Tending the Soul: Centering Clay

What does the name “Centering Way” conjure in you, as you tend to your soul? My dear friend Sally Suzuki offers very intriguing insights from her craft as a potter in Brooklyn, NY. Image after image spills out from her process of forming a clay vessel, and I invite you to reflect on the many rich implications for your own personal life formation. Read Sally’s reflections on centering clay below.  - Scott Dewey

Hi Scott,

I have a few thoughts about "Centering Way" from a potter's point of view that I've been meaning to share with you. When you throw clay on a pottery wheel, before you work it into any distinct shape, it must be centered on the wheel. Moving the clay evenly into a mound in the middle of a spinning plate sounds like a fairly simple task, but it is the most challenging and important step to making a piece of any size. Not only is it vital to establish a strong foundation for the vessel, but the act of centering is also a subtle practice of accepting that sometimes things will not go as planned.

People new to clay will spend hour after hour trying to master this. Hands chap from hours working at stubborn clay. Large men sit drenched in sweat trying to wrestle a fist sized lump of clay to center, and it's common to hear bellows and yelps of frustration in the studio. As with all things these days, Youtube abounds with instructional videos full of tips and hints to improve centering - some of which have hundreds of thousands of views.

All this time while you are
contemplating, pulling, shaping,
you can never forget to stay centered,
never let your mind wander too far ahead to the finished piece.

Bringing the clay to center is a mental and a physical challenge that is visible for all around you to see. If a piece of clay is at perfect center, its profile will look exactly the same whether the wheel is turning or not. Off center, the piece will have movement to it, with a wobble that reveals itself with every turn of the wheel, each rotation creating a soft thumping as the motor works to counteract the centrifugal force working against it.

Beginners will struggle for long periods with this task, working the wheel so fast that the water is drawn out of the clay surface by the force of the spinning. Their hands become chapped by the gritty clay pillar that functions as a belt sander on their nervous palms. Experienced potters know that resistance like this does nothing to help the cause, as the clay must be kept wet to keep the friction from snagging the shape in one direction or another.

As a beginner, however, you will try anything to get the shape to settle. Your senses are all engaged, but it can be unclear at times whether they are helping or hindering your effort. Eyes will see imbalances that are really just a smear of clay on the wheel; ears hear soft noises that mean nothing; and your left hand seems to undo all the progress of your right. Nails dig deep into the clay, fingers pinch, and the wrong muscles flex. Eventually you will get there - the wobbling fades and your mound sits more or less quietly spinning in the center. This is a victory!

Once the mound has been centered, the challenge is far from over. Working very slowly, you then make a small indentation in the center of the mound and begin to pull the walls of the vessel upward. At this point you can think about what sort of shape you want to make - maybe a bowl, a mug, a vase, or a simple cylinder. All this time while you are contemplating, pulling, shaping, you can never forget to stay centered, never let your mind wander too far ahead to the finished piece. If you do so, perhaps pulling the walls up with just the slightest wobble remaining, thinning out one side with too much force, rushing the process - you'll find that with each turn of the wheel the imbalance can grow exponentially - until the walls of the vessels flail out like a roadside inflatable at a car dealership.

Even when you have crafted a beautiful piece, the centering process is not over. It also plays a role in a later stage of pottery when the clay has hardened somewhat and the foot of the piece can be trimmed. Many of the same principles to centering wet clay apply, except for you are now centering a hardened piece, and relying on your previous work to have been properly centered.

As an aside, this was my task at work yesterday, to re-center and trim the feet of many identical bowls. It can be incredibly gratifying, with your tool carving out long ribbons of clay like apple falling from a peeler, revealing an elegant foot where previously there was none. It can also be indescribably frustrating, accidentally gauging into a beautiful piece, undoing previous work by carving it off center, warping it, ruining it.

I had one of the latter days yesterday, each bowl not quite on center, but not quite bad enough to scrap. I found myself clenching and unclenching my fists, closing my eyes occasionally to keep from crushing the piece in front of me out of sheer frustration. I cursed the hot weather that dried out the clay, the tool that wasn't sharp enough, the wheel that seemed not quite level.   

At these moments, I think you really picked a really great name for your group. I took a breath and realized that it is just a piece of semi-dried dirt in front of me. That I must reexamine these frustrations and find a sort of peace in the challenge of it all. I thought of all the ways in which practicing this patience had served me well in the past and would pay off down the line. And so I finished all the bowls, without pulling out half of my hair or throwing any of the pieces across the room.

This was a triumph.

Just wanted to let you know about my own centering way!


Sally Suzuki 

For Soul Tending

Do you picture yourself most readily as the clay, or the potter? In what ways are you actively centering your life? In what ways do you sense being centered, by a gentleness and skillfulness beyond yourself?

Sally Suzuki is a potter and a woodworker in Brooklyn. Her garden aspirations are contained in a 2x4' box next to her stoop. At the age of 21, Sally invented the cheese waffle.