Sitting beside Charles Metzger at the potter’s wheel, I watch intently as he swiftly massages a solid hunk of clay into a hollowed-out bowl, first pressing his palms into the sides to form a cone, then karate-chopping it down into a “mushroom cap” before opening it into a perfectly symmetrical vessel. I imagine him ladling leek soup garnished with sprigs of thyme, once it’s been bisque-fired, glazed a rustic Moon Yellow, and fired again at more than 2,000 degrees.
As Charlie—that’s what his pupils call him—repeatedly glides his fingers from base to rim to mold the clay into the desired shape, he sounds more like a chemist than an artist, describing in detail the properties of clay and coloring oxides and pyrometric cones. Fascinated, I make a mental note to order books on the science of ceramics, as I can’t possibly absorb it all while simultaneously studying his movements.
He smooths the bowl’s rim with a slippery strip of leather, trims it from the wheel with a spiral cutting wire and transfers it onto a board where it will dry to “leather hard.” Next week, he’ll show us how to carve a foot into the same piece to make it balanced and functional.
Under the guidance of instructor Charles Metzger (pictured), the author will have created eight functional pieces by the end of the 10-week class. For a complete list of studio art classes and workshops—including a “Clay Date” event where you can sip wine and pinch pottery—visit delart.org.//Photo by S. Woodloe for Delaware Art Museum
“Now you give it a try,” he says, his cheerfulness matching my optimism and eagerness to get started. If he could create something so effortlessly, and in mere minutes, surely it couldn’t be that difficult.
The struggle begins the moment my hands meet the ball of clay at the “center” of my wheel. I force it into a cone that lacks a point, and when I drive it down with the side of my right hand, my mushroom cap billows over a base whittled too thin. Repositioning my clumsy paws so that the correct parts connect with the clay at the appropriate angles, Charlie helps me guide it into the shape I want to achieve. He then watches as I drill my thumbs down through the middle, then outward into a U to produce what begins to resemble a bowl.
Regaining confidence, I try to mimic his process, gently pulling at the walls of the spinning clay with my fingers and compressing the rim between movements to hold the shape. When Charlie turns his attention to another student, I assume he’s equally as confident in my abilities. I silently praise myself for being a quick study. Forming a claw with my hand over the bowl’s side, I continue to pull the walls higher with my fingertips when, suddenly, they rub against my thumb. I must have pulled too hard, or pushed, redistributing the clay into an uneven mass, paper-thin in places, that within seconds would flower at the top before collapsing into a heap of mud.
I slice off a new chunk of clay, wedge out the air bubbles and center it, repeating the sequence on the wheel until I understand how the heels of my hands and pads of my thumbs influence the shape I’ll create. By the third class, I’ll make something you can actually spoon soup out of—though you’ll need to refill it four times to get one serving. I decide to glaze it with Weathered Green, a mossy turquoise color reminiscent of a magical place I once visited in the Grand Canyon.
“That’s a great color,” Charlie says. “But you know, the Weathered Green isn’t food-safe.”