Bruno Vinel, Ceramics Today editor, shares how pottery helped him develop his artistic side and improved his well-being.
My oldest memory of clay was when I was around 7 years old in my grandparents’ cottage in the South-West of France. I have vivid memories of playing with clay, fire and enjoying myself so much in the garden.
A few years later, our parents signed up my sister and I for a weekly pottery class on Wednesday afternoons. We had the opportunity to develop our hand-building skills with clay and make some nice vessels we were proud of.
It took me 45 years to get back into crafting with clay.
In April 2018, suffering from depression after illness, I signed up for the Islington Pottery Workshop in London. The weekly sessions on Tuesday evenings were a real escape and a great way to feel positive.
I started building pots with the coiling technique. There was a joy in rolling the clay under my fingers and feeling how it was responding to the pressure. Then, assembling the coils to form a vase was a very calming activity. I was concentrating on the task, ensuring that the thickness of the wall was as regular as possible. It involved repetitive movements: forming coils, adding them to the vase, joining the coils together, smoothing the wall inside and out.
Hand-building clay vessels is often described as a mindful activity. It was certainly a calming and relaxing one for me. Usually, you start by wedging the clay to make it more pliable, to achieve a uniform consistency and remove any air pockets. The wedging process requires compressing the clay with both hands, applying pressure with your full body, and repeating the same movement up to one hundred times. Watch Florian Gadsby demonstrating how he wedges his clay here and you will understand why.
According to Dr Herbet Benson’s research summarised in this article, this repetitive muscular activity triggers your body’s relaxation response, which in turns allows a lower heart rate, blood pressure, and muscle tension.
According to Patricia Monaghan and Eleanor Viereck, authors of Meditation – The Complete Guide, “any activity that demands focus and involves some degree of repetitive activity lowers the brain-wave frequency and therefore produces the effects of meditation.”
Repetitive movements like wedging, coiling or trimming vessels allow the brain to focus on returning to that movement rather than revisiting intruding or destructive emotions.
Coil building is a slow technique, not only because of the time needed to roll the coils and assemble them into a shape but also because it requires a lot of trimming and finishing to soften your vessel surface. The movement of scraping the excess clay with a metallic kidney rib is very satisfying. It’s like planing a piece of wood with a manual planer. Those repetitive movements proved to calm my mind.
As part of my practice of pottery, I also found that having to concentrate on the construction of pieces in three dimensions was helping me to evade negative thoughts and feel better. There is a real feeling of achievement and glory when you see the piece of pottery you visualised in your mind, taking shape in front of you.
Attending a workshop freed me from the guided learning of a structured course. I was able to experiment with building and decorative techniques at my own pace. It was a fast pace as during the week I was researching in books and online, and applying the techniques at the maximum speed possible during the limited timeframe of the two-hour class.
Building a tall vase using a slab, a rolled piece of clay, around a piece of pipe was a faster experience compared to the coil building technique. Rolling clay and forming vessels with a slab offers less contact with clay, as the roller pin interferes with the hand’s direct contact. But the forms are built quickly and the technique offers a fast reward.
Seeing the immediate results of my efforts was a great reward and improved my self-estimate. Discussions with my classmates about pottery techniques and pieces were also helping me to renew with socialising without engaging too much of my own emotions and feelings.
Even though pottery may offer you immediate rewards, it is an activity that requires patience. First, you have to wedge the clay, build your pieces and let them get hard enough (to a leather hard stage) before decorating them. Then, your pieces have to dry completely (bone dry) before being bisque fired at 900 – 1,000 oC. Once bisque fired, the vessels can be glazed and fired a second time.
Overall, it can take several weeks to see your pieces come out of the kiln. Patience is the key to success in the process, but matched by the satisfaction of holding your own pieces of pottery in your hands!