the medium for over 30,000 years.” 

Pottery also makes a thoughtful, personal gift. I received a mug from a friend this Christmas, who made it while in a class last semester. It’s my favourite coffee mug, and it fills me with so much joy every time I use it.

“One of the best things about ceramics is that you are creating something that serves a purpose—that you can use every day,” Winslow says. 

Students are allowed to keep everything they make in class. Even those that are definitely not part of the curriculum.

Leaf laughs. “In the Art Department, we refer to such outcomes as ‘creative explorations.’”

I’ll leave the details of what the “outcomes” were to your imagination. And no, it probably wasn’t that, you weirdo.

Leaf says that his favourite part about ceramics is the creative process. 

“It’s more about how the object is made,” he says. “Whether working on the wheel or hand building, both strategies are exciting and can yield limitless possibilities.”

Finally, it’s my turn on the pottery wheel. My new friends help me get ready by bringing me a sponge, a cup full of water, and another cup filled with tools. I feel the limitless possibilities Leaf was talking about. I hold the bowl together and form the hole with my thumb. As I watch it take shape, I’m hypnotized.

The metal rim presses firmly into my forearm, and it starts to burn. I never realized the physical toll that using the wheel requires.

Eventually, the pain ceases and I feel as though I’m seeing through my own hands. Leaf told us at the beginning of class that you must use your senses to achieve perfection, but I think I’m experiencing a “potter’s high.”

I’ve learned that molding clay at the wheel requires constant attention and intuition. However, the biggest part of learning falls on the teacher. 

Luckily for VIU, we’ve scored one of the best.

“Scott is very encouraging of your artistic vision,” Kinesiology student Khasi says.

I have to agree; I’ve learned more about ceramics in these three hours than I have in all my years in high school art class. To be fair to my high school art teacher (shoutout to Ms. Doyle), me and my peers were not well behaved enough for wheel privileges.

“It is amazing to witness [students’] relationships with the clay and their creative confidence grow,” Leaf says. 

I used to think you had to be a certain person to be good at ceramics—steady hands, eye for detail, and of course, lots of patience. Since my life is chaos, I wrote myself off. But here I am, engaged with my whole being in this spinning, half-formed bowl. 

When I look back at the clock, I’m stunned to see how much time has passed. I feel like I’ve time travelled. 

I add my wet bowl to the pile to be recycled into something new. Whatever it is, I know it will have a piece of me. 

What a beautiful feeling.

When I walk back down the hill, I don’t avoid the puddles. I jump right into them like I did when I was a kid. 

The exhaustion from my long day has disappeared—I feel like I just took nine espresso shots. Being with like-minded people and actually getting my hands dirty has me feeling more refreshed than I have all semester. 

My feet are soaked by the time I get back to my car, but I don’t care. Maybe Leaf will let me come back next Thursday and make new soles for my shoes. 

Yes, it would be very impractical, but I would use any excuse to come back for another class. 

Because just like Winslow once said: 

This pottery shit rules.

 

Bella is a second-year Creative Writing and English student at VIU. When she was six years old, her mom helped her write her first book, “The Shed Princess.” The Grand Forks Library even kept it on its shelves for a few weeks. These days, Bella is on a mission to have her books on every library’s shelves.

"“It’s a very forgiving art form. If you make a mistake, you can always remake it.”"
"“Humans have been addicted to the medium for over 30,000 years.”"

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