John Carlson: A Fun Day To Mold Clay

Fingers shape a lump of clay by the pinch pot method. Photo by: Nancy CarlsonFingers shape a lump of clay by the pinch pot method. Photo by: Nancy Carlson

By: John Carlson—

In an attempt to fulfill our artistic destinies, Nancy and I have begun taking pottery lessons at Cornerstone Center for the Arts.

Walking into class a couple Wednesdays ago, we were introduced to our teacher, Eugene Boyd, who is sort of a missionary for the joys of pottery-making. A friendly, effusive man, he told us how after retiring from his career as a General Motors toolmaker, he anticipated spending his golden years in a woodworking shop.

Then he was introduced to pottery, which became his passion.

Now he is the man behind Boyd’s Pottery, and an expert at throwing clay on a potter’s wheel to turn out very attractive, very cool stuff. I know this because many mornings, Nancy and I drink our coffee from beautiful mugs we bought from him last summer. We each picked out our very favorite. Then, over a matter of months, we developed proprietary feelings for these colorful vessels. So now, come morning, if she mistakenly grabs my mug from the cupboard instead of hers, I’m like, “What the heck is this crap, woman?” Or if some morning I grab her mug by mistake, she’s all in my face, like, “Hey, cough it up, Tubby Rumpkins!”

So yeah, next to each other, there’s nothing we love more than our Eugene Boyd coffee mugs.

The Carlson’s favorite coffee mugs crafted by Eugene Boyd. Photo by: Mike Rhodes

Anyway, in no time, Boyd had sliced through a rectangular block of cool, damp clay with a wire, then sectioned off workable clumps for us and our fellow students. He wasted no time in having us begin familiarizing ourselves with this malleable material, getting its feel by rounding our clay into dense gray spheres.

Now, if you know me, you know I never brag about myself. I especially never brag about myself when it comes to my incredible artistic prowess. But the fact is, within only a couple minutes, I had already created my first work of fine clay sculpture.

“It’s called ‘Two Meatballs,’” I announced to the class.

OK, I didn’t really announce that. One quick look around confirmed all of my classmates had made better-looking meatballs than mine. Some of them were already fashioning their meatballs into cute little chalices, several even resting on their own clay bases. Realizing that after just twenty minutes I was already falling behind the rest of the class – a feeling I had grown intimately familiar with between kindergarten and graduate school – I began combining my two meatballs into one big one. Then I forced a hole in it with my thumb.

In doing so, I was employing what Boyd called the “pinch pot” technique.

Thumbs buried deep in clay, we all were rounding the holes in our clumps, pinching and pinching and pinching some more, to form our pieces. Just half-an-hour later, “Two Meatballs” had been reconfigured into my second artistic clay creation of the morning, a profoundly attractive little piece I called “Ashtray.” Actually, making an ashtray was not my choice, there being no smokers in our house to use it. By this point, however, my clay was sort of forming me.

But one inviolable rule I learned about clay that day was this: Never thumb wrestle a potter. Not for money, anyhow.

It turns out potters are the butt-kickers of the arts-and-crafts world, at least in thumb sports. I mean, a potter’s thumb could undoubtedly beat the heck out of, say, an embroiderer’s thumb, unless that embroiderer began stabbing the potter’s thumb with her needle or something. Our thumbs got such a workout, it didn’t take long before mine, along with several more of my fingers, were sweating profusely, cramping up and begging for Gatorade. As it turns out, working clumps of clay, at least early in the process, is just that: work. Still, my digits pressed bravely on, until my ashtray schlepped off to the drying table.

Then Boyd gave us more clay. Without even thinking about it, ten minutes later I was well on my way to creating yet another outstanding piece of pottery art, this one to be called, “Ashtray, too.” But then I snapped out of it. “Expand your artistic scope, dimwit!” I excoriated myself, before transforming my new clay clump from a boring  six-inch circle into an exciting six-inch oval. Then Boyd delivered us each handfuls of tools consisting of pointy things, spoon-shaped things, tiny triangular things and other things. It was time to decorate our stuff!

All around me, my fellow students were having at it while our teacher walked past, admiring their work. As I labored and created, across from me Nancy was busily etching fingernails into a clay rendition of her own hand. Boyd stopped by, admiring it.

Then Nancy looked across our table at my piece. “Wow, honey,” she said warmly, “what a lovely cactus!”

I just stared back. “It’s an ostrich.”

So that’s the story behind my second piece, a little rendering I’ve named “X-ray of an Ancient Oval Ostrich Egg With an Actual Ostrich Still Stuck Inside It.” Boyd looked at it once and just sort of smiled. Maybe he was struck speechless by its enduring beauty, but somehow I doubt it.

What the heck, though. I’ve got eleven more weeks of class to catch up.


A former longtime feature writer and columnist for The Star Press in Muncie, Indiana, John Carlson is a storyteller with an unflagging appreciation for the wonderful people of East Central Indiana and the tales of their lives, be they funny, poignant, inspirational or all three.  John’s columns appear on Muncie Journal every Friday.