My time at the pottery wheel was a unique experience, though not so unlike my time teaching English in the classroom in Romania this summer. Here I was the student and, like my own students, faced with a language barrier that forced me to rely on context to understand something new and foreign to me.
The master potter was a wizened gentleman from the village who shuffled along to the school every morning to teach his craft to the children and, incidentally, interested adults during breaks in the day. Dressed in a light gray suit that would perpetually become dotted with the day’s clay, he traded his hat and cane for an artisan’s apron and situated himself on a chair before the motorized wheel in the main entry room of the home-turned-school.
He clapped the wet clay heavily from one hand to another as he directed me to dunk my hands in a utility bucket and coat them in the grayish water and slimy remnants of clay along the rim. As he worked the clay on the wheel, endless potential was revealed. From one second to the next it seemed a vase, a dish, a bowl, a cup. It could take any form you could give it. And no clay was wasted. Once, a forming vase broke and the clay that remained on the wheel was instead turned into a tiny pitcher. The scraps used on our hands were wiped off against the bucket to be used again.
The potter demonstrated various techniques for me to try or put his clay-masked hands over mine so I could understand the correct form. All the while speaking to me in Romanian so that I had to concentrate hard on what I could see and remember from previous sessions.
There were few tools besides the wheel and two hands. A metal tool like a razor blade was used to carefully smooth the outer surface as the piece turned, and a piece of string was pulled tautly across the bottom to separate the pottery from the wheel when it was finished. At this point I would be instructed to scrape the palms of my hands against the edge of the bucket before picking up what I had made, so that, as he indicated, the clay of the pottery wouldn’t stick to the clay on my hands.
It was no easy work, and I felt just as malleable as the clay I attempted to form on the wheel with a great deal of assistance. I wonder what the potter thought of teaching at the school or if he had, in fact, already told me. He was neither particularly friendly nor cold to anyone, simply there to teach a skill that he himself must have learned early on.
The only glimpse I got into his life came from a story an artist at the school told me. He had asked the potter once what he thought of the changes that had occurred in Romania since the revolution in the late 80s and whether he thought things were improving. “What do you mean?” the potter had asked. “My entire life has been exactly the same.” As he put his hat back on and took his cane to slowly make his way back home for lunch every day, I wondered how remarkable that self-reliant life must be.