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Why potters deserve to charge for their skills, like any other professional

Shouldn't you be considerate to a local artist who’s put his or her heart and soul into creating an exquisite handmade product for you?

Like any old schooler, I’d rather pick up a physical book over Kindle, would rather draw on paper than an iPad, and would rather turn things over in my hand to understand 3 dimensions than see it rendered on a screen (not that I have anything against 3D printers). Working with your hands is simply so much more satisfying. It beats working on a computer any day. I wished to learn pottery since graduating from college, but somehow between work and motherhood, could never make the time for it. In 2012, I joined the Sanskriti Kendra for a while and had the fortune to learn the basics from an excellent teacher. Getting familiar with clay as a medium felt like someone had just introduced me to magic. I finally dove in only last year, found myself an amazing mentor who encouraged me to keep at it, and was taking regular classes till this blasted pandemic threw us all off.

I’d really like to share a few insights I learnt at the studio. A final ceramic product is just like a Big Mac or a readymade garment. You may or may not be aware of the tedious process behind something making it to a store rack, or you simply may not care for the dirty details about the hours of frustration/meditation spent on mastering a certain technique. You ultimately see the shiny, gorgeous object in front of you, buy it, and replace it if it breaks. Well, had you created it, it would break your heart to see it gone. But artists learn to live in a semi-detached state from the beginning. They also learn to live with clutter, hoard bizarre things they may put to use some day, and ignore a few minor injuries on a daily basis. Most important of all, they cultivate a deep reservoir of patience.

Maintaining the studio

The studio is your sacred space where you shut out the rest of the world. It is also a space where you must find what you need, so everything has to have a designated place. Many potters, by jugaad, learn to create their own tools out of wood and odd metal pieces. In order to work with rust-free tools, you must clean, scrub and dry them properly. You must also know how to keep them sharp, not use metal on wooden bats and definitely not metal on metal. We are a nation that worships tools, after all. The wheel itself must be oiled from time to time. The clay must be stored in plastic bags and placed in air tight tubs to retain moisture. You must have ample racks and storage boxes, plus material to wrap stuff in if you were to ship it.

Recycling clay

Your vendor may give you prepared clay but there’ll still be some small pebbles that will surface. It’s more likely the case with terracotta than the more expensive stoneware. Depending on the size of the piece you want to make, you weigh the clay and wedge it. You need the right height of wedging table and strong arm/core muscles. After the wheel work, there is a lot of slip and squishy leftover clay that you need to store separately. The moist clay is reused but the drier remains of a trimmed pot have to be broken down into finer pieces after reaching a bone dry stage and mixed with water to return to a slip stage. Needless to say, this tedious work also means that despite using an apron, your clothes and shoes will still have bits of clay on them, and you’ll have to do yet more cleaning.

Throwing and surface decoration

For the initial month, my centering was a bit off and I took forever to get it right. Gradually, it becomes a part of your muscle memory and doesn’t take that long. It’s like the conscious effort you put in when you first learn to drive, and it becomes effortless later. I practiced making a hell lot of bowls and cylinders to understand curvature, where to apply pressure, and how much to pull to get a lighter rather than a chunkier piece. The trickier things are the more precisely measured things like lids that must fit a jar or teapots with multiple openings, joints and handles. Hand throwing and slab work is also complicated as you’re manually shaping, without the help of a wheel. It takes years of practice to be able to make uniform shapes and sizes to complete a specific order. After slow air-drying on a shelf, your pot is still fragile and needs careful handling. You need to be confident and have a steady hand to do slip decoration or paint with underglazes.

The alchemy of glazes

Yes, there’s theory you need to learn in this otherwise practical subject. You need to know your oxides and minerals, and constantly need to test new samples to see if you’ll get the desired result. It’s not as simple as choosing the paint you want to see on paper. Glazes are basically the glass coating that form an additional layer to make your tableware stronger and aesthetically pleasing, so that you may use it for serving food and beverages. Good potters consciously use lead-free glazes, so sourcing is just as important.

Firing the kiln

My teacher has a massive, customised kiln that frankly, I’d be scared to operate. It’s also not practically possible to have if you live in a rented accommodation as it’s not something that can easily be transported. You’d need a crane just to heave it and have it reassembled all over again. My teacher loads the kiln ever so perfectly, arranging various pieces according to height or according to the desired result (potters know their shelves' cold spots), also keeping in mind that the glaze doesn’t drip onto the floor of the precious slabs inside the kiln. You get props of all sizes to form a pillar between shelves to get things to fit in just right and get the maximum load in. This particular kiln, unlike the electric ones, is fuelled by gas cylinders. You need to turn various knobs to increase or decrease the gas flow. You check the temperature settings with the help of a device called the pyrometer or check if your glaze is melting with help of cones/draw rings. Every step requires precision. Different clay bodies are fired at different temperatures. Porcelain is fired at temperatures as high as 1400 degrees celsius while Terracotta can be fired at 1080 degrees celsius. For stoneware (that most studio potters use), a bisque can be fired at 950 degrees. Vitrification only happens at 1280 degrees. If the final firing is any lower than the required temperature, you risk under-firing and ruining months of work because your product will not be as sturdy. It really is a joy to open the kiln and bring out the beautiful pieces you’ve created by moulding earth and applying chemistry. Because what you finally produce is the sum total of all your knowledge, talent, labour, time and imagination combined.

Putting yourself out there

As an artist, you’re judged. Since art is subjective, others may love or hate what you make. The market puts a price on your work according to your reputation. But the truth is, one tries, time and again, to stay focussed and motivated. Some of the potters have day jobs to make a living while some quit so they can concentrate on pursuing their passion and truly give it all their time. They spend a lifetime practising their craft and innovating. Some visit other countries and serve as apprentices as barter for living quarters, or participate in residencies. They end up working in all kinds of weather conditions and with all sorts of masters to learn new techniques. It’s equal parts challenging and exciting.

Like in other fields, expenses are incurred. Buying tools and raw material, getting customised heavy equipment and paying maintenance staff are some of the costs. Promoting yourself on various media, packaging and shipping are others. If you’d readily pay a wedding photographer a hefty fee or go to a dentist for a root canal because he’s an expert, shouldn’t you also be considerate to local artists who put their hearts and souls into creating exquisite handmade products for you?

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