"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Thursday, April 24, 2008


For weeks this spring I looked forward to last Monday's class. This year at school we have an art teacher who is a real artist. Her specialty is clay and she sells her work in galleries. Our principal has an artist's soul. When I approached her with the idea that it would be cool for the staff to have a clay experience with our new teacher, she needed no convincing.

My happy anticipation of the class was flavored by childhood memories of clay and by my only other official experience working with clay.

A lazy creek runs through the farm that was my childhood home. Its banks are pocketed with rich deposits of oozy blue-gray clay. The most perfect summer days were spent squishing my naked feet deeply into the clay, or rubbing it all over my body in imitation of some native ritual I had seen in National Geographic, or pretending to be a a pioneer creating pottery that would hold wildflowers in my log cabin. In a life that was far from idyllic, the clay gave me the pure pleasure of creative solitude - moments of idyll that were enough to carry me through.

Fast forward twenty years or so. 

I'm a student to become a teacher. I've just left my husband and a religious family, both of whom I had vowed to love and be with forever. After a decade of living in the strangling safety of a severely structured world, I am free. And brimming with long-repressed feelings that threaten to overwhelm me. Art Methods Class. A required course for anyone working on a teaching degree. I feel like I'm getting away with something - this is so fun. Every week we're given a new medium to  work in and given the time to create with it. This week it's clay. The teacher, a serious artist herself, instructs us.

"Don't be gentle with this clay. Or bashful. Smack it. Throw it onto the table as hard as you can. Put all of your feeling and energy into it. Don't be afraid of it. It's earth and there for you to turn into whatever you choose. You have to be forceful to get it to surrender its form to your vision."

It feels unbelievably good to pound, throw, smack, punch, hammer, attack the stiff red clay. The room resounds with a powerful symphony of released emotions. Hands against earth is the only conversation in the room. At the end of the class I feel giddy with release. 

A few weeks later when she presents us with our final glazed and fired products, I am instantly in love with the simple little pinch pot whose flame-red shine reflects my beaming smile of pride. I have conquered the clay and created a container for the small treasures of my life.

Fast forward another twenty years or so. Last Monday. 

I sit at a sheet-covered table in the art room surrounded by my colleagues, excited at the prospect of smacking some new clay into a new form of submission. Looking forward to getting out some anger. Anxious to turn the picture I've had in my head for weeks into reality. The artist has promised to teach us how to make boxes. Boxes that are meant to  contain the most sacred parts of ourselves that we are working to care for as part of the book study that frames this art experience.

At first I don't realize what she's saying because the instructions of twenty years ago are still clear in my head.

"Be gentle with this clay. Mold it. Form it. Let it become what it needs to be. Your hands are your best tools. Let them gently turn your clay into what your heart sees. Your palms are the perfect vessels for it to round itself into. Don't rush and don't worry about making your piece perfect."

She talks for ten or fifteen minutes, all the while cradling, coaxing, caressing the lump of gray earth in her hands. She teaches us how to make the box, repeating over and over again that we need to trust our hands and the clay and not try too hard. That we need to give ourselves to the process. That perfection is not the goal.

I want to weep with relief and gratitude. I want to laugh at the glory of being in this place of gentle acceptance and nurturing creativity. I want to hug the teacher for being God's voice. 

I wonder what I'll be able to release through gentle hands that are guided by an open heart.

For the next two hours I mother the small lump of earth that has been given to me. I hold it in the bowl of my palms, talk to it - her - it becomes her quickly. I mean for a female shape to emerge from an egg, wings unfurled to take her soaring away from her safety. Usually fiercely independent, this time I ask for help from the teacher, so badly do I want to birth this clay into my vision.

The wings are a challenge. They will be very fragile until the firing. We have a slight disagreement - the wings and the teacher on one side, my vision and me on the other. I decide to trust and let go. I choose that trust consciously and with a sense of relief. The wings don't reach quite so high as I'd wanted, aren't quite so symmetrical, and look absolutely perfect.

The emerging female form makes me happy. My fellow artists see an angel. That's not who she is, but I don't want words to be a part of what I'm doing, so I don't correct them. The wings are what everyone sees, and I'm happy with that. They are strong, still reaching for the sky, ready to carry the form that now looks like a fertility goddess as high as she cares to go. I am deeply happy with this clay form.

And then as I'm doing one last thing to the base of my winged female container, the top falls off. The part with her head and breasts and wings. Splat. Onto a clump of sheet where I was meant to set her while I worked on the base, but totally forgot. Wings bent and torn. Head askew and deformed. Breasts flattened into nothingness.

I sit stunned. The women around me stop their soft chatter and prepare to hold whatever feeling I offer. I pick my winged woman up and apologize to her and prepare to restore her as best I can. Word reaches the teacher quickly. Deb dropped her angel. Someone makes a joke about naming her Lucifer. Fallen Angel. I breathe. I created her from a gentle place. I will fix her from that same place. If I can. My heart is much more able than my hands in this endeavor.

The teacher approaches me with a story about a fourth grader who had wing issues just that day and was hysterical. She said she was able to fix those wings, would I like her to perform surgery on mine. 

I'm faced with a serious dilemma here. Skilled artist's hands will fix my form, but then she won't be entirely mine. If I insist on doing it myself, she won't be all that she could be. Receiving help of any kind is so hard. My heart says say yes. And so I say yes. Please help me.

The resulting container is exactly as I envisioned yet immensely more. Egg-like, grounded, global on the bottom. The top is completely female, richly curved, with much larger breasts than I allowed myself to give her. The simple oval head is tilted in an attitude of curiosity and wonder. The wings have become something alive. One is folded closer to the body while still stretching upward. The other reaches away from the body but curves back toward it.

As I bless her with finishing touches, I find tears in my eyes.  I'm not sure why until someone says that the wings look like a hug. And someone else says that she looks shy (I hear "vulnerable") from the back. And someone else says they really like how substantially feminine she is - not scrawny and wispy, but full and round.

This lump of clay has become me. Softer, fuller, freer than I knew. Still winged for flight, but grounded. Substantial but empty.  Born of a gentle hand, a trusting heart and the help of a skilled teacher.


FrecklesandDeb said...

How beautiful! You’ve offered wondrous existence to a simple piece of clay and shared that existence with us through your amazing words.

Jerri said...

Can I start by saying how much--how very much--I love your writing? Reading one of your posts is like sliding into a warm bath. Pure pleasure.

The progression here seems emblematic. 20 years ago you were told to slap the clay around, punch and pound it, push it into being.

Now you're shown how to nurture and guide it into being.

You've got to love that.

kario said...



No accidents. The circular nature of our lives allows us so much space to grow. I am so impressed that you have had these different vantage points from which to view your own progression and that you have taken advantage of them with such purpose and grace.

I love you.

I can't wait to see the finished product.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Simply gorgeous. All of it.

La La said...

"I'm faced with a serious dilemma here. Skilled artist's hands will fix my form, but then she won't be entirely mine. If I insist on doing it myself, she won't be all that she could be. Receiving help of any kind is so hard. My heart says say yes. And so I say yes. Please help me."

This made me cry. Yes, I cry a lot, but I've been in this place before, and the receiving part is so damn hard.

"Born of a gentle hand, a trusting heart and the help of a skilled teacher."

Lovely. Lovely. Lovely.

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Had to come back for more, so GORGEOUS! And, not enough has been made of the pretty colors on your blog!!!!

Anonymous said...

"Still winged for flight, but grounded." This was beautiful. I have read it 3 times now and get something new each time. Your words are such a gift.

Jess said...

What a beautiful experience. What a gift. Love the progress here.

Do we get to see a picture of her? I want to see.

M said...

Wow...this is one of my favorite stories of yours for a while. Partly because I too remember the soft, blue clay of our youth. Partly because of the different ways you describe of being taught to form the clay. And finally how you associate yourself with your final artform last week.

It is such a reminder to me that we are but vessels of clay...that have been formed from sometimes harsh hands, and sometimes from gentle hands. Thank you for this gift.

Terry Whitaker said...

This is one of the most beautiful passages you have ever written--and that's saying alot.

"Hands against earth is the only conversation in the room."

pure gold.

Kim said...

Absolutely take-your-breath-away beautiful. I would love to see a picture of her!