Week 22: Pottery
The cab driver pulls up to a gas station in the mountainous village of Stypsi, Lesvos, and Tam and I jump out. We look up and down the central street, wide enough for one vehicle to pass through, for signs of a potter.
A potter with an electric name. Elektra and I have been communicating via Facebook; our hotel manager found her after my own search for a workshop taught by a traditional potter failed. Elektra spent her early life in Australia, so she speaks perfect English, and has a side gig performing traditional music native to Lesvos.
She's told me that her shop is located a few meters from the gas station, marked by her potted goods out front, but I see no sign. I resort to Facebook. She's online, and walks around the bend down the street to call us over. So a few meters means fifty meters.
We walk into her shop, resplendent with minimalist designs painted on red and white Cretan clay. In the corner of the room, there is a little staircase spiraling up to a second floor, where, she explains, her kiln and her wheel live. We will eventually wind our way up, but in the center of this level is a table set up with two boards and a bowl of water, indicating our first project.
We get our hands on that clay. Our first project is shaping a bowl with our hands alone...no wheel. Elektra shows us how to start with a circle of flat clay, and then create a 'sausage' that we wrap around the circumference. We squish it against the edge of the circle to form one unit.
One by one, we roll out red clay sausages and integrate them into our growing bowl. Tam has done ceramics as a child; I haven't. I need to stop after four sausages due to the precarious nature of my bowl, but Tam one-ups me, literally, and adds a fifth sausage to hers.
Elektra adores her craft: "embrace it!" she explains when I reach a tentative place with my clay. I love the feeling of working with something of the earth, and tell her so. "This is the same feeling I have had since I first laid hands on the clay," she says in return. That was 15 years ago.
This process takes about an hour, and after toothpick-carving the date and 'Stypsi,' into the bottom of the bowls, Elektra takes us upstairs and introduces us to the wheel.
As any of you who have thrown clay know: that wheel looks deceptively benign when pedaled by an expert potteress. (I thought I made it up, but that's actually a word. Alternative spelling: pottress.)
It's not easy.
Hard work is needed to keep the potential pot in the middle. And it's more than that: keeping the clay damp, but not too damp, the wheel spinning, but not too fast, and the lump shapely, but not according to our understanding of how to shape, is sweat-inducing. Pots, I realize, are a feat of engineering by hand.
On a wheel, our bowls-to-be don't morph into bowls in the way a static lump would. The clay circles around the hand, which means that, keeping their hand in one specific spot, a potter can do miraculous things. Add a little pressure, and the miracles exponentiate.
With a little help from Elektra, my lump of clay forms into a baby bowl in five minutes. Tam, again, outperforms me with her clay skills, but I am happy with mine.
We leave our precious children (they feel like our children) to dry, and by the time we return in two days for painting, they are once-fired. Our greatest enemy is this endeavor are cracks. We do not want the bowls to crack in the kiln.
We come back on Tuesday to intact bowls. Rejoice! From here, we will paint them, and once again they will be endowed to the kiln, and then glazed by Elektra.
For my handmade bowl, I dip white clay into the bowl, swish it around, and pour it out. The inside is now white. After it dries, I paint a blue spiral with heart-shaped leaves emanating from it. For the smaller one, I do a more complex design with the white clay and paint one of Elektra's signature designs, an olive branch, around the exterior.
Tam opts for scenes of sea creatures and a lake surrounded by woods, and I acquiesce to photos to do them justice.
Leaving our now-painted pots to be fired in the kiln is the ceramic equivalent of leaving our freshly-graduated children at the mercy of university life.
On Thursday, Elektra drops off our pottery at the gas station by our hotel (all great things start and end with a gas station) so we won't have to drive into Stypsi to glaze and collect them. I don't open mine until I reach the hotel, where Tam is giving a talk on writing, and we open ours together at the end of the presentation.
They are objects of unearthly beauty, in our eyes.
More than anything, I love the connection to the earth that I feel through making these delicacies. I gravitate to craft and arts, but there is something special about this: it is of the earth. For someone who usually lives in the air of her head, this is a happy descent from the desert of mind waves.
To live in my body — to feel embodied in my skin — is one of my highest life goals and, perhaps ironically, a path to a deeper sense of spirituality.
Don't look for my initials at the bottom of any yet unborn ceramics you may buy in Lesvos, but I can envision learning the basics of the craft from a teacher as good as she is.