I wanted to do something a little different. Eighteen were enrolled in my class called, “Reconstructing the Earth,” and when I asked how many had ever used a cup they’d made themselves, no hands went up. Two had drunk from a vessel whose maker they could identify. We agreed the time had come to drink from cups we’d make ourselves, and at the end of the 2-hour class, the world was 95 cups richer – 5 for each of us.

Then I gave them the assignment: buy a 20-gallon garbage can and bring it next time. By the end of the next class we had mixed a little mountain of clay, and each person took a can full – about 300 pounds – and then I pulled the cork: everybody had to complete the assignment by using all the clay at once.

“I’ve always wanted a 300 pound clay object,” Wendy told me without smiling.

“Well,” I said, “having it is one thing; putting it together is another.” Wendy told me she’d see what she could do.

Carl up-ended his garbage can, took off his shoes, and jumped off the big work table in the shop, and commenced to sink up past his ankles in this big mound of clay, then he kept enlarging the bowl-like vessel by tramping around inside it and pulling up the sides with his hands. “Feat of clay!” he proclaimed.

Kelley spread out a lot of newspapers on the floor and smashed her wad of clay down on them a big handful at a time and got everybody in the class to walk around on it barefooted in a big figure-8, making a path right there on the floor. Then she cut the thing in squares, like a mosaic, to fit on kiln-shelves so she could fire it, saying she’s always wanted a trail in her yard, but didn’t know how to make one defacing the lawn.

Sally, who always came to class dressed up, began building a dead-on replica of a 20-gallon clay garbage can out of her clay and then researched how to make a galvanized-looking glaze for it.

Jesse and Ted sneaked their clay up to the top of Founders Hall and pushed it over the edge. (One of them took his clay out of the can). You should have heard the sounds….they have a video of the whole event. A voice says, “The clay is being rolled to the edge of the catwalk….now.. it….is….fall…llling.” Then there’s this noise off-camera that’s huge but doesn’t last long. The clay in the garbage can made a circular depression about 6″ deep in the macadam sidewalk. They ripped the can away carefully and carried the ribbed, compacted heap back to the studio on boards. They got the other one back by sliding it onto a big canvas with snow shovels. It was almost four feet across and came to a point on top, and had lots of wrinkles, like elephant-skin.

We all helped Paula, the tiniest kid in class, take her clay out to the middle of a field across the road, where she stuck it full of holes with a broomstick, filled them with gasoline, and plugged them pretty tight, then stuck in this long fuse she’d gotten from her father and we all hid behind some trees as she lit it. You can just imagine what happened. We all rushed up to examine the smoking fragments, gathering around them in spontaneous silence, as if we were characters in her play. She pointed to a chunk she liked a lot and said, “Couldn’t have done it any other way!”

Two kids started rolling out their clay a little bit at at a time – one at the front door; one at the back, making links in a clay chain that reached the whole way around the building. “It’s conceptual,” they beamed. The lit major added, “We don’t have to mention it’s about irony, do we?”

This real quiet guy named John took his clay out to a dump, punched it up kind of funny, and shot it with a .22, a .30-.30 and a 20 gauge shotgun, then let it dry in the sun. “Way too much violence is synonymous with destruction. Creation isn’t all done the way you stroke your pet cat under her chin.”

Evan hooked an anchor in his ball of clay and towed it slowly past the studio behind his Volvo, where it picked up a lot of unusual texture. He said he was trolling for potters. (Some people feel that grading assignments in studio art is largely subjective; I hope this gentleman’s approach convinces them otherwise.)

Somebody named Jan cut the big chunk into about thirty pieces, rolled them tightly and loosely in Saran Wrap, and ran them through several cycles in an electric dryer. They came out looking like nothing any of us had ever seen. ‘The Untouchables,” she called them, after they were fired and arranged on a welded armature.

Bobbi put this foam pad down on the floor of the studio and stood these big coils up over it like a tunnel, put a sleeping bag under it and slept there that night, saying it was as close as she wanted to get to being buried. “The title is forthcoming,” she said, enigmatically. (Or did she mean, “Forthcoming” was the title?” That occurred to me on the way home for lunch. I must ask her.)

Three chemistry majors got together and smashed their clay out in a big square with their feet, then they marked off rows and planted seeds in it, just like a garden. The lettuce came up first, then the peas. The radishes never showed, so they made clay ones instead. The corn grew the tallest. It looked funny to drive by the studio at night and see the heat lamps shining on the plastic over the garden, which kept it warm and damp at the same time. They wanted to see if objects made from clay with the nutrients extracted by plants would differ in any way from those made of “regular” clay.

Somebody bet this loud-mouthed guy, Howard, that he couldn’t eat his barrel of clay between September and June. I’m writing this in February, and Howard could win easily. Forty bucks. He eats a certain amount every day, in front of the guy who bet with him. Lot of jokes around the studio about Howard and his bet.

Phyllis, a physics major with thick glasses, said nobody should assume that clay had to be heated to harden. She made dozens of pointy clay coils, froze them in liquid nitrogen, and pushed them into styrofoam sheets. When they thawed, they hung down limply. She, too, documented her project with a dramatically-lighted time-lapse film, showing the effect of thawing on her spikes, nails, and tacks.

Wendy sent balls of clay to people she knows in seven states and three other countries. She said that when the people send them back, which she asked them to do, she’ll have a better idea of how to finish the assignment. She might have to take an incomplete.


During the first half of the course we have explored a variety of hand-building methods ranging from small pottery projects to more imaginative exercises. All were designed to be solved with clay — opportunities to get used to the tactile properties of the material as a means of discovering some of the potential of this abundant, naturally-occurring earth material. 

potter's wheel 1

The second half of the course is quite different. It involves learning to use the potter’s wheel — an ancient tool that has been around since before 1100 B.C. If you have ever studied a musical instrument, you’ll notice some similarities to using the wheel: each requires discipline, dexterity, and a willingness to practice daily, so your progress builds through a series of exercises. Working on the wheel is like learning a 3-dimensional language — your fluency increases as we progress through simple forms: bowls, cylinders, bottles, jars, and teapots, each with its own variations that reflect your preferences and expressiveness.

potter's wheel 2

Whereas the first half of the course dealt with the creation of forms that were entirely your own design, we now will be operating within a circular format; the potter’s wheel is a study of circles: formless clay is shaped into roundness on a spinning wheel, coaxed into forms originating with the potter and becoming transmitted into the material in an almost magical way. (On a good day!) Throwing on the wheel demands focused attention, muscular coordination, balance, and a sense of rhythm ¬— capabilities we all have developed to different degrees. A thrown pot symbolizes how you’ve coordinated the various skills needed to bring it into being.

potter's wheel 3

One thing that frustrates us all is that very little of this process can be passed on verbally. Throwing is a lot like learning to tie your shoes — nobody would ever learn how to do it right if we’d received written instructions. We watched, and practiced until we got it right, and it became automatic. If you practice consistently, you’ll develop a level of expertise and fluency you never thought possible when you began. (You’ll never again be as ignorant of the process as you are at this moment!) Learning won’t happen all at once, and you can’t cram for it. Knowledge comes in little breakthroughs that add up to growing confidence you never un-learn. You no longer fight the material. You establish a dialogue with it, and when that happens, you’re well on your way. Tying your shoes gets you only tied shoes, but throwing pots has unlimited possibilities!

A good pot begins with well-wedged clay. Take the time to learn this process, since it assures the consistency of the clay — an essential component of every well-thrown piece. 

Set aside time to work when you are at your best. (The studio is always most quiet in the mornings). Come to the wheel with everything needed to work: clay, water, tools, and a board or bat to receive your work. Keeping the clay covered with plastic will help in centering, since exposing it to air dries the surface of the clay balls. making them harder to center.

wooden pointy stick (has tongue-depressor-like curve on opposite end).
sheepswool sponge (about as big as your fist; not the small, flat sponge). 
needle tool.
loop-tool for trimming (has wooden handle). 
curved wooden rib


Make a bowl any size and as deep or shallow as you wish, incorporating into it a favorite landscape, using both inside and outside if it furthers your purpose.

The “landscape” may be traditional — topographical, geological, expansive, intimate, or purely imaginary. It can depict an area as large as a continent, as small as a favorite room, or “zone of meaning” that makes it unique for you. It should have a special significance; a personal connection you want to commemorate, celebrate, or even exorcise.

It should draw the viewer into the piece using perspective and to whatever degree possible, the 3rd dimension, to enhance both visual and tactile depth-perception

“Pass-throughs” and multiple-wall constructions might further your concept.

Looking at Joseph Cornell’s boxes is a good place to see how another artist used a concentrated space to suggest virtually limitless concepts and ideas.

Many artists consider Gaston Bachelard’s, The Poetics of Space, a rich source and turn to it again and again. Here several of his observations: “….an image that issues from the imagination is not subject to verification by reality.”

“”To verify images kills them, and it is always more enriching to imagine than to experience.”

“But images are more demanding than ideas.”


Poems are hidden away in dark books. Rescue a special poem and give it a place of honor in a clay container of your own making.
1) Select a favorite poem (sorry, no song lyrics, unless it’s a poem set to music, such as Yeats’ “Lake Isle of Innisfree;” maybe you’ve heard Judy Collins sing it).
2) Read it aloud, and type it up; what does it suggest to you about a new place where it should be, besides in a book?
3) What kind of container can you make that is related to the poem? (Choose and define the relationship).
4)How can you create a container that would best serve the poem? How can the overall form be most effective? How will it meet the table or perhaps a special holder that supports it? How can you incorporate textures, colors, non-ceramic materials (after firing) to further your project?

Who are some poets to investigate? Here are a few suggestions; look them up on the internet and in the library:

Mary Oliver     Mark Doty     Robert Pinsky     Emily Dickinson     Dorianne Laux     Thomas Lux     Stanley Kunitz     Margaret Atwood     Jane Kenyon     Wallace Stevens     Robert Frost     E. E. Cummings     Naomi Shihab Nye     Walt Whitman     Maxine Kumin     Sharon Olds     Gary Soto     Adrienne Rich     May Swenson     Allen Ginsburg     Karl Shapiro     Rita Dove     Stephen Dunn     Theodore Roethke     William Stafford     Robert Bly     Sylvia Plath     Gary Snyder     Galway Kinnell     William Carlos Williams     William Butler Yeats     or a poet of your choice, even yourself.


All our lives we have been drinking out of other people’s cups; now it is time to make our own cups and to drink out of them. A cup can be anything that you can imagine; it can be a personal statement and not merely a commodity — just another product to be bought and sold. Ideally, for our purposes, a cup should invite use. 

To see if a thing as small as a cup can affect the quality of human life. 
To undermine the concept that cups are to be taken for granted, that they are bland and faceless articles of daily life to be used and forgotten
To learn what makes a cup worth picking up and using. What makes a good handle? How important is stability? Why is the empty weight of a cup important? How can texture enhance a cup’s use?
To make cups that are functional and worth using; that enhance the experience of drinking with originality and personal expressiveness missing in almost every other cup we’ve ever used.
To become a cupologist who examines the cups of the world with curiosity, interest, and escalating standards.

  1. Make 3 cups that do not have a round bottom, that incorporate stance and gesture in their forms, and are stable-on-the-table. Make them irresistible to use. Consider the weight of the empty cup. Are handles user-friendly? Can the cups be easily washed?
  2. Make a series of 5 cups — 3 of which have handles — with a variety of textures. Please don’t be wimpy or timid about these textures; use the full thickness of the clay to advantage Use stamping, carving, pinching, and maybe some methods never before seen. One of the surprises of handling such cups is encountering one with deep textures that is also light in the hand.
  3. Make 3 cups employing a double-wall somewhere in their construction and incorporate sound by inclosing small, moveable pieces of clay, like b-bs. Use this method of construction to make the drinking experience unique, new, and pleasurable to the user. 

A common fault with hand-built cups is that they are unnecessarily heavy (thick). Use the clay’s natural plasticity to advantage by stretching it to an appropriate thickness for the job it’s to do.

Please use your best craftsmanship on these assignments. Cups should be stable, well-balanced, and show attention to details. Handles should be user-friendly, and show attention to size and placement. Cups don’t need a round foot. (For our purpose, think of a round foot as a cliche). They may incorporate stance and gesture and still be stable-on-the-table. Make them irresistible to use. Consider the weight of the empty cup. Are handles user-friendly? Can the cups be easily washed?

Some thoughts about cups:
Since all human beings must drink, potters in every age have made cups. A cup is the most intimate of all pottery forms; the only clay object we touch to our bodies in two places simultaneously. Many of us have grown up with cups we think of as being “special.” Certain cups have qualities or characteristics that bring pleasure from use, such as color, size, design, weight, or feel in the hand. We may also prize such pieces because they were given to us as gifts on a certain occasion by a particular person, or because they remind us of where we acquired it — at a flea-market, vacation, or from a friend who thought we should have it for some funny or otherwise personal reason.
Immediate (visual-tactile) and associative (symbolic, or representational) aspects of cups are important to us as makers. Some of our best cups will embody both features, but the first ones we make should deal with immediate, touch-related aspects that only hand-made pottery can exemplify, and which mechanically-produced cups usually lack. Some of these characteristics are:

  1. The “hand” of the maker — marks put there intentionally or not, during the forming process. Is this evidence obvious or subtle? What kinds of texture were employed by the maker?
  2. The maker’s craft — is the cup stable? Is its weight appropriate, or does it feel full when empty? Is the lip user-friendly? Is the bottom smooth so it won’t scratch furniture?
  3. Design features — If a handle is present, is it strong enough (physically and visually) to hold the weight of the cup and its contents? Is the handle’s size and placement integrated into the design or distinctly different from it? Is the handle hollow or solid? Does the cup have a “stance?” (does it remind you of a military officer, a dancer, a contortionist?) Is it in any way evocative of an animal, a geological feature, a manufactured item, or something from the natural world?
  4. How is this cup distinctively hand-made? How will others know it was made by a human being, and not by a mass-production method? How does this cup relate to who you are as a person? (does the cup reveal anything about you to one who who sees, handles, and/or uses the vessel?
  5. The cups you make will shrink about 20% when fired, so do the math, and make them a little larger than you want them to be.
  6. How can you ever look at cups the way you used to?


The object of this assignment is to establish a dialogue with clay by making a tall handbuilt form.

Imagine a 16” 3-legged mutant octopus doing a headstand. Each leg is hollow, needn’t match the others, and must join them so they are mutually supportive.

Unlike the pinched forms we made on the first day, this assignment calls for you to work on your piece in several steps. Trying to make it in one go, while not impossible, will limit the possibilities for the most interesting form you can build.

The first step should be to establish the base and begin the upward-moving sections. These columns/tubes do not need to match….one might be round, another geometric. They might have different textures; they might twist as they come up; they might curve outward as our arms do when we touch our hands above our heads.

The more space you build between the columns, the more ingenuity will be required and exercised, adding interest to the form.

To avoid having the 3 elements waving about in space, vulnerable to breakage, connect them in a way that resolves their separate identities and completes the form.

When working on this piece in one or more sessions, you will want to cover the upper 4-5 inches with plastic to keep it from drying out. Keeping your piece on a low shelf, away from direct heat, lets it dry more slowly.

One of the most important things to learn about our material is that once it changes color from drying, or is too stiff to indent easily with a fingernail, it is probably time to start over, rather than to continue building.


The purpose of this assignment is to examine the pouring vessel — one of the most frequently made objects in the history of ceramics— and, using historical precedents, make personally expressive objects ranging from small to comparatively large. Both hand-built and wheel-thrown components can be used in the construction of these pieces.

Pitchers — in which the spout is an extension of the vessel itself. Go to the library or internet and examine the ceramic work of 3 different cultures. Select 3 pitchers (on the basis of form, rather than surface design or decoration), photo-copy them, and bring the copies to class.

  1. Choose one of the 3 and replicate it 3 times, on 3 different scales.
  2. Make 2 composite pitchers, in which you integrate important aspects of different historical models into hybrids of your own invention.

Ewers — in which the liquid to be contained and poured is cold (as opposed to a teapot, for example). Ewers have attached spouts, and vary from one culture to another. Middle Eastern cultures, especially, have featured the ewer prominently among the forms made by potters.

  1. Acquaint yourself with historical examples of ewers, and bring 3 photo-copied examples to class for discussion. Make a replica of one of the pieces you are attracted to.
  2. Rearrange the components of any of the photo-copied examples to hybridize a historical example. Make the piece a minimum of 12″
  3. Make 3 ewers by assembling bowls to make the body of the piece. Handle and spout can be thrown or hand-built.
  4. Make a monumental ewer, at least 24″, of hand-built or thrown components. This piece may be sculptural, in the sense that it originates in a functional idea, but may represent the form, rather than being made for actual use. Details should be true-to-life: good craftsmanship throughout — authoritative stability, nice fit to the lid if appropriate, strong handle, good ratio of visual-to-actual weight.


This is a 2-part assignment, in which we will use the potter’s wheel, not to make pottery, but to form components and assemble them into a sculptural statement. The first was based on bowl forms. Now, make a piece at least 14” from thrown cylindrical elements. A 14” pipe-like structure 4” wide is not stable. (Please don’t make a “sculpture” that reminds us of stacked-up cat-food cans). Try to visualize a form that’s wider at the base than at the top).

Make a few rough sketches if you like, or simply throw a variety of forms and group them in various ways before you attach them to make the final piece.

Have fun with this assignment. By using cylinders on their sides, for example, we can see through the piece; cutting cylinders gives you even more leeway to build your project.

Part 2 is to make either a representational or abstract unified sculptural form at least 24” tall, using components thrown on the potter’s wheel.

Some things to keep in mind:

  1. Design.
    Sketching a general or specific form will be of great help. In your journal sketch components you can make on the wheel, then combine them in a number of ways to help visualize a final form.
  2. Stability.<>br The piece should be structurally sound and bear its own weight. Be sure you know how tall 24” is before you begin, and plan your piece accordingly. One of the biggest challenges will be to devise an appropriate base to support the components above it. Making the piece in several stages rather than all at once will give you more options.
  3. Joinery.
    The sculpture will necessarily have many joints and seams, all of which must be securely fastened together. From past experience we have learned how joints and seams are prone to cracking, especially when fresh clay is added to drier leather-hard stages. Be sure that as you build upwards, the supporting structure dries from the bottom up, and the topmost parts remain soft and receptive to having new clay added to them. This is especially important during cold weather, when the furnace comes on and can dry your work out quickly. Be sure your piece is kept appropriately covered, especially the top 4”- 6”.