The expensive pottery classes I had paid for my husband to do as occupational therapy were an unmitigated failure. Instead of being relaxing, his inability to coordinate his hands since the brain tumour made him frustrated and angry.
A quiet word with the teacher resulted in a change of students. I became a student, joining the ten-week class in the third week.
The class was learning to throw clay on an electric potter’s wheel. Our teacher demonstrated on one of the wheels how easy it was to do.
“Throw the clay into the middle of the wheel,
wet your hands,
put your nose above the middle of the clay,
spin the wheel and hold the clay until it centers,
then you may begin forming the pot. “she said
I walked to my wheel, sat down, looked around at the other nine students and watched how they tackled their clay. There was much hilarity as clay wobbled uncontrollably on wheels with mud spraying over students and balls of clay slipping off wheels. I took a deep breath, flung the ball of clay into the middle of my wheel, pressed my foot on the power, wet my hands, put my nose above the middle of the lump of clay, braced myself against the sides of the wheel, and centred the clay.
I concentrated only on the words of the teacher.
Five operations performed in an attempt to remove a brain tumour from my husband. After each procedure, he was returned to me with yet more diminished mental and physical capabilities. The pressure of caring for him and my two young children’s needs, melted away as I worked that lump of clay.
At last here was something I could control.
As I worked that clay, I became lost in a glorious feeling of freedom.
I didn’t notice the teacher beside me until she said ‘You must surely have done this before, either that or you are a natural potter.’
By the end of the ten-week course, with her guidance, I set up my studio at home, complete with wheel and kiln. She mentored me via phone calls when I fired my first kiln load.
Within a year, I was teaching over 90 students in the pottery hobbies course at our local technical college.
My students loved me because of my teaching style.
It was pure ‘learning by doing’.
The usual teacher at the college had unexpectedly been unable to renew his contract for the next term. I was sent by my friend and mentor, Maria, to an appointment with the Dean of the College two days before the college closed for term break.
She had given me explicit instructions to only answer any question with a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ – ‘whatever you do, Bron, do not elaborate on anything.’
The interview went well and as we walked around the huge shed he pointed out the various pieces of equipment. Five large kilns, 14 electric wheels, two kick wheels, a special slow drying room to house the student’s work so that it didn’t dry between the weekly classes. My excitement grew rapidly. He explained that there were five morning classes and four night time ones each week. Most classes had ten students, of different ages and backgrounds. He asked me ‘Do you think you can handle this job’ – I responded with a resounding ‘Yes’ and he shook my hand, passed me the keys and said we would sort out the paperwork once the new term had begun.
Maria lent me her university notes and for the three week school holiday I poured over them in an effort to at least be able to answer questions in a way that sounded as if I knew what I was doing.
“Simply get a large unwieldy lump of clay, centre it and pull up a large, elaborate pot, after which you cut it in half to show off the even sides.”Was what my mentor told me I needed to do in order to gain respect from students
In Africa, at the time, people were paid monthly, so it was only after I had been teaching for a few weeks that the Dean got around to catching up with the paperwork required to enable him to pay me for my teaching services.
The students bought clay directly from the main office of the campus and so many had been telling the staff there how much they were enjoying the classes with the new teacher. Many regulars had been attending the classes for years. Those regulars had begun saying that they enjoyed my classes better than any of the other teachers they had been taught by before. This impressed my new boss very much indeed and so, when he discovered that I did not have any formal qualification to teach he simply laughed and said he would figure a way to pay me what I deserved, and did.
The reason I was so popular was, I think, because I helped the students make whatever it was they wanted. This was especially appreciated by the long term potters who had grown bored with the usual pots, bowls mugs etc. I enjoyed the challenge of working out how to do new and different things with them. No internet, Google or YouTube videos to go to, my research was all done from books, uni notes, and trial and error.
I helped one student make a complete diner set with everything shaped like a fish. She initially set out to make the serving platters in the shape of a fish. By the end of the exercise, she had the main serving dish, complete with lid, several smaller dishes for chips and salads and ten plates to eat from.
I encouraged my students to enter the local show and enjoyed their successes greatly. Many became good friends and kept in contact with me long after I had left the country to live in Australia.
I employed a full-time carer for my husband and worked in my home studio creating pots to grow things in. I was an avid gardener and as our country was in severe drought, I created a ‘conglomerate pot’ to grow things in that caught the attention of a premium potting mix producer who sponsored me at shows. Macrame was all the rage in the 70s and so I called my business ‘Knots & Pots’.
I do not believe I would have managed mentally with my husband’s disability caused by the brain tumour if I had not become a potter. During school holidays all the children in the area came to the studio to ‘play with the clay’. They were all given a lump of clay and could ‘play’ on the wheel until the clay fell off. My daughter Tamara was so good at making her clay last that the others wouldn’t let her go before them because they usually had to go home before she had finished.
I share this story to encourage others to try new things especially when things look dire and out of your control. It is surprising how life can change and offer new and exciting things in the most unexpected ways.