Artist Q&A: Meet Donna M. Ernst

Q: Was there a class, workshop, or teacher that was a game changer for you and your ceramic work? Was there a particular experience that helped you to change your work for the better and build a more successful career? What advice do you have for others based on this experience?

Donna: The conversation below was the start of my first day as a pottery teacher in a retirement community:

“Hi, are you Donna?”

“I am.”

“I’m Jan. I can’t see and I can’t hear and I’m going to be your student.”

<Oh my God! What have I gotten myself into?>

I had been making pots for 24 years at that point and was teaching classes at the community center where I learned the craft. I had also volunteered at the local high school for more than two years which resulted in an increase in students from 13 to 59. There was one pottery class when I started and four classes at the end of my service there.

Teaching senior citizens was going to be something new for me; I just didn’t realize how new it would be.

Jan had macular degeneration and she taught me right away about the condition and how it affected her vision. She described what she could see and what she couldn’t. She had no problem with telling me, “You know I can’t see that!” Then together we would work out a solution and find a way to complete the task at hand.

Her two hearing aids helped with the auditory issues. I had to remember to be close to her and talk to her, not to the space around us. That has proven invaluable over the years.

Jan was 76 years old and fearless. She was willing to tackle something new with no concerns about failure. She just wanted to experience as much as she could while she could. After about a year of becoming familiar with each other’s idiosyncrasies, she asked if I would take her with me to the community center to learn how to use a potter’s wheel.

Great! The center had Kloppenstein kick wheels which were real workhorses, but the potter had to be a workhorse as well. The potter had to stand on her right foot while she kicked with the left, balancing herself on one leg while trying to center a ball of clay. Now add a 77-year-old who “can’t see and can’t hear” to the mix and we’re in business.

We were successful.

This year I celebrated my 26th anniversary as pottery instructor in the facility. Now I am 76 and still working in “the home.” During those years I added other retirement homes where I could work with the elderly or those with diminished skills. For about ten years I taught five classes each week in four different homes. It was wonderful.

After my husband retired and one facility closed I, too, cut back on my work. Currently I have three classes in two communities and have 22 names on my class lists.

The lessons I learned from Jan about how to work with the limitations of older folks or people with disabilities are priceless. I have worked with completely sightless students, and those whose speech or mobility had been harmed by stroke or injury. My classes include residents from all areas of the homes–independent living, assisted living, nursing care and memory impaired. Most of my students are in their 80s and 90s but one is 102.

Pottery has proven to be very enjoyable for so many who had never even thought about “where did this come from?” and “how is this made” People frequently have thanked me for introducing them to the process of making something with clay, to say nothing about actually making something with clay.

All our work is low-fire. We do not have wheels so everything is hand built. Most projects can be finished within an hour-and-a-half class period. Sometimes a student will want to make something more difficult and I call those “two-week” pots because we have to wait until next week’s class to finish it.

Pottery classes exercises the residents’ hands and arms in ways they might not otherwise be used. Just a ball of clay or a rolling pin is more weight than they are used to. Those with limited vision learn how to use their hands along with their eyes and to trust what they feel. Working with clay exercises their brains, strengthening their problem solving ability while acquiring the skills needed to work with new materials and techniques.

The finished projects provide a sense of satisfaction and joy as they hug their fresh-out-of–the-kiln works of art. The students can create gifts for family and friends or decorate their rooms and their doors with their own art. My biggest joy is when a student says to me, “Did I make this?” The sparkle in their eyes and the delight in their voices keep me happy for a week.

This year we created 150 bowls for an in-house Empty Bowls project which was very successful and which provided a sizeable offering to a local hunger center. The sense of pride at being able to help those less fortunate was everywhere.

My own creative work is secondary now because I don’t have the desire to market my work, one show a year is enough. I still have a loyal customer base and take private orders so I do have the opportunity to create and satisfy my need to play in the clay. However, I spend a great deal of time planning new projects for my students and working out the processes that will result in their success.

In third grade, I knew I wanted to be a teacher. I got a degree in secondary education. I began taking pottery classes after I was married with children. I was hooked.

Here I am living my dream, teaching something I knew nothing about until I was an adult, and introducing senior citizens the joy of working with clay. Like most potters, I live work, play and dream about pottery. My fringe benefit is that I continue to learn from my students about enjoying life and dealing with whatever it hands you. Life is good.

  • Suzi V.

    What an absolute gift to read your story and journey! I am inspired to find ways to share clay with my family, friends and acquaintances. The idea of sharing clay with others is inspirational….volunteering in a retirement community sounds inviting! Thank you for sharing your story.

  • Barbara S.

    What a beautiful success story that will carry me through the day. It is nice to see educators being praised as much as artists. Keep touching lives, keep touching clay. Georgia O’ Keefe went blind in her later years and almost solely worked with clay instead of painting. Those whom work with clay understand this connection well, When I am not sure about how a form should continue or am not having a good session on the wheel, I also close my eyes, feel and listen. Throwing blind is the most beautiful sensation.

  • Liz C.

    Enjoyed your story Donna; thanks for sharing. Life IS beautiful when we’re enjoying our work. I, too, have taught in a retirement community (Colorado) and experienced the rewarding benefits of helping others. I teach young children at this time, nevertheless, I’m hopeful to develop some art classes in retirement communities in my area (Louisiana).

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