Twenty years into a career as a psychologist and psychoanalyst—seeing patients, supervising therapists, teaching graduate students, presenting papers, editing a book series—I found myself sitting at a potter’s wheel in a community studio. I had been motivated to find a place to take pottery classes for reasons as yet unclear to me and settled on a studio where the woman who answered the phone sounded especially nurturing. A rebirth was soon to take place. It didn’t take long. Shortly after touching and trying to shape the clay, there was the distinct feeling of being where I always should have been. I was, of course, at least as terrible as anyone who tries to work on the wheel for the very first time. But surprisingly, given my tendency to maintain exacting standards for myself, that didn’t matter one bit. What mattered instead was my immediate connection to the clay. On some level, I never really left that first class. My thoughts and dreams about clay were persistent after that.
Learning Something New
I was not a complete stranger to making art, having briefly worked with clay and stone as a sculpture student at the beginning of college, and having always gathered materials from nature and from the art supply store with my children to make things. But I was certainly a relative stranger to it all and faced the task of learning how to become a ceramic artist as a grown adult. It is so much easier, after all, to learn something new as a child who plays than as an adult who works. But it was where I belonged, so there was no other choice. I was in that studio learning every free moment and clay taught me to play and to be more patient with myself. My first teacher was Susan Robinson Sendek, the nurturing woman who had answered the phone, and I was very lucky in that. She had mastered the balance between structure and freedom, and created a thoroughly safe space in which to learn. When I would come upon a seemingly insurmountable limit, she’d convince me that we would find a way through it. I will always be grateful to her.
I took classes, practiced, watched YouTube videos, went to workshops, and studied at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Deer Isle, Maine, for multiple summers with extraordinary artists. I worked hard at it and over time got better at it. Early in my learning, I had the opportunity to fire my work in wood kilns. This was another revelation—crawling into the kiln and stacking the ware, stoking the wood, and participating in the works’ final stage of creation. Again there was that feeling of being just where I always should have been. Eventually I came to teach wheel throwing at the same community studio where I had been a student, and began wood firing more often. I slowly phased out my former career as a psychologist, moved from the suburbs of New York City to the woods of the Hudson Valley, and built a studio and a life as a full-time ceramic artist firing all my work in anagama kilns.
Crossing the Bridge to Ceramics
So how did all this happen, and what are the bridges that were crossed over from psychology to ceramics? There definitely are bridges. Fundamentally, it was the same need that led me to both, the same lifelong search that drew me to psychology and then to ceramics. For me, both are a way to connect inside to outside, self to other, mind to body. One way to understand what happens in psychotherapy is that it is an attempt to discover and create a coherence between what happens inside someone and what goes on in the world. This happens on many levels; people come to therapy because the way in which they have experienced and taken in the world doesn’t fit with their actual selves, or because the way in which they have come to subjectively experience the world keeps them from being able to relate to the world as it actually is and to obtain inner satisfaction from what is actually out there. We all need to make peace within ourselves and with our relationships to the world outside us.
When I touched clay, I immediately experienced the connection of myself to the material world and vice versa. That is what held me there and what continues to hold me here. This sounds abstract, but it isn’t meant to be. Here I am, there’s the outer world, and clay—well that’s the earth and so is both part of me and part of the world. When we make something in clay, we make an inside and an outside by making a boundary between the two. Think about the vessel. It has the inside it has because of the outside it has and the outside it has because of the inside it has. Surface and form are united in what we make. And then, on top of that, the object we made is only fully realized in its use by another subject. I think all of that is quite wonderful; you may think my excitement at this is a bit nuts. However, I was a philosopher before I was a psychologist before I was a potter, so perhaps that explains it.
Given my tendency to attempt to synthesize apparent opposites, it is not a big surprise that I consider my work to be both sculptural and functional at the same time and that I am drawn to the Japanese wabi-sabi aesthetic. Once as a psychologist and now as a ceramic artist, I embrace the imperfection of the human and natural worlds as a source of beauty and meaning. It is this beauty of imperfection that I attempt to manifest in my work and that gives meaning to my life. My focus used to be about making a whole from the fragments of the world of human experience and now it is about making a living connection to the perfectly imperfect forms of nature, of which human forms are one part. In the past with other people and now with clay, there is a lot of listening and taking part in enriching conversations. I love making large forms as it brings with it the experience of relating to another being. I am drawn to textural surfaces that are everywhere in nature, cracked surfaces where you can see the inside from the outside, and the profound irregularity of organic form. This latter aspect of my work has grown a lot over time. Whereas for many years I made solely by throwing, or throwing and altering, I now handbuild at least as much as I throw. In this development I am deeply grateful to have Jeff Shapiro as my mentor. His wisdom and his example have been an immeasurable help through my continued attempts to actualize in my work what I experience in the world. As a former psychologist you might think I would easily embrace the idea of art as self-expression, but this doesn’t capture my experience as a ceramic artist. As it turns out, my work is much more an attempt to express the world than an attempt to express myself. I attempt to connect to the natural world and to manifest that world in my work, so that the work itself can serve as a bridge between inside and outside.
Monthly Methods: Connections, Windows, and Cracks
In ceramics, the surface is the place of intersection for the inside and outside of the piece. What happens there is of special interest to me. How does the surface relate the interior and exterior space that is the vessel? Does it push or pull from inside to outside or from outside to inside? Does it break, rip, ripple, swell, or crack? How exactly does the surface manifest this fundamental relationship? These questions have led me to a variety of forming techniques. One recent technique involves building with deformed slices of clay such that the texture and cracking create windows between the inside and outside of the vessel while still maintaining the sculptural work’s integrity as a functional piece. I have made vases, covered jars, water jars, and tea bowls using this method and many other forms are possible.
First, I make a block or two of highly sanded and grogged clay. They are made to the size appropriate for the size of the slices I want to have. The blocks are left to set up overnight. If the clay is too soft or too hard, the slices won’t deform easily. It takes a bit of experimentation to find the consistency that works best for the texture you are after.
Next, I slice thin pieces and deform them (1). Many tools can be used to slice the clay. I like using a pastry scraper, which is one of my favorite tools at present, but you might choose to use wire, string, a metal rib, or a cheese slicer. The slices should be wrapped in plastic until ready for use.
Once there is an adequate collection of pieces, I make a base and add a soft, thick coil corresponding to the diameter of the intended vessel (2). Next, I select sliced pieces and place them up against the coil of clay. While supporting the outside slices with my left hand, I spread the coil of clay upward from the inside with my right hand until it reaches to the top of the applied outside pieces (3). Another coil is added and the above process repeated until the vessel reaches the desired height (4).
Some extra work is often done at the top to obtain the desired form of the rim. This involves securing joins with a bit of clay or smoothing portions of the top surface (5). Sometimes the form is pushed out from the inside or in from the outside in places. Many alterations are possible and often none are needed. Once the clay has set up, the inside can be trimmed using a loop tool to lighten the weight and make the walls more uniform (6). If the vessel is a covered jar or water jar, then a slab-made gallery and a handbuilt or wheel-thrown lid is added (7). The completed piece is wood fired in an anagama kiln for 7 days to cone 11 (8). 1–7 Photos: Art Beaudoin.