Smack. Smack pop pop. SMACK.
The clay groans, the wind knocked out of him.
You would think after 30 years of doing this, the clay would be used to it. Day in and day out, throwing pots, kilning them, glazing them, selling them.
And still it sneaks under my wedding band, splatters my glasses, my jeans, my mustache.
I knead into its back in a rough massage. It snaps at me, clearly not enjoying it. Tough luck, old friend, it needs to happen.
The girls filter in, horseshoeing around the wedging table. A few roll up their sleeves, a few tie aprons over their sweaters, a few adjust their sweatpants against the draft.
Only eight of them this week? I sigh. Time to start my demo.
“So you want to make sure you get out all the air bubbles.” I tell them.
I keep kneading into the clay’s back. It licks at my fingers and clings to my palms, getting back at me for that first blow. It’s bubblier than usual today; the last few classes it’s been almost mute.
“If you don’t get the bubbles out, it won’t work…”
Smack, roll, pop. Snap.
Through the movie theater, past the shoddy box office and up an endless-looking 70 stairs. Students pass by, glued to their smartphones, jabbering in some mix of Mandarin and English. Ugg Boot Girls thump by as background noise to the quest.
“I don’t believe there’s no elevator in this building.”
“There’s a freight elevator.”
“Well, yeah, but I’m not freight.”
“Shut the fuck up.”
Climb three more flights of stairs and pass an abandoned café and quiet wooden lounge filled with Scientology books and wooden ships. Slip down the marble stairs, left over from a golden age of higher education, dirtied with age and slush from outside the heavy wood doors. Down four more stairs, turn the corner, down another flight, hit a dead end.
To the left, a doorway to a pipe room. To the right, a Renaissance Faire-stenciled “Cornell Ceramics Lab à” pointing down an abandoned staircase.
Stumble down forty-one more steps until reaching the lab at the end of the Cornellian labyrinth.
Cornell University is elegantly antique and obnoxiously academic-looking, but its Ceramics Lab is beautifully disheveled, the walls charmingly crumbling on the public-school tiled floor. Wooden cabinets with glass panes line the right wall, holding unfinished pottery shrouded in Wegmans bags and eagerly awaiting the finishing touches their makers will add in the days to come.
“Did you pick up your clay yet?” one girl asks, pulling off her hoodie to reveal another underneath..
“No, I thought we picked it up here,” her friend replies, shaking her hair back into place.
Old radiators sit underneath the floor-to-ceiling length windows, hot air fighting its way from the heaters’ coils only to be pulled through the drafty cracks in the windowpanes into the February air. A bowl sits next to a rickety white box fan – an obvious demo being dried for show-and-tell. An ancient Remington hairdryer lays to its right, waiting to be used.
“Clay is right over here, ladies,” a dry, dust-coated voice murmurs to the girls walking in. “The bags, there…”
Everything about Chet’s voice is pleasantly soft and inherently dry. His sentences don’t always finish; they just sweetly trail into silence. He sounds like he just traveled across the Sahara and hasn’t had water since he hit the Nile.
“You might want to start on the lower wheels, they’re easier for beginners…” Chet smiles, motioning towards the sides of the room.
Six wheels stand tall in the middle of lab, with stools and foot-spinner bottoms. They look used, but no one sits at them. Instead, as Chet suggested, the girls gravitate towards the 12 smaller wheels flanking the tall ones. Each has a kindergartener-sized stool, brushing against the cracked plastic rims, or “baths,” holding the remnants of art gone wrong. Chet clears his throat – to no avail – and tries to yell over the din.
“Just letting you know, I have a class at 7. My kids get first dibs on the wheels!”
“How big is your class?” asks a bearded man as he gathers his things.
“Sixteen,” Chet chuckles softly, rubbing the dust off his hands and adjusting his glasses. “Usually they’re all women…”
He looks like Frank Zappa, if Frank Zappa had gone gray. His head is covered with curly hair with reminders he was once black-haired and young scattered throughout. An immaculate mustache sits beneath his nose, crowning a naturally smiling mouth.
His hands and arms are steady, only shaking at the shoulders when he finds something particularly funny. His jeans are worn in the knees, his black pullover zipped to the top button of his undershirt, and he’s covered in flecks of mud.
He looks completely at home next to the pots he has drying near the radiator but foreign next to his students. Chet is the only man in the room. He stands over six feet tall, dwarfing the girls by a good seven-plus inches. He’s the Adam to 16 different Eves, with clay in one hand and a rib in the other to shape his personal Creation.
The “rib” is a potters’ tool, a plastic wedge that helps to finesse the pot into the shape of his choosing and trim off excess. It usually holds court with the other tools in a rusted Chock Full o’Nuts can by Chet’s right knee, as he sits down at the wheel for his weekly demo.
“You just sprinkle a little bit of water, that keeps it nice and soft,” he says as he dribbles droplets into the bag. With his wedding band still on his hand, he digs through the bag for an acceptable hunk. His hand emerges with a potato-sized piece of mud, which he tosses thoughtfully in his hand, like a baseball. He’s gentle with the clay, smiling slightly and thinking. He and the clay have been old friends since college.
“Let’s see if I can measure this clay. I think this is just a little more than a pound.”
He smiles and chuckles as he drops it on a deli-counter scale on the middle table.
The needle wobbles and settles. 1 pound exactly.
The clay sits in my hands, the size of my fist and just as lumpy. No more bubbles, now it’s onto the wheel.
My red bucket sits at my knees, filled to halfway with dust-infested water for the clay. My tools are crusted from years of wear and tear, my hands have clay in each winter-cracked knuckle. As I scuff my work boots on the pedal, the girls shift in their Wellies around me.
“So…you wanna make a circle on the wheel, like a target,” I tell them. The girls nod, taking in my every instruction, as if I were a preacher and the wheel was my pulpit.
I wipe the dust from the wheel. It doesn’t do too much, there’s dust everywhere. The mark is drawn, the clay is ready.
He made it look so easy in the demo.
But then, he makes everything look easy. Professionally calm, perpetually relaxed. Any stress he has in his life must get sucked through his fingers into the clay.
Sitting at the baby wheels, smoothing the earth into a cereal bowl, never once sighing heavily or becoming frustrated. In 30 minutes, Chet had wedged, finessed, and thrown the clay into a clean, simple bowl.
In 30 minutes, the left flank of the room had wedged, finessed, ruined, cursed, cleaned their wheels, re-wedged, finessed, ruined again, and then gave up on the mud instead of throwing the clay into a bowl.
“First you want to center the clay. Really get it right on the middle.”
The standoff began. He looked from the spinning wheel to the lump of clay in his hands, then to the wheel, then the clay.
Right in the center of the bat, with the confidence and strength of a seasoned professional –not unlike a monkey throwing shit at a zoo.
Smack. SMACK. Smack.
The sound of clay hitting the bat echoes through the room. Some clay is centered, some clay is off-center, and some clay misses the wheel completely and centers itself firmly on the floor.
Not quite in the center, but close enough.
“Put a little water on it, if it gets too dry it falls apart.”
Squeeze the sponge into the bag, the clay needs some moisture.
“I think that’s a little, er…use a little less next time…”
Build him up, smash him back down. Up to a point, then down to a valley. Back and forth, until he’s stable enough to start doing something with. Again. Up, down. Still not strong enough.
When wet, the clay no longer feels like mud — instead, it’s hard brown silk spinning under your hands. It splatters your forearms, your face, your jeans, your classmates.
“Sorry, it’s just too wet, it’s going everywhere.”
“Oh, it’s fine,” she says. “Free facial.”
She watched Chet intently during the demo before, arms crossed over her thin frame, head cocked to the side in concentration. Her outgrown bangs clipped to one side, her eyes lined with kohl, her small nose stud catching the light against her skin.
Her friend at the wheel across from her looks up from her wet lump of failure and sighs in disgust.
“God, Natasha, you’re so efficient!”
She looks up, shakes her black hair and laughs.
“No, dude, I failed like 5 times last week, this is the only thing that turned out good.”
Doubtful. Her hands never waver, steady and confident on the clay. Like Chet, she never lets her mind out of check to over think her movements.
This is probably a good thing; she’s a graduate student working on “optimizing myoblast growth on pelvic floor repair systems,” and spends her days in a lab harvesting cells with those steady hands.
“Just keep bringing it up,” she says as she demonstrates, moving her hands up like she’s directing a chorus, “and smooshing it back down,” as she crushes the air beneath her hands.
As she mimes pottery, her perfectly painted nails peak from beneath the clay mask. Natasha’s are dark, her friend Jing has hers a light girly pink, matching her coat and tank top.
“I like girly activities,” Natasha says later, giggling as she wiggles her fingers, letting the dim light of Madeline’s glint off the polish. “When I’m in the lab, with my goggles on and my shirt tucked in—I just feel like such a man.”
Her voice went down an octave to say “man,” as she rolled her eyes and flicked her hair out of her face.
Up, down. Again. Up, down. Ready.
“So the next part is when you put the hole in the middle. Put your hands like this,” Chet said, linking his thumbs together in a volleyball grip, “And steady your one hand with the other. And you’ll get this…”
He gently poked his index fingers into the clay, a hole quickly forming and expanding as he dragged his hands back towards his body.
The beauty and horror of throwing pottery is that every small move has such a large impact. You could sneeze too hard and ruin your mug. You could shiver from the cold wafting through the old glass windows and you would wobble the lip of your bowl.
You could eavesdrop on a conversation and split your cup clean in half.
“So he gave her a hockey jersey,” Natasha says. Her voice low, conspiratorial, her eyes wide and nodding to her other friend, Anita, sitting next to Jing.
“Shut up, for their two year anniversary?” Anita’s thin eyebrows rise towards her fine black hair, her work shifting off-center, forgotten between her spattered hands.
“Yeah. After two years.”
“What a jerk!” Jing contributes. Still raising and crushing her clay, her almond eyes as wide as they can go in anger at this unnamed man.
“I know. I know.” Natasha sighs, shakes her head in a motherly, “I knew it” sort of way and goes back to her bowl. She grabs the “wedge,” a garotte-looking wire with dowels on either end, to cut the bowl off of the bat.
She holds it to the light, examines all sides, and smiles.
“We’re learning how to make handles today!”
Natasha walks in the room, dropping her bag by the door and walking towards the teacher, smiling at Chet.
Chet wipes the dust off the table and quickly wedges the bubbles out of his clay.
Roll, fold, squeeze. Roll, fold, squeeze.
He quickly cuts the clay in half on the wire and examines it for rogue air bubbles as the girls gather around, story-time style, waiting for him to make his move.
The group is smaller every week, now down to eight girls. The nature calendar on the wall has “MIDTERMS” scribbled in block letters over this week’s class, the coughs around the room symptomatic of flu season. Snow falls quietly outside the windows. The girls have every reason not to show up.
“It dwindles every semester,” Chet chuckles. “People are busy here.”
Squeak, click CLICK. Squeak, click CLICK.
Anita and Jing meander over towards the crowd. The sound of Anita’s galoshes and Jing’s black leather boots reaches the table before they do, and the girls plant themselves in front of the taller students so they can see.
Natasha takes her place on the other side of Chet, watching over his shoulder near the sink and Bermuda Triangulating with the other two. Arms crossed, head cocked. Position assumed.
“So there are a few different types of handles,” he says, absentmindedly kneading the clay. “Right now, I’m teaching you the roll handle.”
Everyone’s eyes squint to watch. Anita and Jing lean over with hands clasped together, reverent as they concentrate on their teacher’s hands.
The other girls rest their heads on their hands, minds clearly elsewhere.
Studying to be done. Papers to be written. Presentations to give. Research to finish. Research to start.
He wipes the table off first.
“You don’t want dust in the clay.”
He rolls the clay out into three sausage bits, picking the middle one and rolling it further, retaining the girth.
“Now you do what I call the three finger test,” he says, holding up his three middle digits to the handle. “You want to be able to hold the mug comfortably.”
He then rests his thumb against the handle, glancing at it and deciding it meets his standards.
“You also want it sorta thick,” he hums. “Not too thick because it won’t dry, not too thin because it’ll crack. But I usually rest my thumb on the handle, so think about that when you make it, you know…if you do that too…”
Chet’s Angels all nod in understanding.
“So when you get a good one, you cut the ends off—“
—he slices the clay at an angle —
“—at an angle, so you can do this.”
He holds the piece up to the dried but unglazed mug he made the class before. The angle suddenly makes sense, fitting flush with the edge of the mug.
“Oooooooh!” the girls respond.
Chet smiles and blushes a bit.
Pottery is his bread and butter, and he still blushes when he does something right.
Anita and Jing smile wider, looking at each other, two schoolgirls with a secret. Jing bounces a little in her heels.
“Now that’s only one type of handle. The other is what I call a pull handle.”
Anita tugs her puffy coat tighter to her thin frame, looks at the window, and shivers. Jing tightens her ink-black ponytail, and waits for the next demonstration.
“So the way to make a pull handle is just…to pull.”
Chet picks up one of the abandoned sausage logs of clay and rolls it out. Like the last one, it’s three finger-plus length, thumb width.
He holds it in the air, like a developer looking at film, and starts to pull, slowly, downwards.
Gravity goes to work, helping him make this handle, pulling the earth towards the earth as his hands slowly, smoothly, sensually caress the mud to help it along.
Down, back up, down…
“Yeah, I would say it’s a little erotic,” Chet said later, laughing loudly. “I mean, you’re pulling on it, there’s an erotic gesture to it. I always tell them it’s like milking a cow, but they still laugh.”
Natasha’s face contorts, clearly biting her tongue. Her chest is moving quicker in her sweater, struggling to control her breathing. Her face turns a little red and her lips breaks into a smile. The girls all glance at each other uncomfortably.
Does that look like —
—Yeah, shut up. Don’t think about it.
I sit down at the wheel and adjust the bath near my knees; I’m really too tall for this wheel, but the foot-powered ones in the middle are such a pain.
The girls follow me over for my demo. It’s week three now, they’re further along thank I thought they would be. I really need to teach them how to glaze…
The clay bounces between my hands, avoiding the wheel.
Front and center, ready to go. Moisten the clay, get the wheel spinning, focus on the clay. Nose over the wheel, eyes on the clay, everything else out of your mind.
“So what you want to do for a bowl is to get a good foot on it,” I tell the class. Jing, Natasha and Anita stand at my right shoulder, watching intently, bodies bent like a funhouse mirror trying to see better.
The mud heeds to my hands, bending over backwards and flattening into a discus. Still needs to be rounder, just a little more pressure —
“So you want to bring the edges up a little bit, so when you’re eating pasta, the spaghetti doesn’t just slide off the edge of the plate, or something.”
My fingers clasped together, I guide the lip of the plate upwards to a muddy smile.
But the foot needs a trim.
The lab is dustier than usual on Saturday afternoon.
Light streams through the windows, with sun dust rising from the tile and cross-breeding with the clay dust inherent to the room. Cookies smothered with Easter pastel icing and pottery silt line the windowsills, with people occasionally picking one up, brushing off the top, and popping them in their mouths.
“Save the Cornell Ceramics Lab!” reads a petition on the table.
Every wheel is taken today. Where usually the class is exclusively with women and Chet, the room boasts at least six men potting – most dragged by their girlfriends. Clay is there, on his side by the bath waiting to be picked up.
Chet surveys the room, arms akimbo, fingers wiggling and ready to help at a moment’s notice.
For a program about to be shut down, the room is absolutely packed.
“The Student Union board decided they want to close the lab,” Chet said. His voice slowed a little, sadness invading his cadence. “Saturday we’re doing a huge demo at the Studio. We’re trying to get people interested in taking the class to keep it going.”
Chet rubbed his knuckle against his forehead, itching his nose with his knuckle, looking off into the distance.
“They were saying only 50 students a semester were signing up, but we think it’s more than that,” Chet says. “The director says it’s more than that.”
He heads over to the back table to workshop.
“It’s not working, I don’t know why.”
The girl he’s helping – a new girl who introduces herself as Xiao – wears dark knee-high boots. Three weeks ago she would’ve fit in perfectly with the pottery class girls, but today she looks out of place next to the demo-potters’ flip flops and cargo shorts.
Her clay is off-center, and her hands could be stronger and more assertive, but she’s cheery and enthusiastic. Her elbows aren’t leaning on her knees for support as hard as they should, allowing her arms and clay to wiggle.
The clay spins and stumbles in circles on the wheel. Sweating in brown rivulets, spattering those unseasonable boots and begging for water to quench its thirst. Chet notices his dehydration and taps Xiao on the shoulder.
“It needs a little more water…”
Her friend Mike is fairing better. His face sits directly over the clay, focus reminiscent of Jing’s just weeks before, position identical to Chet’s every week during demo time. He’s still in the first stage, moving the clay up and down, but his doesn’t wobble.
“Oh nohoho!” Xiao moans. She bows her head in disappointment.
Half of her project sits in her hand, the bottom half stuck on the bat. Her hands are covered in mud, which apparently isn’t as relaxing as she thought it would be.
“I love to clean to relax, so this is weird for me,” she sheepishly whispers, smiling as Mark over her shoulder. “I don’t know why this didn’t work…”
It didn’t throw well because it was too damp.
Clay is a temperamental beast, always either too dry and too damp. If it’s too wet, the mud will either split in half or implode.
“It’s okay, it takes a lot of practice,” Chet reassures her. “It too me three weeks doing it every day to get it.”
Not in the middle.
I sigh as I pick the clay out of my mustache and grab a dry lump. It’s my second week at Silvermine College of Art, and I still can’t center clay.
Maybe I should’ve stuck with sculpture…
The clay taunts me. It refuses to sit where I want, choosing instead to move constantly, wiggling like a kindergartener during a family photo. It just won’t —
Heads whipped around to look for the sound, with no one seeming to find where the industrial screech is coming from. As the sound multiplies, Xiao’s eyes snap closed and she grits her teeth, her friend Mark’s eyebrows furrowing dangerously under his baseball cap. A girl closer to the source covers her ears with her hands, momentarily forgetting they were covered with clay.
The sound comes to a halt.
Chet looks at Xiao and points at one of the middle wheels.
“Yeah, that one doesn’t work,” he deadpans.
“I think the bearings are shot on that one…” he says, pointing at the leftmost wheel in the middle.
Chet graduated three different art schools since 1967 — two art schools and SUNY New Paltz for his masters in pottery. If part of the wheel is broken, he would know.
More people filter in — friends, students, some community members with their families. Chet used to bring his family with him to throw in the past, but times have changed a bit.
“I used to bring my daughter Ellie. She’s 14.” Chet says. His eyes soften a bit, filled with a paternal nostalgia. “When she was younger she used to like to play around on the wheel, but now, you know…”
He smiles a small smile, shrugs, and sighs, watching people filter in. “Teenagers.”
Xiao is having better luck now, bringing the clay up to a point and flattening it, almost afraid to do anything else with it.
“What will they do if they close this place down?” she asks.
Chet guffaws, “I don’t know. Maybe have classes at my house?”
It’s certainly an option; where his garage used to be, Chet created his own pottery studio for his craft at Handwork Cooperative. His work there is more sculptural, with vases topped with colorful fish lining the windows and experimentally-glazed pinch pots sitting next to his wheel.
He has a kiln there too, next to the shelf of unfinished bowls and bone-dry pieces, but the power to keep it running gets expensive.
“They asked me if they could use my kiln,” he says, shrugging and smiling. “I don’t mind. I’d have to charge them, though.”
He turns to the potters focused on their work.
“Do they have anything else like this on campus to do?” Chet asks the potters.
“Risley has some stuff. Woodshop, jewelry making, stained glass, you know, that sort of thing,” Xiao chimes in, wedging her pitcher top off the bat. “It’s not very organized though.”
“Yeah, really,” Mike laughs. His voice hints at a lack of funding for the arts, or an artistic free-for-all in the other building.
“Well, at least I got a pitcher!” Xiao says, patting her now clay-free hands on her dusty jeans. “This is okay, right?” she asks Chet, gesturing towards her bat.
Chet smiles, strokes his chin, and laughs. “Uh…yeah…” He pauses, trying to think of something polite to say about her happy accident of a project.
“So what will people do to chill out if they shut this place down?” one of the boys asks as he grabs his backpack to walk away.
Chet closes his eyes and shakes his head. He puts his hands on his hips and lets out a breath he’s been holding.
“I don’t know. I don’t really know what else there is.”
The question lingers in the air as he walks back towards Mike, gesturing up and down with his hands, crouching to wheel level.
“A little more water, it seems dry on the edge there…”
Alex Palombo is a senior journalism major. Email her at [email protected]