The clay is a slate-grey slab, between soft and firm. Rolling it out thinner takes some care. (Is there a clay equivalent to flouring a counter for pie crust? I’m wondering, as I pry up the rolling pin.) I drape the clay gently and pick up a sponge to wet and smooth the edges. Water turns the surface as slick as paint, and the sponge swirls a pattern through it like wind in the grass.
Around me, a dozen people are shaping their own slabs with stamps and imprints and molds. They are drinking local brew and talking about lesser-known ski slopes. It’s a winter night at IS183 Art School, and I’ve finally made it to an Arts Night Out. Artists in residence Jared Gelormino (ceramicist) and Peter long (printmaker)
On second Fridays, IS183 invites adults into the studios to play for an evening. A different instructor will put together a different project each month — leatherwork, collage, even tintypes, a 19th-century form of photography using metal coated with lacquer. It’s a one-time, free-form workshop, and I came to get my hands muddy.
It’s been years since I spent time in a ceramics studio. In college, an enterprising student set up a couple of electric wheels and a handmade table in a dorm basement, and I spent a lot of raw spring nights learning the basics of wheel-throwing from him. You wedge the clay, kneading it like bread and forming it into a shell-like spiral, and then plonk it down firmly onto the wheel. As the wheel spins, you touch the clay with a gentle, constant pressure, getting it centered and then slowly drawing it into a shape.
So the first, key skill he tried to teach me was balance. Any uneven movement will shape the clay unevenly. Clay is pliant, and the finer the clay, the softer it gets. A friend once told me porcelain is like cream cheese. The simple stoneware I was smoothing at IS183 has more grog in it than that (particles of fired, ground clay added to make the wet clay stiffer), but as it gets wet it turns as smooth as marsh mud.
It coated my hands, and I was remembering the feeling of slip clay, clay and water mixed together. In the college studio I’d end up soaked and plastered to my shoulders. With my arms propped carefully on my knees I would lean over the wheel, my hands cupped and poised over the clay, and the water sluice on to keep the turning clay wet would splash down my shirt.
Here we were hand-building, not wheel-throwing, making shapes as simple as gingerbread houses. It felt good to handle the tools and concentrate on the texture under my fingers, to contemplate the tiles showing glazes and walk around the tables admiring different ideas.
I came with the makings of an idea, and as we washed up ribs and scrapers afterwards, someone told me I’d made it solid. Walking into a cold night, I thought, that’s a good feeling.