Working With Clay

Rediscover the fun of playing in the dirt. Working with clay doesn't require a potter's wheel.

| June/July 1994

Most aspiring craft enthusiasts shy away from clay. It's too messy, inconvenient, and time-consuming to develop the necessary skills. Besides that, who has the time or money to rent space in a studio, complete with kiln?

After working the 7 A.M. to 1 P.M. shift at my part-time job, I was tired, cranky, and full of similar trepidations when I arrived at a local craft studio. There I met Valerie Birnhak, a 32-year-old artist who had bravely volunteered to show me the joys of clay. While introducing herself, she tossed me a few pieces of moist clay to fool around with. After a few minutes of mindlessly rolling and modeling it, I began to feel decidedly better. Kneading the gray, unformed lump far outweighed the benefits of counting to 10, screaming, or pillow punching.

Valerie, who's been working with clay since she was 13, spent the afternoon teaching me how to make a simple, decorative vase through a process called slab construction. This simple technique eliminates the potter's wheel and studio space, allows newcomers to experiment before making any real money investment, requires few tools and no experience. And we fired the vase in a trash can instead of kiln. Drying things doesn't get simpler than that.

Although, like any learned skill, there were small unpredictables and frustrations (such as hairline cracks in the dried clay and waiting for the firing), the process was overwhelmingly pleasurable. I especially liked that there were few critical rules to follow. Do your best to work out air bubbles in the moist clay, repair cracks when you see them, and add water to keep your clay moist. That's it. And if the clay gets too moist to work with, you can just dry it out a bit.

Valerie smiled as she watched me cheer up and said, "I love working with clay, and although it might sound strange, part of the fun is that there are so many factors out of your control. Like when you fire your project after hours and hours of working on it. All you can do is cross your fingers and pray it comes out okay. That anticipation is exciting."

As for advice, Valerie suggests simply putting away your ego as you work. "Creating with clay is meditative and it's supposed to be fun. You do have to get past the conditioning of believing that crafts have to be a specific shape or have a certain look. I just strive to get out of the way when I'm working with clay and let the creativity happen."

2/25/2007 11:25:39 AM

I love this article. BUT is there any possibility of sending a line drawing of the process and perhaps a really nice pic of the finished product. I have always wanted to work with clay. I think my love of making mudpies when I was a kid would really come in handy. Thank you so much. Gayle Kohlenberg MOTHER EARTH NEWS RESPONDS You can view the images in the Im age Gallery at the top right of the article under "Related."

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