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I Make Ceramics to Keep My Hands Busy

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Videos: Getty

Six months into the pandemic, and 19 months after I stopped drinking, I found myself obsessing over a “situationship.” I transformed myself into the person I thought they needed me to be in order for this to work. I spent hours on my phone, scrolling on Instagram, waiting for this person to text so we could make plans. I spent even more hours talking about “where I think this is going” with my friends, keeping a detailed account in my head of who I had talked to and whether or not they had indulged me and who I could FaceTime next.

“You need to find a hobby,” my friend Natalie told me. “You have too much time on your hands.”

Begrudgingly, I had to admit she had a point — or maybe she just wanted me to stop talking to her about it. In any case, I decided to try something that would literally keep my hands busy: ceramics. I’d “failed” at it a couple of years before, having attempted to learn how to make ceramics on the wheel and ending up the only person in the class who didn’t craft a single pot. It’s just not for me, I consoled myself, eventually giving up on the package of classes I’d already purchased. I felt guilty over the money I’d spent but too ashamed to show up after racking up all those absences.

Still, somewhere between my shame spiral and quitting entirely, there was a feeling of calm I felt on the wheel. I liked that it required focus and not looking at my phone. That was exactly what I needed — a place to get out of my own thoughts. Plus, the repetitive tasks meant that I had to just center my attention on what was in front of me. Not what happened in the past or what might happen in the future.

I returned to that same studio where, I learned, wheel throwing (forming clay on a spinning disc) was still not for me. It required me to be too exact, too disciplined. One sudden move could throw your pot off-center. Instead of quieting my brain, it turned the volume up, leaving me on edge as I internally yelled at myself to be perfect. But hand building, I learned, was different. With hand building I got to form clay with my hands, creating any weird and wonky shape I wanted. Every mistake, every crack, every lump gave the piece character. I had already tried being “perfect” for someone else, to make them change their behavior, and it didn’t work. I didn’t want to have to be perfect anymore.

My first attempt at a piece was a vase. I wanted to see how high I could build it. I rolled a bunch of coils (cylinder-shaped strips of clay) and set them aside to begin building. One by one, I stacked them on top of one another, blending each coil together. I added more and more, furiously trying to build and finish the piece in one go. About midway through, I could see it getting wobblier and wobblier, the weight of each coil like a Jenga piece, but I didn’t care. I kept adding. Plop. The piece slumped over, collapsing into itself. I realized that the push-yourself approach doesn’t work when you are dealing with clay. Once I understood that I had to be gentle with myself, to take things one step at a time, I wanted to keep trying.

I tried again. This time I told myself I would work as long as I wanted to and then would cover the piece with plastic when I was too tired to keep working on it at a later date. I built the base and came back the next week … to find that I hadn’t covered it properly and it had dried. Instead of throwing it away, I built on top of the dry piece, adding coils slowly. It created a lump, but gave it character. Coil by coil, I stopped when my arms couldn’t reach the top anymore. “Wow, I’ve never even built that high,” said another member of the studio. It needed handles. So I added two very thin handles. By the time I got to the top of the rim, the clay was so thin it started cracking. A good place to stop, I thought.

A couple of weeks later, I made an Instagram account for my ceramics and posted a photo of that first vase. It looked lumpy and off-center; the rim was cracked, the handles had cracked off on the firing process, and I never actually glazed it. I posted the photo with the comment: “Pre-glaze” *vase emoji.* It got 14 likes, but who’s counting.

In ceramics, everything is about patience. Clay is unrelenting, never acting how you want or expect. If the clay is too wet, it will collapse. If the clay is too dry, it will crack. Midway into every piece, I think, This is never going to come together. But I keep going and eventually the form — well, a form — takes shape. I might set out to make a pot and end up with a lantern. A vase too shallow? A dog bowl. Clay, like humans, has memory. If I am angry and rip a piece off, even if I try to cover it up, when I fire it, that seam is there.

I always felt calmer and more in touch with my body after leaving the studio. My obsession over the relationship and its eventual demise slowly faded, mainly because I spent less time obsessing and scrolling on my phone (I was covered in clay). Creating something, albeit wonky, gave me distance between my thoughts and my actions. Instead of obsessively checking likes on Instagram, I followed a bunch of ceramics and watched ASMR videos of clay building. My text spirals were soon replaced by pictures of my pieces and encouraging replies from my friends: “We love to see it.”

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I Make Ceramics to Keep My Hands Busy