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.