- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 10, 2004

Art League pottery student Joyce Davenport, 68, of Fairfax, recalls how she felt when she threw her first pot on the potter’s wheel.

“I thought I’d died and gone to heaven,” Ms. Davenport says of her reaction to her puny pot, which was less than 2 inches tall.

A decade later, Ms. Davenport’s hand-thrown pots adorn her kitchen and garden, but it all began with a beginner’s pottery course at the Alexandria-based art school.

Pottery teachers say it takes but a few weeks to begin throwing pottery pretty enough to sit on a mantel or coffee table.

Students learn the peculiarities of the potter’s wheel, which spins at varying speeds while the artisans use their hands to press the clay into shape, and they fire their pots twice to create a finished product.

A completed pot is first left to dry, becoming what potters call “leathery,” then it’s put into a bisque kiln, which transforms the clay into a dull red material. The second firing involves placing pots decorated with multicolored glazes to seal the pots and give them a polished surface.

Students can fire their pottery in either a gas or electric kiln. The former yields pots with richer earth tones, while the colors produced by electric heat are flatter but brighter, says Dale Marhanka, ceramics chair for the Art League.

Using reliable, claylike, white-and-brown, high-fire stoneware, first-timers can quickly learn the ins and outs, or at least the key revolutions, of the wheel.

Judy Ain, a teacher with the privately owned teaching studio Hinckley Pottery in Adams Morgan, says some of her students go on to become professional potters.

Mrs. Ain, whose studio offers 10-week sessions for beginners and more advanced students, says centering the clay on the potter’s wheel is the biggest challenge new students face.

The Asian philosophy of the craft embraces asymmetrical pots, but most people think of evenly sculpted pots as the norm.

First-timers will grow frustrated as they try to center their slick slab of clay on the potter’s wheel. It’s arguably the most important part of the process and a skill that demands repetition.

Beginners also create pots with thicker-than-needed bases, which limit the aesthetic potential of the piece.

“People don’t push hard enough at the bottom,” Mrs. Ain says. “You get these pots that are bottom-heavy.”

Richard Busch, 63, of Leesburg, Va.’s Glenfiddich Farm Pottery, took up the craft at 50 by taking courses at a community center in Vienna.

“I really learned the basics. I would suggest people explore their local community centers,” Mr. Busch says. Even today, Mr. Busch considers his craft a work in progress. He often travels around the D.C. region to watch — and listen to — other pottery experts.

“I see how they do things, how they throw, how they talk about their work,” he says. Ceramics publications, such as Ceramics Monthly and Clay Times, also can be good sources for tips and class information.

Mr. Busch began making pots the same way nearly everyone else does — slowly.

“I remember feeling very frustrated at times at the beginning and even angry: ‘God, I can’t get this,’” he says. “Desire plays a big role. If you really want to do it, you stick with it. … It does come at some point.

“You do reach a point where you get the feel of it,” Mr. Busch says. “Then, centering becomes second nature.”

Mr. Marhanka says his group’s pottery students range in age from 18 into their 80s.

The Art League offers nine-week sessions with one mandatory class and 32 hours a week of open studio time.

Anyone looking to build a pottery studio at home had better set aside plenty of cash and ventilated space. A basic kiln can start at about $800 and run into the thousands of dollars, Mr. Marhanka says, and a decent potter’s wheel will run at least $500.

He says the amperage needed for a modest kiln is comparable to what a clothes dryer might require.

Pottery instructors bring their own styles to the classroom, but a common technique is to start students off with handmade pots. Coil, slab and pinch methods are the most common ways to create pottery without the wheel. Coil pots involve rolled coils of clay stacked one atop the other, while the slab-pot technique means fashioning flat hunks of clay together. The pinch-pot method is simply shaping clay by hand into the desired shape.

The vast majority of students, though, wants to start immediately with the potter’s wheel.

“They like the immediacy of the process,” Mr. Marhanka says. It doesn’t hurt that the results, even for beginners, can be beautiful.

Ms. Davenport says the dynamics of shaping clay on the wheel seemed confusing at first. At times, it still confounds her.

Some days, she says, she can’t center a thing.

Practice helps the student learn how it feels when the wheel is working for them, not against them.

“It’s the most fascinating process,” she says.

Crystal Bowers, 41, of Alexandria, says something “clicked” when she started taking pottery classes through the Art League.

Today, Mrs. Bowers has her own pottery company but still uses the open-studio time to refine her craft.

“It’s not something you can sit down in a week and do. You have to get used to the feel of the clay and of the spinning wheel,” she says.

Creating pottery can leave one’s hands dry and cracked, so Mr. Marhanka suggests applying a hand lotion before and after class. Try moisturizers without perfume, he says, because sweet-smelling lotions often include alcohol, a drying agent.

He also cautions beginners not to rush through their projects.

“Clay has a great memory. It remembers everything good done to it and everything bad done to it, too,” Mr. Marhanka says.

Some students treat the wheel’s speed pedal like their car’s accelerator, sending clay flying across the studio.

Even if that happens, Mr. Marhanka advises students to keep their cool.

“Let it go. You can always make another one. This is not an exact science,” he says, noting that imperfections in the clay can hamper a project. “This [clay] comes from the earth.”

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