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Digging Clay

local stoneware clay

I trim pots on a kickwheel, an old machine that’s not electric, but instead has a big heavy flywheel you move with your feet. It’s more sensitive, and more precise, than an electric wheel whose pedal, and motor, and drive belts, mediate your connection to the turning wheelhead.

Anyway. I was trimming away, cutting excess clay from forms I’d thrown previously, and I noticed a bad habit I have when at this particular task. It didn’t use to be a bad habit, it used to be good: I tend to go back over the work I’ve just done, re-positioning the cutting tool and passing a second time over what I’ve just completed. Let me just see if I can get a little more off, here, I say to myself. When I was first learning it was good to try and be bold – take a little more clay, a little more extra weight, away from the form. Tighten that curve – make the line be a little more articulate. 

That was then. Now, I still do this, the second pass – but now I just am second-guessing myself, or making a contest of the task, and I’m obliterating the confident spontaneity left by the tool the first time around. Also I’m taking too much off, sometimes, and the result is a form whose foot is diminished, like it’s on tiptoes. You could push it right over – and sometimes the intensity of the firing process makes a platter or bowl wobble, lean. When it’s too thin to support its own weight. I unload pieces that are already exhausted, one day into existence, from holding themselves up.

This bad habit is one of many that I cure by going to dig clay. I load up the truck with empty containers and a shovel and gloves and start driving – it’s a couple hours, one way, to the spot I like. 

Abiquiu New Mexico clay

As I get north of Santa Fe the landscape opens up – space, and sky, and up ahead – that is all just rock, gravel, decomposing mudstone, sandstone – clay. For miles! What is the Greek myth where the young upstart goes up against the great hero, who decides to put him in his place? He gives the kid a drinking horn and says can you finish this in three draughts? the kid tries. But the end of the horn is connected to the sea – there’s no way he can drain it.  

abiquiu new mexico stoneware clay

That’s kind of how I feel, driving up here – really, it’s why I go. To be humbled, to let go, take things less seriously. The whole earth is nothing but clay, really – there’s no use trying to contain, or control, or over-protect, your own little efforts. I park, I walk, I shovel a gray-black clay into buckets, and drag the buckets to the truck. The clay has little angular translucent crystals in it – gypsum, in the form of selenite – so-called not because they contain selenium but for the ancient Greek word for the moon. The gypsum – calcium sulfate – tends to occur in layers of sedimentary rock, which is what this clay was, I think, once – mud at the bottom of an ocean. In case you were wondering, gypsum, historically, was also mined extensively at Montmartre – it was calcined, which dehydrated it – you could add water back to the white powder, to re-hydrate & harden the material: plaster of Paris.

Anyway. I load up. I spend a little time contemplating the scene – the source – and begin the drive home. The sun is setting – the light is getting long. It’ll be dark when I move these containers into the studio. To encounter the raw material of your work in such abundance – and in a form whose beauty you will never approach – is a good cure, a corrective. I’ll try not to be the young upstart, whose name I just Googled – he was Lepreus, and he foolishly challenged Heracles, who, in the end, killed him.

I’ll dry-screen as much selenium crystal out of this clay as I can – calcium sulfate is notorius in the kiln. And whatever art I hope to add, to this clay, whose natural beauty is rooted in the earth itself, I’ll hope to do through invocation, and not through challenge or competetion – I should know, by now, not to try to win.