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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

From a Lump of Clay an Old Soul

The year was, as I recall, 1988. I’d moved to Orange County to be near my daughter, Robin, after the passing of my husband, Wally. I was a widow, but not exactly a merry one. Not a gloomy one either. Just finding myself free to do whatever I wanted with my life. Something different, I hoped.

So, when I saw an ad for the Laguna Canyon Art Academy I called and asked about sculpting. Yes, they had a night class coming up. They named a price, I got off the phone, wrote a check and dropped it in the mail. And then the first night of class I found myself there early and sat in the car wondering. Should I be here? Facing the unknown is never easy, but it was exciting.

Inside I was directed to an empty room. Empty of people, that is. There were large bare tables, a few high stools, Shelves with strange objects drying out. And then a young man came in, laid a big pouch on a table, looked around and said, “Guess we’re early, huh?”

“Not really,” I said. “I’d expect a teacher to be here. You’re here for sculpting, right?”

“Nope, I’m doing pots.”

After a few other people came and I learned that they all were there for pots I was about to walk out, but just then a young woman came in loaded down with supplies and breathlessly greeted us with an apology. Must be the teacher, I thought. She seemed friendly. Maybe this would be fun after all. 

“Now, if you’ll give me your names I’ll check them off my list,” she said as she took a pen and pad out of her bulky purse. After each name she’d ask, “And you’re here to throw pots?” Everyone said yes but when I said, “No, I want to sculpt,” she looked surprised.

“Oh, I don’t teach that,” she said sadly. I was relieved. It was a perfect out. I picked up my purse and started for the door. “That's OK,” I said, “Sorry, I must have made a mistake when I signed up.”

“No! Don’t go!” Her face, so young and fresh, and her eyes, - “I can get you started. Please wait and if you’re not satisfied you can go.”

Well she did. She got me started. “Now see this wire? This is for cutting off a chunk of clay.” I held the wire, pulled on its small wooden handles through the big block of clay, and a chunk peeled off.   “Now,” she said, you need to work it in your hands to be sure there are no bubbles of air inside. They would heat up and blow the piece open in the kiln.”  She brought me a revolving stand, slapped the clay onto it and showed me how to use some tools. Then she laid a few sculpting books beside me, opened one to a certain page. “This will get you started. You can have this room to yourself and I’ll be in the next room with the potters but I’ll stop by now and then.”

Have you ever felt clean fresh clay in your hands? Maybe as a kid you worked with Play Dough. Not the same. There is no feel quite as good as a lump of clean clay. It yields unconditionally to your touch. When you first feel it something primal begins to happen. I felt it then as she walked away. 

As it turned out, being on my own was just the way I liked it. If the teacher had been hovering over me every minute I’d have been self-conscious. As it was it seemed like the clay was teaching me. By the end of the three hour session I had a young girl in a straw hat well on her way. I had her eyes, her turned up nose, her mouth, and even her teeth! She was smiling in just a little shy way and her long hair hung gracefully around a bare shoulder. The teacher was impressed. She called in the potters to see what I’d done. They were impressed. I, myself, was impressed. It had simply happened. I felt no pride, just delight. I wasn’t finished, of course, but by the end of the first week my "Maud Muller" (the maiden raking in a hayfield in an old poem by John Greenleaf Whittier,) was ready to be set aside to dry out for the kiln.

That’s the way it’s been ever since. The clay does it. My hands and fingers seem like things apart from me, as if I were watching someone else at work. As long as I don’t struggle, don’t get myself in the way, a face emerges. It may be young or old, male or female, beautiful or not. It may be aged and wrinkled, have a double chin or missing tooth, but none are ugly to me. 

Of course, my expertise may leave something to be desired. I may wish I’d done my face friend better, but he or she seems always glad to be out of the lump. I know because they all smile.

As my former blog explains, that’s the fun part. Now that I’m into offering them for sale I cringe. After my first attempt years ago when I had a showing at a Fathers’ Day picnic “Art in the Park” in a small Minnesota town, and no one bought a thing or even gave my faces much more than a passing glance, I was stung. When I overheard one of two women who had stopped to really look stand back and whisper, “Wow!” that alone made my day. I gathered up my faces at closing time and took them to a cousin’s house where there was a family picnic going on. As I laid the faces out on a table I said, “Now, don’t feel obligated, but if you see one, just one, that you really honestly love, you can have it for nothing. Then I saw delightful connections take place. Each one went to its rightful home. I was happy. 

Now this gallery venture I’m in may be profitable or it may be a bust. I didn’t want to go commercial, but my daughter had offered my work to a new gallery and the faces begged to get out of the house. What better place than The Cottage Gallery?  I hope they sell, not only for me, but for the owners of the gallery and for the sake of the Old Souls, as I call them. They are tired of hanging all over my house. There’s no space left but the ceiling! 

I hope my heart isn’t holding them too tight. Although I take little credit for their coming out of their lumps of clay, I am in love with them, each one. If no one else feels that way then I’d wish the Old Souls that don't get adopted could go with me into the Hereafter. Eventually we all, flesh or clay, will go wherever it is Old Souls go.


  1. Keep this for when you are famous! :-) Or if it doesn't happen before you press on with the Old Souls, we, your readers, will keep it ...Always!

  2. Yay Gramma! :)
    So glad you're still working with clay and having a good time with it! And super rad that you're showing your work in a gallery now, that must feel pretty rad. Once one of your Old Souls finds a new home, it will feel less scary to let other ones go. They'll have been purchased, valued, and treasured by the new owners-what better life could they have? I, too, will soon be parting with some long-had ceramic pieces (bowls, cups, etc), but their new home will appreciate them much more than my bookshelf has been doing, that's for sure. I'll miss seeing the 3-D versions of your Old Souls in your house, but perhaps you'll keep a folder of photos of each Old Soul, and we can revisit them time and again.

    Luv you! Luv,Erin