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Pottering Around

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I was going to be a potter. Seriously: a real potter making pots to sell in my own workshop. A career change from teaching in fact. It never happened. This is the story.

At college I trained as an art teacher, where for the first time I was introduced to clay. Lovely, gooey, sticky clay. I’d never done pottery before, and enjoyed it immensely. I discovered I was rather good at it, especially on the wheel. With hindsight, I think I’m more artisan than artist. After four year’s training I was ready to preach the gospel of pottery in the education world, and lead a revolution in clay. After five years’ teaching though, I was disillusioned with art teaching in general and pottery teaching in particular. Pottery was almost impossible in a tough, inner-city school. Needles, pins, even razor blades were slyly dropped in the clay bins; finished work nudged off shelves — “accidents” almost impossible to prevent or detect the guilty. The job was more policeman than teacher. The big kiln was inaccessible to pupils, thank goodness, otherwise the whole school might have gone up in flames.

I seriously considered resigning and setting up a workshop. I began assessing possible premises. Then a miracle occurred. I was offered a post in the Church’s newly introduced Seminary and Institute programme, teaching religion — an entirely different ballgame, and one of the greatest blessings of my life. It was also a narrow escape; the craft pottery boom of the 1960s had diminished, and I’m not an entrepreneur. Promotion, sales and contracts would have defeated me, no matter how good my pots were. It would have been an even harder grind than teaching. In the end, I think, I would have gone under.

But the joy of ceramics was still alive in my soul. I daydreamed a small hobby pottery at home, and gradually acquired materials and equipment, including a potters wheel. The comments of friends were interesting. Almost all who knew me would say something like: “well, at least you’ve got your wheel”, or if they didn’t know me: “have you got a wheel yet?”— in their eyes the most important piece of equipment. But it isn’t — you don’t need a wheel to make pottery. The essential, crucial item, the heart of any workshop, is a kiln. Without a kiln, there’s no point in making anything. It would be like building sand castles on the beach. Firing clay in a kiln is what makes it permanent and transmutes powder into a glaze.

A catenary arch kiln like the one I started to build

Kilns are expensive, and for the size of kiln I needed, far too expensive. Also, a big electric kiln needs a three phase electricity supply. Also, I prefer a thing called reduction firing, not ideal for electric kilns, and gas kilns are even more expensive. So I decided to build my own kiln in the back garden, gas and oil fired. Only one problem: it would produce clouds of black smoke. My house was in a smokeless zone. I persuaded myself (disgracefully—I’ve repented since) that I could fire it at night when no-one would see the smoke, and battled on. But before I’d got much beyond the foundations we moved house . . . to another smokeless zone, and less back garden space to boot.

My ambition lingered on. With my firebricks I built a small, temporary raku kiln, and had successful firings using propane gas. But raku isn’t my thing and the whole project gradually fell apart. I clung to my dream, kept all the materials including the wheel, but it just wasn’t happening without a kiln, and never will now.

We mistake what’s important and we’re prone to focus on peripheral problems. At any rate I do, and perhaps you do too. We confuse wheels and kilns. We’re particularly good at missteps in personal relations, especially in families and sadly, sometimes at Christmas. Christmas is on the near horizon now, so maybe a related thought or two. Last month my Church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held its semi-annual world conference. A lot was said about a particular topic which I believe is the kiln, the heart of the living, breathing workshop that is mortal life. For me, the memorable quote of the two-day conference was by Sister Tamara W. Runia, who said:

It’s the Savior’s work to bring our loved ones back. It’s His work and His timing. It is our work to provide the hope and a heart they can come home to. “We have neither [God’s] authority to condemn nor His power to redeem, but we have been authorized to exercise His love.” (Tamara W. Runia, “Seeing God’s Family through the Overview Lens”, October General Conference 2023, Saturday Evening Session)

Ah, Yes! The centre of the Christian gospel. The reason why Jesus was born in that Bethlehem stable—ultimately to help us learn how to love. Sister Runia also said:

It is my witness that the Savior has the ability, because of His Atonement, to turn any nightmare you are going through into a blessing. He has given us a promise “with an immutable covenant” that as we strive to love and follow Him, “all things wherewith [we] have been afflicted shall work together for [our] good.” All things. And because we are children of the covenant, we can ask for this hopeful feeling now! (Ibid.)

Well, I hope I’ve got the message. I hope that when I reach my workshop in the eternal worlds, it won’t be short of a kiln. Happy, peaceful, loving Christmas everyone.


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