When making a pot on the potter’s wheel, the first and most important step is “centering”. With the clay spinning on a disc (the wheel-head) atop a whirring motor (pottery wheel) we seek to create a certain stillness where the clay is evenly compacted in the middle of the spinning disc. This is achieved by allowing the gentle, even pressure of your hands to be a guide while the power of the pottery wheel’s motor does the work. Clay, when spinning wants to go down (gravity) and out (centrifugal force). Our hands tell the clay to go inward and up.
This action is the foundation of every pot ever made on the potter’s wheel. It looks easy. Indeed it is a simple idea, but nonetheless a skill that must be learned and practiced and it does not come easily for many people. Without a centered piece of clay, however, no successful pot can be made.
Pottery is one of those unusual disciplines where the most challenging skill is learned first. We start with the most difficult and important aspect. (it is not brain surgery, but if it were, we’d start with the brain surgery, and take the blood pressure later). It is important and challenging, but it looks easy. Therefore students approach it with intensity and determination. There is often frustration and resistance when centering does not come easily. It is only mud after all.
One of the most common mistakes students make is to take their hands away from the clay too quickly, to grab a necessary tool or get more water. This action of removing the hands quickly can push the clay off-center, undoing all the hard work of centering. I find myself repeating the phrase “Relax and Drift” over and over in effort to remind them that when we take our hands away, which we must do often, that we relax the hands where they are and let them drift or float off the clay. It is a reminder, but also a chant, a mantra, “Relax and Dirft”.
This phrase lessens the intensity and frustration of the experience. I repeat it so frequently that my students tease me, as they rightly surmise that its usage is philosophical as well as technical. It’s cool. Humor is an excellent tool to engage students in any discipline.
When I teach beginning pottery, which I am doing now, my use of the phrase “Relax and Drift” begins to seep into my daily life. When life throws me a challenge or and intense experience, I can try to “Relax” enough to assess the situation with my mind and heart, and “Drift” towards the best action, thereby not pushing life off center by moving too quickly. That’s what I’m doing now.