You know that scene from The Simpsons when Comic Book Guy is about to get blown up by a rogue nuclear bomb and realises – to his horror – he’s wasted his entire life?
Well, that was me earlier this year as I was driving down a back road in Taita, Lower Hutt, after leaving my evening class in ceramics. Only instead of 10 tonnes of weaponised plutonium blowing my world view wide open, it was a 2kg bag of standard white clay and a whole garage full of useless crafting equipment.
I’ve always been a bit artsy-craftsy. I’m not an artist – I’m not enough of a rule-breaker and risk-taker for that – but I am a maker. If I’m not making something – even if it’s just a bloody racket or a mess – I’m not happy.
When I’m making stuff I can get into the flow mindset, which is about as close to a spiritual experience as this hard-line Humanist ever gets.
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First coined in the 70s by Hungarian American psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “flow” describes the moment when your entire focus narrows to the end of your pen/brush/fingertips, when everything you know about the thing you’re doing is accessible to you instantaneously, without conscious thought. It’s like being in a trance, but fully aware; like meditating, only without the boring stillness.
It can sometimes feel like you’ve been elevated out of the mundane into something blissful and free. Suddenly the “work” feels effortless, and what you’re creating isn’t being made consciously. I’m guessing our ancestors experienced it as divine inspiration (although sports people experience it too, I’m told). It feels a bit religious.
It’s also literally the only time my mind shuts the hell up: a blissful, addictive, sometimes elusive, always pleasurable state I drop into most often when I’m making stuff.
Which is probably why a dear friend of mine jokes that I am entirely made of hobbies. I can honestly say I have not been bored since about 1996, but one thing I’d never tried was ceramics.
You may have heard that ceramics are having a bit of a moment in NZ.
Sometime during that first lockdown, when the concept of slow culture, of making rather than buying, hit its online peak, we all seemed to become obsessed with taking a ceramics class.
Maybe it was the literal earthiness of making something out of the soil? Maybe it was all a bit biblical, molding something out of nothing, heating it up and bringing it to life, classic Book of Genesis stuff? Whatever the case, every beginner’s class in the land suddenly had a two-year waiting list.
Pottery shows at clubs like Otaki and Thorndon, were suddenly overflowing with ceramics enthusiasts, on the hunt for the next big thing in pottery. Online, Kiwi makers like Pip Woods, Laurie Steer and Greta Menzies, with their wonderfully quirky creations were becoming the new influencers. Elsewhere, mid-century sleekness was giving way to 70s earthiness as the ‘It’ trend in decor and design. We still loved Crown Lynn, but the grainy, tactile solidity of a good piece of Temuka ware was coming to the fore.
Later, the idea pottery can last for 10,000 years zipped around social media at the speed of thought. That little old handful-of-followers-on-Instagram me could make something that would outlast a thousand generations, that archaeologists would unearth and wonder about, had a raw appeal that re-enacting the Wednesday Addams dance for Tiktok could never have.
My mania to try it became almost impossible to manage. I had to get my hands on some clay. I didn’t have a choice. I’d knitted everything there was to knit, I’d crocheted, I’d painted, I’d tiled, I’d even tried making knives, for crying out loud. It was the clay for me, or nothing. Except everywhere was booked solid. I couldn’t even get on a weekend workshop as far afield as Palmy.
Finally, I shoehorned myself onto a half day course making a decorative tile with Cate from Fig Tree Studio in a church hall in Lower Hutt. Almost as soon as I sat down at the table I felt like I was coming home. Maybe it was just nostalgia for the church hall arts and crafts days of my youth. But I made my first tile, and it felt like magic.
I walked out of the workshop that afternoon and immediately started Googling other classes in my area.
Eventually, I found Karla Marie, a Wellington potter who had just opened her own studio, whose enthusiasm for clay outstripped even my own new-convert zeal.
When I arrived at her studio for a weekend workshop, I found one of the most welcoming artist spaces I have ever been in. She gently and patiently guided the class through the deceptively difficult process of making a slab vase – that’s sheets of rolled out clay cut and joined to make 3D shapes – and invited us to come back in a couple of weeks to glaze it.
I over did the glaze on mine a bit, call it beginner’s enthusiasm, but the end result is totally functional: it’s sitting on my desk next to me right now, holding stuff.
A couple of weeks later I sweet-talked my way onto an already full beginners evening course at The Learning Connexion in Taita, and I’ve been elbow deep in clay ever since.
Every Tuesday night, for three hours that fly by like three minutes, I’ve been learning how to work with clay, but I was also learning that literally nothing will get you in the flow state like it.
I’m still trying to find my clay “voice”. I’ve made my friends jugs and vases, I made a whacky little doll’s head trinket box my mum claimed – she keeps her Kurols in it, next to her bed – and a little Owl Woman sculpture at a workshop with Greta Menzies and Karla Marie at her studio I think is the closest to my “voice” I’ve got yet. I made a little diorama that one dear friend loved so much she begged me for it (is that the greatest compliment a maker can get or what?). I feel like a bottomless well of clay ideas.
I don’t know if I believe in the idea of a calling. But if I did, I think mine might be clay and that is a hell of a thing to discover at 50.
Which leads me to that Taita back road where I had a minor emotional breakdown in the middle of the night.
It might sound like a bad thing to realise, somewhat tearily, that you’ve wasted your entire life doing stuff that isn’t the thing that brings you the most joy, that you were knitting when you should have been kneading. But they weren’t tears of regret, they were tears of relief, and maybe a bit of guilt – lots of people go their whole lives never getting to feel that buzz. Sometimes they give up looking. I wish they wouldn’t.
I may have come to it late, but I did get to come to it. If that’s not a blessing, I don’t know what is.
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