I head downstairs to the basement of the Gardiner Museum, a place I haven’t been since I was in grade six. I sit on a stool in the hallway with a few other people, most of whom seem to be old hands at this. I’m a little nervous. What if all I come up with is a blob of decimated clay that looks more like a mud pie than a piece of art?
Once in the room, I realize that this is not really a place for beginners. Two instructors are available to help or answer questions, but for the most part everyone gets a slab of greyish clay and a whole lot of free rein. Out of a class of maybe 12, more than half sit down at clay wheels, shaping vases and bowls seemingly out of nowhere. Others pull jars of glaze, or special ceramic paint, off the shelves above the sink. Clearly, the regulars here have come back to finish their pieces.
I try to clear my mind and relax a little. It’s just a piece of clay. And even if my final creation is really terrible, no one got hurt. I can just squish my clay back into a ball, stick it back on the table for reuse, and call it a night.
Without really thinking about it, I start to roll my clay into little balls. Within seconds, the palms of my hands are coated in a grey film. I kind of like the feeling of the cool clay—it reminds me of being in kindergarten, when I was that kid who was always at the paint table. And then later, in middle school, we did an art project with oven-baked clay. And there was that field trip to this very museum in grade six, where I’m pretty sure I was the only one who thought it was neat that we were missing school to look at ceramics and squish some clay around. My point is, there’s a sculptor in me somewhere.
I cut a flat, round base and start piling my tiny spheres around it. They’re all different sizes, which I think is what I want, but sticking them to each other—and not knocking everything else over while doing it—is really not that simple. Basic clay theory, I know, states that it’s best to make your final product out of as few separate pieces as possible. The less gluing together, the stronger your creation will be. So what I’m doing, sticking all these balls on top of each other, is frankly kind of stupid. But I like the look of it and honestly, who cares if it all falls to bits?
Honestly, when I signed up for a “clay class” I was sort of under the impression that I was going to get a lecture and a demonstration and then an assignment. Would I know more about working with clay than I do now? Probably. Would I have come up with this weird vase-thing made up of clay balls? Probably not.
By the time I finish, I get two compliments: one from another student, who tells me he likes my piece, and another from one of the instructors, who calls my creation “cute”. All right, so it’s not high art. But I had fun. And it’s a pretty cheap thrill: only $12 for a student, which is the same, if not less, than I’d pay for a movie night. I decide to fork out an extra $5 to have my piece fired so I can actually use it for something. The instructor says I can pick it up in two weeks.