“Sophistcated mud pies,” and what they’ve taught me

As a child, I loved getting my hands dirty – literally. When I wasn’t reading (up a tree, under a tree, on the stairs, in my closet…) I was most likely getting dirty. During free afternoons and all summer long, I would stomp around our back yard with the family dog at my heels to turn over rocks and logs and see what was underneath. I had a particular fondness for poking pill-bugs so they would roll up and gathering slimy worms in my hands to gross out my older siblings. After learning about geodes in a Childcraft book, I spent a whole weekend one spring trying to break open rocks that I pried out of the thick clay that lay under our lawn. Not too long after, I tried to make hand-built pottery from that same clay.

Then I watched Art Attack one rainy day, and I discovered a whole new way to get dirty.

Over the next decade or so, and much to the chagrin of my mother, the drab beige carpet in my bedroom became a ten-by-ten low-pile testimonial to my exploration of art. Splotches of paint from dropped brushes and overturned jars of paint, a rainbow of pencil crayon shavings and broken tips, snippets of bright cloth and embroidery thread – no matter how much I cleaned (when I could be convinced, in one way or another, to do so) that carpet was never pristine.

While I profess writing as my main passion – my life’s craft – I’m fond of saying that, “Once, I was an artist.” And that’s true. I drew, painted, sculpted, papier-maché-ed, coloured, doodled, and crafted my way through childhood and adolescence. When I hit university I had to whittle down all those hobbies due to time constraints, and I chose card making and knitting. Being too broke to afford presents and living within walking distance of a Dollarama created an ideal situation to perfect the art of handmade cards, while working with long needles and giant balls of yarn gave long winter nights a warmer, cosier feel. And, of course, I developed my writing skills to the point where I felt comfortable enough to start this blog.

But my hands yearned for more – more than just paper and glue, needles and yarn…more than just typing term papers, opinion pieces, and these blog posts. My inner child was beginning to need more entertainment than I was providing – something dirty and messy, something reminiscent of those afternoons in the backyard.

Being an archaeology student had given me quite the academic insight into ceramics, and once I’d spent a couple of years in the full-on grown-up world of working for The Man instead of sticking it to him, I could no longer ignore what had become a truly visceral need to create things with my own two hands. A Google search led me first to the Montreal Art Centre and then to the Griffintown Art School here in Montreal, and I was soon enrolled in a ceramics class.

A friend of mine recently asked me why I choose to spend so much money on making “sophisticated mud pies.”  The answer is simple:  it brings me joy because it’s two hours a week when I am working on myself while simultaneously creating for others.  It’s two hours a week when learning how to create with my own two hands allows me to learn more about myself and about life.

I’m halfway through my second eight-week course with Nicolas Ouellet, local ceramicist and fantastic instructor, and I have loved every second I’ve spent at the orange wheel in the studio. I have created more than a dozen pieces of ceramic ware under his careful, patient tutelage, learning the process of hand-thrown pottery from start to finish.   From wedging the clay to marvelling at the uniqueness of each glazing job, I have created a handful of pieces that are functional in my daily life and remind me of the life lessons I’ve learned that transcends my “sophisticated mud pies.”

Somebody else will always know something you don’t, so keep quiet and let them teach you. – I think this is pretty self-explanatory in both contexts of pottery class and the rest of life, but it’s still important to remember this every once in a while.

Creating something truly beautiful and unique takes patience and time. – From wedging a lump of clay to the first time you admire a finished piece, the creation of one piece is probably about a week and a half to two weeks. But this is true of anything you create, whether it’s a piece of flatware or the person you were meant to be.

 Never underestimate the effort of any creation process. – I kid you not when I say that after two hours at the wheel, my back and hips are stiff and that my fingers, palms, wrists, arms, and shoulders literally ache with the effort of turning a shapeless handful of clay into something recognizable. But again, whether you’re making a hand-thrown mug or becoming a better person, the amount of effort that goes into that whole process is largely unnoticed by anyone on the outside looking in.  Nobody sees how hard you’ve worked to be kinder, more patient, more loving, or more aware of the world around you if these things don’t come naturally to you, but the see the end product of those struggles to learn and grow.  Nobody outside of the gym will know how hard you’ve worked (even the other regulars at the gym probably don’t see that either) but everyone sees that you’re slimming down and putting on some muscle.  Life itself is a creation process — it is what you make out of what’s been given to you, and turning it all into something beautiful will always take more out of you than you realize.

Close your eyes and feel what’s going on.   — This is how I learned to understand my clay – how to know when it’s stable and centred, when it’s too dry or too wet, when it’s not the right thickness, and when it’s getting loose and tired. This is also how I learned to feel when a dry piece is centred and ready to trim, and during the trimming process how to know when I’ve trimmed off enough excess clay. And yes, this is applicable to the “real world” – when was the last time you just closed your eyes for a second and focused on the feeling of your surroundings or even how you’re really feeling inside?  When was the last time you looked in at yourself and saw what was really there, and then did something about it?  We’re always so concerned with our outward appearances and how we look to the people around us, but why are we so afraid to look inside ourselves and see what’s buried deep inside our hearts and possibly waiting to be let out into the world?

It won’t always work out the way you want it to, and even when it does it will still surprise and maybe even delight you. – I’ve had to turn a butter bell lid into an eggcup (or shot glass) because my clay was too thin. I’ve had to reshape a piece or two because I’ve deformed them while attempting to remove them from the wheel. I’ve experimented with beeswax, slip, and glaze. And every completed piece is a total surprise, regardless of what happened on the journey it took from shapeless clay to ceramic vessel – even the final colour is a surprise, because blue glaze starts out red and red glaze starts out blue. It’s the same with life: it rarely plays out the way we expect or want it to, but we forget that it plays out the way it’s meant to in order for us to become the best possible versions of ourselves. Just like clay, we start out with very little beauty or shape – but as time goes by we are formed, first physically in our mothers’ wombs and after we are born, which is when our emotional, intellectual, and internal formation also begins. Our families, friends, and other influential presences coax us into shape in our lives. Hard times bring us down, and positive times pull us back up. We are thrust into fire and coloured by our experiences…

…and at the end of it all, in the same way that grey shapeless clay becomes a beautifully glazed mug or bowl, we are revealed to be unique, beautiful, and useful in our own ways.


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