Wind in my Sails

When I opened my first bag of clay in Suzanne's studio, ceramics had the feeling of destiny all over it.

It was March last year. Her studio was in a state of chaos from her illness. Despite the mess, I couldn't resist opening up that plastic bag and sticking my whole face inside. I took a deep whiff, and my eyes rolled back.

It smelled familiar, somehow. Even though I had never touched clay -- I mean, besides play doh. However, the scent of play doh only elicits a not-so-mild feeling of disgust. 

I looked around the studio, at all the tools and boxes and chaos, and thought... I have no idea what any of this is for. Unfamiliar tools in an unfamiliar world. Yet I certainly knew what my first order of business was. Those goddamn fluorescents.

For the next two days, I went through everything. Prone to spontaneous desolation and tears, I poured over Suzanne's notebooks. Touched the page where she had scribbled ideas for projects she would never get to start. From the disarray of the studio, I put into order a comfortable place for myself. Part me, part her. Clippings from magazine pages she kept, I pinned up on the walls. Random bits of canvas, I tied over the fluorescent lights. And when I finally sat down with my first lumpy ball of clay, awkwardly, at the wheel... I realized I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

I probably went a full eight months before knew what I was doing at the wheel, but it was only about eight minutes before I was hooked. I ate, slept, and breathed clay. I cried in frustration and sorrow at the wheel, with muddy palms turned up toward the heavens.

Wouldn't call myself a 'quitter', but I have a hard time finishing things I start. I'm an Instigator, full of passion and vigor. Getting started is no problem. Learning to see projects all the way to the end, though, has been challenging. My skillset and adaptability are a blessing and a curse. I can start over in a whole new place, in a whole new state, twice a year... And craft a solid life for myself both times. I'm a freaking chameleon. The opposite of high maintenance. Give me a place to rest my head at night, and I'm good. Don't need heat, running water, or a flushing toilet.

All this is to say, when the going gets tough, I'm conditioned to find something else to do instead. Even though I've slowly learned to temper the flames of initiation to carry me through projects, consistency is like wearing clothes that don't quite fit. 

This has been true of everything except my relationships with other humans... And pottery.

There has never been any question of quitting. No sooner would I feel the red-hot flames of Fuck This than I would hear Suze's voice in my head. Encouraging me, telling me how impressed she was. Always quick with praise and love, she never left any doubt of her support and approval.

When her health was in sharp decline, there was a brief period where the chemotherapy seemed to give her a fresh wind. She was up and walking around, looking in the fridge for something to eat. I came home from a yoga class one morning to find her standing near the dining room table, holding a paper in her thin hand.

"This is how to get into my studio," she said. It was a whole page, front and back, with directions meticulously listed. The amount of near-ridiculous details made me smile. "Walk thirty steps to the first door on your left." She often talked to me about her studio. Those last couple of weeks, it seemed like every other thing she said to me.

The night before she died, I sat awake with her in the pre-dawn hours. She was sleeping off and on, maybe fifteen minutes at a time, asking for a sip of this liquid or that. At some point, we started talking. As she had said a half dozen times at least, she told me, "I can see you working in my studio." 

Drawing up my courage and grief, I confessed to her that I held a deep regret that we hadn't found the time before she got sick for her to teach me. In her weakness, she only frowned disapprovingly and shook her head. "Don't," she said. "There are a million people who can teach you. You'll pick it up."

In those first months, I was in her studio every waking second. I channeled my grief through clay. I let the waves of it crash over me, wiped my eyes, and started again. It was as if all the times she talked to me about her studio, she was telling me where I could find her. That she would be there. And she still is.

I couldn't shake the feeling, especially in those early days, that she was teaching me. I can't tell you the number of times I needed a tool for a particular something, and mindlessly reached out to find the exact tool I needed in my hand. It felt more like a collaboration than being self-taught. 

That unfamiliar world started to feel familiar. Now, it feels like my home.

Suzanne quit her day job as a masseuse to pursue being a full-time artist two weeks before she was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. My decision to pick up where she left off began as a way to honor her. Soon, I fell madly in love with the craft. Borderline obsessed. Pouring my life into clay over the past year has been one of the easiest things I've ever done.

Now, I just have to find that elusive consistency.

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