Discovering the Wheel

Today I tried the much revered potter’s wheel.

I love working with clay and I’ve been having a great time discovering different forms of pottery but THE WHEEL seemed to loom over all other aspects of the learning process.

I looked on-line, read a few books and generally gotten an idea of what to expect but nothing really prepared me for what the actual experience was like. First of all, it was fun and it was messy. As I told the instructor, I had signed up to play in the mud and I was getting exactly that.

Girl (3-5) playing in mud

The pedal was erratic, and difficult to work, especially since it was my injured leg that was used for it. The good news is that once the pedal speed is set it maintains so my leg’s lack of brain wasn’t too much of an impediment. The pedal was definitely the hardest part and I won’t be driving any time soon as my leg muscle decided to spasm or not respond as it saw fit. Fortunately, the only thing to wreck up on the wheel was a ball of clay so it wasn’t too hard of a learning curve.

Next came the really fun part (and I think I drove my instructor a little mental with this aspect of learning): Discovering how the clay reacted to my touch. I was shown right off how to hold my hands, how to move the clay up and down, but have I ever been content with sticking to what is within the demarcated borders? Of course not!


So, I spent awhile playing with the clay. Pulling it up into a tower and then pushing it down into what would eventually twist back up into my very first ‘tossed’ pottery project: a small vase.

Let me say first of all that after everything I had read about the difficulties of ‘centering’ the clay and all the rest that I wasn’t expecting to walk out with anything at all on my first session. I ended up with the vase, a small bowl and what may or may not work out as a little mug. I was pretty chuffed.

But unlike the other aspects of pottery so far I didn’t feel as satisfied with the final result as I did with the pieces I had made off the wheel. They were ‘fine’. Sort of bland, typical for someone who is new to the wheel, uninspired.


The real fun on the wheel came not from the product but from having an interaction with the clay where the clay came alive in my hands. It’s a delicate procedure, on wrong twist, not enough water, a bit too much of a thumb and the whole thing ends up out of control. It’s fast. It’s interactive and it’s alive. Maybe that’s the allure of the wheel.


I’ve heard enough potters speak with reverence of The Wheel to know that you aren’t considered a potter until you master it. It’s referenced as something that you must know to proceed past the level of beginner on a regular basis. I think that for me, the joy the wheel brings isn’t capitalized and is more in the experimentation than it is on product.

Sadly, unlike making mud pies, the clay on the wheel gets tired. It doesn’t like to play as long as I do and expects to be formed or tossed aside. I’m pretty sure there’s an intense metaphor in that for life and for philosophy but I’m not getting it. The mortality of the clay as soon as it drops on the wheel is so finite that it misses out on all the fun we could be having together.

I suppose that’s why life and pottery and the origins of the universe are often compared to potter’s wheels. It spins quickly and is highly malleable: childhood. Then it grows weary and either finds a purpose or returns from where it comes from: growing up (or refusing to grow up). It finds a form, often not the form the potter intended but rather a compromise between momentum, hands, skill and the desires of the clay itself as well as the clay’s own limitations. After it has achieved that form it will either be successfully fired in the kiln or break apart: the challenges of adulting. Finally it is memorialized in a glaze and fired once more. It won’t be anything other than what it is now.

This is the finished product. The object is put on a shelf, it is used and at some time it may become broken and discarded, another thing that passes out of memory. It’s a very good metaphor for life, but I’m not getting it. The fun thing is the playing. The fun thing is testing limits, seeing what happens if I push here, or lift there… The joy of learning together with what seems a nearly sentient partner in creation is clouded by the inevitable decision that it must take a final form or become useless.

Round and round the wheel goes. Is the clay enjoying learning as much as I am? It seems unlikely. I don’t think I’ll ever love the wheel the way I love to work with the clay that is happy to be worked, adjusted and played with. I guess the wheel, while being the pinnacle of pottery is fundamentally working in only a few dimensions. The options are limitless and yet generic. It certainly serves a valuable purpose but I didn’t feel the attachment to the pieces on the wheel that I did to the coiled, hand pulled, pinched or slabbed pieces I had attempted earlier.


The metaphors, while profound, are slightly maudlin and macabre. I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy it as much as the rest of this art but I will always enjoy the parts about getting muddy and about those brief moments of rapport before the clay takes on a shape of its own.


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