Fun Facts Part 3 - Pottery Class

Saturday, July 05, 2014
Not too long after I moved to Tucson, I learned about a pottery class at Tohono Chul Park being given by one of my coworkers. Being new in the area meant a couple of things: I didn't have a bunch of social activities going on, and I was curious about the arts and crafts of the Southwest. The instructor, a web designer by day, told me he'd be teaching the class to make pottery in the Native American way.

I think I've mentioned before that I'm not terribly artistic. Kindergartners can draw better than I can. So taking this class and demonstrating my lack of talent in public took some courage. As will posting the resulting pot. Okay, here goes:

I think I should have left it hidden in the display cabinet, where the two amethyst geodes are what draws your eye. Oh, well.

The first class he spent showing us slides of the different kinds of Indian pottery. It turned out that at a young age he'd taken an interest in the pottery and spent time visiting with several tribes to learn the techniques. He'd also brought books for us to look at so we could get ideas for the pots we wanted to make. Then he gave us an overview of what we'd be doing in class. The next lesson would be a...

Field trip! Because we were going to start at the very beginning by digging our own clay. So the next week we brought buckets and trowels and carpooled to somewhere south of Tucson, where we took a dirt road back into the desert. We stopped at a place where the cuts into the hillside were evidence that others had dug before us. The clay didn't look much like clay. In school art class when we worked with clay, the teacher would pull out a bucket with a lump of slippery clay in it, and we'd break some off for our project. The clay we were digging wasn't at all slippery because, you know, no water. It's a desert. And it was hard.

Fortunately, one guy had brought a pick (he'd done this before) and a couple of people brought spades. We dug. After an hour or two, we all had enough raw clay in our buckets to make our pots. Along with some homework.

Because now we had to prepare that clay so it was workable. This involved soaking it in water for several days, monitoring the amount of water so it was enough to make the clay workable, but not too much so it would turn into slime. And kneading. I'd made my own bread before, so I understood how to knead. Only this time I was making mud pies.

This was somewhat of a challenge because I was living in an apartment at the time. No yard. No hose. No way to control the amount of sun, which apparently was also important. I only had a balcony. Any kneading had to be done on my kitchen table, which meant being very careful unless I wanted a kitchen full of mud.

The next step was tempering the clay. Apparently, pure clay doesn't fire very well. You have to add a proportion of sand to "temper" it. This was another step where not having a yard presented a challenge. There's plenty of sand in Tucson, but digging in it at an apartment complex is frowned upon. So, early one morning I took a container and my trusty trowel to the end of the parking lot and took several furtive steps into the desert. Hoping no one would notice, I quickly shoveled sand into the container and headed back to my apartment.

I wasn't done yet. The sand had to be sifted. You don't want rocks and sticks and bits of cactus in your clay. So I sifted. The instructor had suggested a bit of screening, but I wasn't about to go to Home Depot, buy screen material and wood and construct the kind of thing he described. I think I used a large kitchen strainer.

Now that I had sand, more kneading. I had to knead the sand into the clay in the right proportion. He was somewhat vague about what "right proportion" meant. If I remember correctly, I think it was approximately one-third sand and two-thirds clay, but I could be off. But he impressed on us that it could be different, depending on the nature of the clay you were using. You just had to add sand until it "felt right." And too much sand was just as bad as too little.

This reminded me somewhat of making Nana's fruitcake. My great grandmother made the most delicious Christmas fruitcake. It wasn't at all like the kind you get in the store. After she passed away, my mother used to make it, although it wasn't quite the same. When I had my own household, I asked my mother for the recipe. I remember staring at it for a few minutes, trying to puzzle it out. While the ingredient list did have measurements like two cups of flour and one cup of sugar, the bigger part of the list was nuts, citron, raisins, candied cherries, cinnamon, etc. No measurements at all. When I asked my mother how you knew how much to put in, she shrugged her shoulders. That explained why hers wasn't the same as Nana's. She gave her best guesses as to how much of each of those you should use, but it took me several years of experimentation before I hit upon the combination that I use today.

I didn't have several years to figure out the right proportion of sand to clay, so I was pretty nervous about that part.

Finally we were up to making the pot. We were going to use the coil and scrape method to make our pot. You start out by rolling some of the clay into a long snake-like piece. You take the snake of clay and coil it into a circle to build the walls of your pot. Then you take a flat rock and scrape along the coils to smooth the clay out and merge the coils together. The clay coils all need to be about the same diameter so the walls of the pot are consistently thick. You have to scrape inside and out, applying gentle pressure with your hand on the opposite side to keep the shape of the pot. From the shape of my pot, you can tell I needed more practice. I remember starting over at least once.

It was painstaking work. While I was doing all of this, my clay was drying out. There's little humidity in Arizona--except during monsoon season--so things dry quickly. I had to once again balance the addition of water between keeping the clay moist enough so it was malleable, yet not so moist that the pot would collapse. At last I had a pot, pitiful as it was. I put it on a table covered in newspaper at the side of the classroom to dry.

The next week was painting. The instructor brought vials of ground-up minerals of different colors to class. We brought the paintbrushes. He described how he collected the minerals on hiking trips and told us likely places where you could find most of them. I was glad he hadn't made us hike in and get them ourselves.

You had to mix the minerals with water to make them into paint. Again, this took some experimentation to get the consistency right, but it was actually one of the most fun parts of the class. We'd gotten through the hard work part and were up to decorating.

Again, we had to let the pots dry before the next step, so I put mine back on the table and hoped it would be ready for the next week.

Which was firing. There was a little catch in this part. He had to get permission to build a fire not only from the park, but from the fire department. Because we weren't going to use a kiln. We were going to use an actual fire. Built from dried cow dung. Fortunately, he didn't have us collect the cow dung. He pressed his sons into service for that task.

He and his sons lugged cow chips out of the back of his vehicle and piled them in a courtyard. We put our pots on top, then he layered more cow chips on top. He cautioned us that this step might destroy our pots. Sometimes you left an air bubble inside the clay (which you were supposed to have removed by all that scraping) or there was just a flaw you couldn't see and the firing would cause that flaw to crack the pot. I thought of all the weeks of work I'd spent to get to this point and was tempted to pull my pot out.

The fire was smoky and hot. I forget how long he let it burn. I do remember his two boys gleefully pitching more cow chips on the fire to keep it going. Finally, he let the fire go out. But we couldn't have our pots yet. We had to wait for them to cool a little. Moving from a hot fire to cooler air too quickly might also crack the pot.

I remember waiting anxiously as he started to pull pots out of the fire. One pot did break in the firing process. I felt bad for the woman who wound up with only pot shards. At last he pulled mine out. It had survived!

The one disappointment was that the pot had gone into the fire a pale beige. That's what you see in the bright spot on the right side of it. But it came out blackened. They all did because of the smoke from the cow chips. He told us the way to get the smoke out was to fire the pot again in a kiln. He gave us the names of a few places we could take the pots to to get that done. I didn't think my pot was worth spending additional money on, so I left it blackened.

I'd never thought about how much work it was for the Indians to make simple kitchen things before I took this class. When I needed a pot, I went to Macy's Cellar or Bed, Bath, and Beyond or, if I was short of funds, Target or Walmart. There was not only a lot of work involved, there was also skill. Judging by my talent for this, I kept thinking that if I were an Indian girl and making a set of pots was a requirement for getting married, I probably would have wound up an old maid.

Even though I didn't create a work of art, I'm glad I had the experience.

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