Of all the pottery-making stages—centering, opening, pulling, raising the wall, and shaping—maybe the most difficult to learn is the first. Centering involves placing the clay on the wheelhead, squeezing and lifting the mound into a tall cone, pressing it back down, and exerting pressure toward the center until the clay revolves smoothly.
It sounds so easy. I’m not sure why it isn’t. Centering gives most beginners a terrible time, but there’s no skipping or fudging this step. A centered mound provides a symmetrical starting point. Even pots can’t result from uneven beginnings.
I’ve been thinking about centering lately, how hard and important it is in pottery making and, for myself, insofar as centering implies focus and calm, how hard and important it is to achieve in daily life, especially these last few years. Maybe it’s been a challenge for you, too. A lot has happened to throw us off-center.
One thing that’s cool about perfectly centered clay is it looks motionless, despite its placement on a quickly spinning wheel. Steady in the midst of commotion and impervious to the dizzying rotations, it maintains a quality of stillness. At this stage, when I palm the clay, I can feel the potential in its concentrated mass. I imagine a perfectly centered person (er, not me) would be similarly powerful: a calm presence and a calming influence, a core of peace in a violent world, but not self-centered, and not at all inert, but rather rich with readiness and prepared to bring about beautiful changes.
And present, too! Yes, a centered person would be present. That’s tough for me. My head gets ahead of me, usually in a bad way, dwelling on horrible things that could happen, probably because I spend so much time learning of all the horrible things currently unfolding. But as difficult as it is to think about the unthinkable and process our world’s never-ending cruelties, corruptions, inanities, and injustices, refusing to read the news clearly isn’t the answer. If we don’t stay informed, how can we bear witness and find ways to help? Escapism reeks of privilege and apathy. “The news is just so sad,” I might complain, but how lucky I am not to be the sad news.
I think again of that quality of stillness in the centered clay. While still can be defined as inaction, calm, and quiet, it can also suggest the persistence of action and perseverance. The centered clay manifests this paradox: It’s still in that it doesn’t wobble wildly, and yet it turns swiftly. It continues nevertheless. It moves still and stilly, vibrant with energy and possibility.
How to remain steady and informed? How to find peace without hiding from violent truths? I don’t know exactly how to strike a balance between respite and responsibility in this madly spinning world, but I do believe making art helps. Creating, sometimes at least, might be one such way.
Sue Bradford Edwards says
What a thoughtful post. I must admit to feeling uncentered lately.
Melissa Ostrom says
Thank you so much for reading–and connecting to–my post, Sue. I’m hoping for more centered days: for both of us! xoxo
Gina Harlow says
This is such a powerful concept to consider, Melissa. And to me, the centering of that clay looks so hard! (gives herself away) But that we don’t become inert in striving for balance. I think about this a lot. Love your insights and your art.
Melissa Ostrom says
Gina, I appreciate these kind words. Thank you! And I’m glad you relate to this post. Your friendship is a steadying, centering influence in my life, and I’m grateful! xoxo
Beautiful post, Melissa! I have never tried to center a pot on a wheel–or advanced past coil pots as a kid, but I love the comparison to centering ourselves in this moment in time. As a ballet dancer in my youth, I often fought against my own body for centering–in a pirouette, for instance. You can’t turn, if you’re off-center. But my body was my clay; you’re working with a malleable thing outside yourself, which requires more mastery. Turning a shapeless blob into that gorgeous work of art you pictured above is an inspiring act! Onward to try and find some peace and center in my day!
Melissa Ostrom says
Rebecca, thank you for these generous words and for connecting to this post. I love that you were a ballet dancer in your youth! I bet you would really enjoy a collection of essays I just read. It’s called Fierce and Delicate and was written by Renee Nicholson–a ballerina-turned-writer, just like you! xoxo