Slinging Mud by David Evan


Having just spent 7 days with this group, I can say throwing clay is a wonderful way to find your inner strength!   — M. Haese, director of Haese & Wood

 “Nobody throws up the same way.” With this kind of humor from our instructors offered early on, I knew I was going to enjoy this week-long class for beginning potters taught by Ken and Melody Shipley. As I’ve done for over a decade, I made my way in late June to Brasstown, North Carolina, in the far western reaches of the state and the home of the John C. Campbell Folk School.

Potter and teacher Ken Shipley started the evening by defining clay as an earthy material that is plastic when moist but hard when fired and is composed mainly of fine particles of silicates and other minerals. With that little bit of background, we were taught that learning to “throw” a piece of clay into a recognizable shape can be done in a number of ways but is more than just slinging some mud into a shape that will eventually hold flowers or candy.

Ken and his wife Melody wanted us to think of clay in its historical setting and how it has been worked into both utilitarian as well as artistic shapes and forms. Pottery has spanned time and cultures and has thus served as part of the continuing chain of civilization that is linked by man’s ingenuity and creativity.

Since forming clay is an intensely physical activity, we were seated on stools with adjustable legs that could tilt you into your wheel and thus reduce back strain. Our check list reminded us to keep our hands resting on something solid, to keep a finger from one hand in touch with the other hand, and to press our elbows in toward our bodies to keep control. The key to success comes through a fluid motion that is slowly developed after years of practice. It’s almost magical to watch as we use fingers from both hands working inside and outside the squat clump to lift the clay up to a higher form. Mr Right Hand and Mr Left Hand had to work in tandem as we tried to follow the demonstration techniques and pull the sides out while compressing the bottom.

If the lyrics of Tennessee Ernie Ford’s old song “Sixteen Tons” are even remotely correct that we poor mortals are simply made “outta mud and muscle and blood” and come from little more than a clump of clay and some water fired by life and glazed by experience, then as potters our passage on this Earth will be well founded and transformed into beauty and elegant form.

 (excerpted from co-thrower David Evan’s Atlanta, Georgia based online newsletter, “In the Dew”.)