A & E reporter Julia Ben-Asher tries her hand at pottery during mud season in Steamboat Springs - the perfect time to learn a new skill. | SteamboatToday.com

Mud season is the best time to pick up a new hobby

First-time pottery students Julia Ben-Asher, left, and Izzy Sucha work on pottery wheels during a class at Warehome Studios.
Photo courtesy of Izzy Sucha

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There are those potential hobbies that sound fun to try some time in the distant future, when in reality, there’s never the time to try them. Until mud season rolls around.

I went to dip my toes into one of these potential hobbies at Warehome Studios’ May Date Night, a two-and-a-half hour ceramics class taught by Warehome’s studio director and educator Julie Anderson.

Maybe half of our small group were brand new to the pottery world, and in Julie’s studio, with shiny tools, intriguing devices and ceramic pieces in every stage of development every which way, our eyes were gigantic with the possibilities.

Julie began the class by showing us how to slice a good-sized wedge of clay off the block and how to work it in a rocking motion to be even and pliable. When “wedged” correctly, a chunk of clay will start to look like a cartoon monkey face: giant eye sockets smooshed in by the heel of two hands and a wrinkly little smiling mouth shape forming with the excess clay below. My monkey face looked so sweet and infantile, peering up at me from the work table, that continuing to wedge him into a mound was a little bit heartbreaking.

Next, we brought our clay balls over to the cluster of pottery wheels. Julie demonstrated how to slam your ball of clay straight into the center of the wheel, following through with the throw.

“But make sure you warn everyone before you slam because it can be loud and startling,” she advised.

“Slamming,” we chorused, with the same inflection of someone calling “dropping” as they zoom into a halfpipe.

More information

Find more information about Warehome Studios’ Date Nights and classes at warehomestudios.com.

Slamming my clay into the center of my wheel, was, it turned out, where I peaked. Even with Julie’s being a natural teacher, her clear, step-by-step demonstrations and her incredibly patient repetitions of her tips and tricks, my hands felt disconnected, unable to make the clay move the way it was supposed to. When I cautiously applied pressure to my clay mound, it resisted stubbornly, like a toddler going deadweight. It lightly smacked my useless palms, taunting, as it spun around the wheel.

With Julie’s kind help (think rescue), my clay was finally wrestled to where it was supposed to sit on the wheel. It was time to begin shaping the mound into a bowl. I pressed my thumbs into the center of the clay, and a pit began to emerge. To my delight, I withdrew the pressure before drilling all the way through, keeping the bottom intact instead of rendering it unable to ever contain anything.

Julie demonstrated the next step for our class: forming and guiding the bowl’s walls to add height. Her hands sent a transformation rippling up the clay immediately — a wizard forming a spell of bowl-shaped light. It was mesmerizing; no one could look away.

Julie Anderson presents a “monkey face” in a wedge of clay.
Julie Anderson

The rest of us were trying and learning. Our bowls were growing walls, too. But not without surprises along the way.

Whenever my foot pressed my wheel pedal with a tad bit more pressure, splashes of water/clay mixture — called slip — coating my clay would fly in every direction, and I shrieked a little, immediately regressing back to a sloth-slow spinning speed. When I glanced over to my friend at the next wheel, she had a lead foot on the pedal, blasting ahead full force. It’s the same way we each drive cars, I realized with amusement.

Another student looked down at her wheel and saw that she’d formed her mound into an anatomically near-perfect breast shape. She reformed it into a bowl, only to realize she’d somehow made an outie belly-button shape protruding absurdly out of the bowl’s center.

As I struggled along, my appreciation for ceramics ballooned. I’d known it’s an incredible art form that requires study and practice, but to actually try it takes that knowledge to another level.

At the end of the class, eight gray-brown pots squatted on the table. Each had its own personality, and each was kind of beautiful.

They’d go on to be bisque fired in Julie’s kiln at about 1,800 degrees Fahrenheit, then dipped in the glazes we selected, then fired in the kiln again, at more than 2,000 degrees, for anywhere from 10 to 24 hours.

Julie Anderson’s top 5 tips for beginner ceramicists

1. The possibilities are endless. There are so many processes, skills, temperatures, types of clay, types of tools and more. You can use the potter’s wheel or you can hand build with slabs or coils. You can also make molds and pour or press clay into them. Many universities offer masters degrees in ceramics, so I think that is a good indicator of how much there is to learn. I have been at it for over 20 years, and I still continue to take classes and learn new processes.

2. Clay is a very unique artistic medium. Working with clay is nothing like being a painter. You don’t have to worry about whether or not it is representational or realistic or perfectly abstracted. First, you learn the skills and basic understanding of the whole process from wet clay to fired work. Then, you gradually learn design, pattern, shape, how it fits in your hand, how it pours, how it looks on a shelf or how it mounts to the wall. Sure, you could try to sculpt an animal or a human form or create a painted image on the surface, but there are many other options.

3. Make failure your friend. Working with clay is an exercise in letting go. There is no need to feel afraid: it’s just mud. Because we always feel short on time, students often think they should be able to make something perfect immediately. The best strategy that I have found is to let go of that notion of immediate success. Clay is forever recyclable and reusable until it gets fired or contaminated, so the best strategy is to make many pieces and then recycle/wedge them until you start to feel more comfortable with the process. 

4. Like anything, it takes practice. If you ever see a video of someone throwing on a potter’s wheel, they often make it look easy. Your first awkward day in a ceramics class can sometimes make you feel like you were not meant to work with clay. This is totally normal. Be patient and find relaxation in watching yourself learn gradually over the course of weeks, rather than minutes or hours.

5. Be open minded about the results. Clay and glazes are natural materials that are mined from the earth and everyone’s hands will touch the clay differently. There is a lot of variation to be expected and this the inherent beauty in the process. I often tell the students, “it didn’t come from Walmart.” Hand-made work is going to be different every time, no matter what.

Once our pieces have cooled for 48 hours, we’ll be able to pick them up and take them home. They’ll be microwave-safe, dishwasher safe and will last for centuries — if we avoid dropping them to a shattered ending.

For many adults, I think it can be easy to get into our routine of doing what we know how to do and to lose touch with the experience of being an absolute beginner. To struggle with something new is difficult, but it’s super fun. It’s also healthy, and it keeps us humble and fresh. And, I imagine, more able to understand and connect with people who are struggling in other areas.

During this mud season’s next empty day, give it a go at something new, whether that’s ceramics, fishing, photography, ukulele playing, scrap booking, ice cream making, Rubix cube speed-solving, whatever. Put your pride aside and let yourself struggle, let yourself be taught and let yourself start learning. However they turn out, the fruits of your labor will tell a story worth remembering.

Editor’s note: Warehome Studios invited Julia Ben-Asher and a friend to attend the Date Night free of charge.

Warehome Studios’ Julie Anderson, left, rescues Julia Ben-Asher from ruining her first-ever piece of pottery.
Photo courtesy of Izzy Sucha

To reach Julia Ben-Asher, call 970-871-4229, email jbenasher@SteamboatPilot.com or follow her on Twitter @juliabenasher.


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