First I prepare the wheel. There is a splash guard that snaps around the head, but it’s a trick to get it in right and I struggle with it.
“Need help?” the old man used to ask.
“No sir,” I’d say. “This is just what I do.”
Finally it slides into place and I gather my things: the bowl of water, a towel, the sponge, a little piece of sheepskin, and I’m ready. No, not yet. How could I forget the clay? I cut a small lump, just what I need for a cup. I wedge it, kneading, kneading, working out all the air, moving my fingers over every part, getting to know it well.
Now I am ready for the wheel, this mysterious, coveted position, which is really nothing but a lot of hard work and humbling. I slam the clay down in the middle of the head, but a respectful slam. I reach down the side of the wheel body, flip on the power switch, adjust the pedal speed, wet my hands and begin this, the hardest part, but only because I haven’t moved on to the other hardest parts.
Centering, the potter’s bane. I align my arm to my body in just the way I have been taught. This is not about brute strength, they say. So why am I am always sore the next day? Pressing, pressing, pressing. The clay must be perfectly, evenly dispersed as it spins. If there is just a little more on one side, or on one side of a side, it will wobble. It will be uneven in thickness and rise uneven in height. Finally I run my finger over it whirling, from top to bottom, and the finger is still. The earth lies patient. We are ready. But steady now.
“Well I can tell you what you’re doing wrong,” the old man said early on. “You’re going too fast. You’re approaching the clay violently.”
I tried again and again. I scraped more than I kept. I cut my work to see the faults. At any point the vessel can knock off center, so I learned to move in and release gently. Today, I centered well. I opened the cup and laid the bottom, but was having trouble raising the wall.
“Well I can tell you what you’re doing wrong,” the old man said. “You’re letting the clay push you around.”