When kids learn to use a pottery wheel, they can put their creations to use: a bowl for the dog, a mug for grandma, or maybe a "volcano" they can fill with baking soda and vinegar and watch erupt. But this craft is not just about the final product. Learning to make pottery helps children develop their fine motor skills and coordination, not to mention "patience and persistence," suggests Lois Thompson, a retired Mount Abraham Union High School art teacher who's been teaching kids to work with clay since 1971.
On a recent May day, Thompson is leading a pottery class at the Middlebury Studio School. When she retired from Mount Abe in 2005, "I knew there was nowhere else I'd rather be," she says of the studio. "It's a wonderful community — people older than me down to little 5-year-olds."
Today, Katy and Lena, both 8, are working hard to center their clay on pottery wheels — but not too hard. Lena's face is smudged with wet, red earthenware, and Katy giggles as her off-center clay wobbles between her hands.
"Is any part of this centered?" Katy asks. Thompson kneels down beside Katy's stool and wraps her own hands firmly around the revolving mixture, centering and steadying it. Then she moves out of the way so Katy can try again.
The two girls are about as young as you can be to start on the wheel, Thompson says. Younger kids at the school do hand building, sculpting clay and decorating it with colorful glazes. "[Transitioning to the wheel] takes people who can follow directions," says Thompson.
For beginning potters, it's all about learning to center the lump of clay: If it isn't exactly in the middle, that bowl or cup won't be circular. "It does take a great deal of practice," Thompson advises. "But it's fun to just play with it and experiment."
The weekly, 90-minute, after school class is perfect for experimenting. Katy and Lena are barreling forward at their own pace; Thompson is just there to offer guidance as needed. Lena, who has a little more experience on the wheel, has already made a small bowl and is decorating it with colored slips. Katy is looking for alternatives to centering her clay. "If you make a flower, you don't have to center it," she says. "Can I just make a flower?" Thompson doesn't let her off the hook, though, and eventually Katy gets the hang of it.
There's magic in the pottery-making process that kids of all ages appreciate. After firing a piece of clay, Thompson notes, "It isn't the very humble material you started with. Things transform."