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My first run in porcelain

Locations: Columns, Opinion Published

By Dyana Z. Furmansky

I don’t ski, so answering The Sopris Sun’s year-end dare to its reporters, to “do something you’ve never done before,” with my first descent down a double black diamond run, was one possibility. Except, for me, ski resorts are like factory farms for winter sports.

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I resolved instead to do something equally as bold: throwing a dinner plate. Not at someone, though that too is something I’ve never done. I mean throw a plate on the potter’s wheel. Using five pounds of fresh, snow-white porcelain.

For pottery novices like me, throwing a 12-inch plate in porcelain — and not one that is 12.5 inches — is the equivalent of a skier’s first double black, opines Anne Goldberg, expert pottery and ski instructor. “Groomed,” she specifies after a second, referring to the snow. “Plates larger than 12 inches don’t fit on the standard kitchen shelves,” she cautions. Goldberg is as exacting on the wheel as she is on the slope. She agrees to coax and coach me through my throw.

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The day of the challenge, I head to the Carbondale Clay Center. It’s a seven-mile round trip between home and the studio via my usual route on the Rio Grande Trail, which in winter requires cross-country skis, snowshoes or microspikes stretched over snow boots. The Rio Grande has been unevenly snow-packed and glazed in ice all week, making microspikes my safest mode of travel. I don’t want to get injured before the main event.

No one else is on the trail. Snow falls ambivalently as I drift into my usual meditation on the furry poke-a-dots of black cows and brown ones lounging in yellowed pastures marbled in old snow.

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At the Clay Center I have time to warm up on the bunny slope before Goldberg comes. For potters this means pulling up cylinders, in this case from a pound and a half of raw, white porcelain clay that I have never made anything from. Before centering small portions on the wheel, I smack them around and wedge them, which is any clay body’s introduction to who is boss. I then wedge three five-pound portions of porcelain for my plate attempts. This takes more core strength and coordination. Ungroomed, I’m thinking.

Goldberg, just off the slopes, arrives. She leads the way by sitting down at the wheel and telling me to watch her. She effortlessly centers her five-pound wedge of porcelain that is as soft as whipped cream cheese, or maybe whipped cream. The consistency is what makes porcelain temperamental to work with. If handled too much “it loses its tooth,” and can’t hold a form, says Goldberg as she persuades the clay with her left hand dug in at the base into a tall column and guides it back down into a low disc, mostly with the cushy part of her thumbs. This gets all the clay’s powder-fine particles going in the right direction. If porcelain survives the making, these particles fuse into a product more durable than rougher, or groggier clay bodies do, after firing at 2,400 degrees. The high heat of the kiln turns porcelain into what my mother called “the bone china,” the five-piece place settings for service of 12 that she kept in the dining room breakfront and used only for fancy parties. I gather from Goldberg that my mother need not have been so protective. 

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Goldberg’s rimmed dinner plate is trackless perfection.

It’s my turn. I don’t go alone. Goldberg presses my hands where more force is needed. I push clay out from the center well with a small sponge folded between my fingers, which keep getting in the way.  “Just one finger at a time,” she counsels, untangling digits and insisting that I compress the bottom as I go. The white disc inches to the edge of the bat, leaving a trail of lumps and air bubbles. I gasp. “It’s your wedging,” she says. I stab the white swells with my pin tool so that my plate, if it makes it into the kiln, won’t explode there, killing itself and inflicting collateral damage. There are still bumps.  “Use your tools,” says Goldberg, who compares sponges, fingers and plastic ribs to skis and poles negotiating moguls. Technique, said the potter Paulus Berensohn, “is the ability to breathe the spirit of our lives into what we make.”

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After we make our first plate together Goldberg takes me back to the wedging table for a lesson on her “roll, move, push” method. And it does require more core and coordination. My second plate is better. Goldberg graciously insists I made it myself. It is what she tells all her students at the bottom of a double black.

Tags: #Carbondale Clay Center #Dyana Z. Furmansky #pottery
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