"On the one hand, writing; on the other, pottery"

by Terry Gess

I make pottery and I also write. I’m lucky to have two avenues of creative expression.

At first glance, they seem so contradictory. One is all water and mud, all collaboration with natural forces that, on their own, sputter and foam, ooze and crystallize beneath my feet some twenty miles under the crust of the earth, while the other takes place inside the confines of my small, hard-shelled brain.

There are subtle similarities between working with mud and working on paper. In each pursuit, the imaginative space is completely my own.

Being a potter feels like what I imagine it’s like to be a small farmer—you do what you can with the ground that you have, you tend to everything with experience and skill, and then you hope for sun and pray for rain, knowing that what you have created will not matter without the blessings of your partners in water, earth, and fire.

There’s a constant physical challenge in it, a relentless inordinate repetition that can be daunting. But was it any easier way back when, any number of centuries ago, with some lesser clay, some crude, primitive kiln, some awkward, balky wheel? There are always reasons to believe that making pottery is a challenge that cannot be successfully accommodated.

I like to hold an image in mind of a man playing basketball. He stands at the free-throw line and goes through a particular practiced move. He’s repeated it over and over, given it a personalized kind of ritualized set up—a sign of the cross, a kiss of his medal, a small shrug of the neck, first left, then right, a particular way of holding his left hand in relation to the right.

For me it’s really no different—a certain speed of the wheel, a particular lean of my back passing into the arms and down to the palms of my hands onto the spinning clay—a muscle memory that you can read about, be told about, but until you have it inside your body it is not really yours. It’s nothing to someone watching, but it’s what happens for me when I begin to make a pot on the wheel.

When I think of what it feels like to be a writer, I think of a man I met who runs a small Friday night dance in the back of his country store. You’ll find him come eight o’clock on the small wooden stage, perched on a tall stool just left of center stage, a fancy painted guitar under his arm.

He sings along on every tune, laughs and banters away between every set, a great entertainer. But if you pay attention and really watch, he never plays that guitar. His hand rests on the thing like it has meaning or significance for him, and he cradles it carefully as he launches into another good story between each tune, but his fingers never touch the strings. He’s up there doing what he’s doing, but what he’s doing is not what it looks like he’s doing.

For me, in both pottery and in writing the pursuit is in the process. Each activity is in its own way like walking at night, finding myself out of doors in total darkness, walking from my studio to home, my eyes still constricted by the bright studio lights and blind to the path under foot. I’m walking along with a kind of faith in my sense of touch, knowing the way based on having walked it before, knowing by sense the number of steps, the slight slope in the lane at the halfway point. I’m not talking about unconscious sleepwalking here, rather of finding the way by feel, by using one’s own memory, of following a path based on intuition and gathered experience.

And yet there was the time that this blessed walk through perfect solitude was interrupted by a big something that pushed up against me in the dark. It leaned into me, whatever it might have been, panting and mouthing my arm with no warning.

Creativity is a hard thing to explain. But was it any easier way back when, any number of centuries ago, with some lesser tools, some crude, brittle parchment, some awkward, balky pen?

Terry Gess is a studio potter in Bakersville, North Carolina, and Program Manager/Clay Instructor in the Professional Crafts Program at Haywood Community College. He’ll be writing this summer at Cill Rialaig, an international artists’ residency on the west coast of Ireland.