Catherine - Slow Journeys

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Catherine - Slow Journeys
August 2022- Three Month Course
Arriving at SlowPottery (month 1 - week1 ) has been a slow settling into a very peaceful, comfortable, rural environment at Velanga Orchard. Karthik and Nikita are our hosts. Karthik taking care of all needs for our comfort (food, rooms, entertainment, beers, bonfires and more); Nikita, our teacher, taking care of all things pottery related. We have a great bunch of people, a mix of beginners and students who have stayed on from last month.

Although I have been doing pottery for over two and a half years now, centering consistently has eluded me. It's very much hit and miss and I find it difficult to spot when I am off or on centre.

So, I have come with the mindset to start afresh from the beginning, to put away what I've learned, as valuable as it is, and take each step as it comes. It is paying off dividends making ever so slight adjustments to how I've been holding my hands as Nikita teaches us each step distinctly and slowly. Which has been a bit of a mental adjustment for me, used to comparatively fast classes of 3 hours, demo and practice in London! Here it 3 days in place of 3 hours… coning (day 1), compressing (day 2), centring (day 3), with lots of tips of handling the clay in between.

 Sometimes it has been a struggle to to resist jumping ahead of the lesson of the day or to move to larger balls of clay, but I have three months here and I am not going to rush it.

End of week one, I'm confidently centring. It is such a small change of technique that Nikita has demonstrated, holding hands 90 degrees to each other, cupping my left over my right, leaving a quarter of a circle of the clay visible and then pulling gently towards my navel. So simple and so easy. I can centre, knock my clay off centre and quickly bring it back to centre. Now for embedding centring deeply and doing the same with pulling!

And oh the food, THE FOOD at Velanga Orchard. My gut biome is in heaven! Kannaka, a lady from the village, delights us every single day, every meal. This dedicated meat eater might even go vegetarian...

Bowls, bugs and a shock (Month 1 - weeks 2 & 3) The first week was all cylinders and the second week was all bowls. The second week however was a bit frustrating as there was a bug going around, which knocked me out for two days. just about everybody lost at least a day. This, the third week we are on to making our collections as well as a couple of days of handbuilding which I am skipping as handbuilding is something I've done a lot of in the past and I really want to concentrate on my throwing techniques. Plenty that needs improvement. But joy of joys my centring is now about 95% there i reckon. I still manage to spoil pieces in the last one or two pulls, but at least i am starting out centred.

Until now I have also been resisting using my own tools and sticking to the basic tools provided for the beginners course, but i'm afraid some of my favourites are creeping into the studio. Trying not to make them too obvious to the others, but its hard!

This week also feels like there's been a change in the group with time pressure now to start building our collections, Nikita has provided a schedule, outlining the days we have left. The time has passed so fast, already a countdown and the pressure is mounting to achieve something. To date we have been practice throwing; most pieces being wire cut in two to check thickness/thinness and more importantly evenness of the walls as well as overall form. Now we are starting to keep more pieces with an eye on Nikita's schedule. The schedule is ruled by the amount of time needed to dry pots, heat and cool the kiln for each firing. I'm feeling still fairly relaxed as I've got another two months following this one. Some of the others less so, especially beginners. The result is we are spending more time in the studio a little bit later each evening and also working part of the weekend.

In between all of this has been the Queen's funeral in the UK. The news ten days ago from writing this was an unexpected shock and a lot more emotional than I anticipated. Watching the funeral from afar makes me wish I was back in the UK.

First firings, parties, Pondicherry. (Month 1 - week 4) We are coming up on the first firing to bisque, which also means selecting our limit of 10 pieces to put in the kiln. My pieces are all small as per the beginners clay size, which is 400g. The students who are a month ahead of us are throwing mostly 600g, a few 800g. My pieces are all small mugs, espresso and a couple of small bowls. Plus one handmade piece requested by a London friend of “Egyptian bowl with feet” which has been making the rounds on instagram.

The night after loading our pots for bisque firing, two of the students have issued handwritten invitations to a party at their room (which is slightly separate from the rest of ours, near the rice paddies). The attire is ‘Prom dresses’. Damn! Nothing in my minimal travel light wardrobe, pottery, mud and farmlife meets the criteria… I have mascara, a pair of gold earrings and a silk scarf which will have to do. The rest of the girls seem to have easily anticipated this… or maybe as princesses this is just the way they roll. Everyone looks gorgeous, lots of candlelight, diamonds, cocktails and food. Roll on a million selfies and fashion poses, before the night slides into tipsy dancing. My bed calls me around midnight, I arrive at breakfast the next morning to find they have gone on until 3am.

Whilst waiting for the kiln to cool, we get another practice day. Nothing we make now will be fired. So pure practice, trying larger amounts clay, throwing, slicing through with the wirecutter, checking wall thickness, chucking the clay and throwing again. This is what I generally don’t get to do in London, becoming attached to each piece anticipating firing it rather than throwing it just for practice. Although we have only put 10 pieces in the kiln, we have probably each thrown around a 100 or more pots. Some making it to acceptable, others pure failures.

In this last week we also spend time recycling the vast amount of clay we have been using; picking up clay from last months students, mixing the slip, prepping moist clay for next months students and hammering down dried broken unfixed pots to go into the buckets to reabsorb water and on and on and on… the beginners are starting to realise very little time is spent at the wheel in comparison to the rest of the studio work. Roll on glazing….!

Glazing is another stage I entirely manage to ruin my pots on a regular basis. I will spare any readers the pain of my glazing. Suffice to say I am keeping my glazing simple this time (and suppressing my desire for experimentation). We have 7 glazes to choose from. With everything glazed and loaded into the kiln, we sit back, taking turns to monitor the kiln temperature and play Uno.

Unloading, ooohs and aaahs, happiness all round and then boxing up, runs for taxis, planes and home. The high energy, high fun dissipates, tears and hugs all round. For me, I’m headed to Pondicherry on the coast, for some R&R, restaurants (I have started craving western food), shopping and air-con! I get to visit Auroville and meet Victor from Moldova, but that’s another story.

Going backwards (Month 2 - week 1) the start of a new month and a new bunch of students. We now have 3 newbies, 2 intermediates and 2 advanced students. An extra levels for Nikita to juggle and give appropriate lessons to. I can see why she needs privacy and quiet at the end of the day. Lots of talking, demos and patience. Exhausting.

As an intermediate student, I have now increased clay size from the standard 400g to 600g, with instructions to occasionally challenge myself with larger amounts. We have also changed from brown clay to grey clay which comes with a new set of challenges. Mainly being I cannot pull the damned stuff up and am failing miserably. It’s like I need to go back to the beginning. I try throwing using a mirror I bought in Pondicherry. I can clearly see no clay is moving up the cylinder, but I still struggle. I try switching from my fingers to pulling with my knuckle. No joy. I change the height of my seat. Same story. I struggle on.

On the plus side my cookery skills are improving no end. More specifically, my South Indian cookery skills. Karthik has said yes to me taking lessons from his cook, the lovely Kannaka. A friend recently did a veg cookery course in London which cost her £200 for one day. I get to spend every Saturday morning with Kannaka, for the princely sum of 5000 Ruppees (roughly £50). Karthik was at first resistant to me paying Kannaka (there is a strict no tips policy here), but we agreed this was not a tip and Kannaka had something of value to teach me. To date I have gathered approximately 20 recipes from her, full videos and notes. I have a shopping list of ingredients to get before I go home. Mostly spices and some base ingredients which I can probably get at home, but much cheaper and in bulk here.

Time in the studio. (Month 2 - week 2) In coming to SlowPottery, time at the wheel was one of my main objectives. In London my time in studio is typically limited to three hour sessions at a college or open access studio… which includes set-up and cleaning time. To improve my technique more relaxed wheel time is needed. And it is paying off dividends.

Moving as a group (very typical here) between the dining room, the studio and the rooms means moving at the pace of slowest or at least not at a pace and plan for my day to manage wedging/throwing/trimming/clay drying time/eating/resting. The first month I kept in sync with the group (whilst still withdrawing somewhat for my sanity); second month I am finding it more tedious. Not moving with the group means I can avoid some of the petty school-ground politics that are peeking out. We really could do with some male energy here! 

My aim is always to get in as early as possible in the morning, straight after Lakshmi and Rajmi have finished cleaning the studio for the start of the day which is 10:30. Taking a quick lunch and mostly not stopping far ‘quick’ cups of chai which can turn into a much longer break, means cumulatively i am getting more time at the wheel than most of the other students; even though I typically finish earlier at around 4:30 before the bain of my life… mosquitoes(!)arrive. Standard studio closure is 5:30 in time for snacks. Occasionally the studio stays open later in the evening if needed. Last task of my day is wedging clay prep for the next day, so I can sit down at the wheel fresh ready to go. To be honest, I would love to start much much earlier, have a siesta and then work late into the night, but c’est la vie, this is Slow Pottery, no exams to pass at the end.

Vision board. (Month 2 - week 3) Before I had heard of Slow Pottery and Velanga Orchard or knew I would be spending three months in India, I created a vision board in November 2021. (Putting into practice the steps outlined in Tara Swart’s book “The Source”). In the centre of my vision board is a lidded clay casserole pot, perfectly formed, fresh off the wheel. Today I created it! The rounded belly shape almost to a T the same as the one pictured. Progress! Although I have to say on a day to day basis I cannot see it, but when I look back to what I was creating a year ago, then look at todays work and see the match to the vision, I am super chuffed with the result. Which only makes me think I need to up the vision!

On that positive note I have to say not all is well on the farmfront. I could go into much deeper detail on individuals need for control, jealousy, manipulation, ostracisation, bullying and victimhood… but all I will say to any psychotherapists… this is a great place to observe up close and personal, dysfunctional group dynamics! And this is definitely not the norm, the difficulties are limited to a small group of students. The rest have been absolutely lovely.

Pulling breakthrough. (Month 2 - week 4) I have finally figured out what has been going wrong throwing larger amounts of clay. After 3 weeks of failure, I broke through the problem just by changing my posture. Leaning further over to the right, gives me a better view of the clay and means it is easier to lift my left arm to stack it vertically, elbow over wrist, allowing my hand and angling fingers inside to better scoop the clay upwards. Such a small adjustment! I still manage to destroy the last pull, ending up with a wiggle but it’s getting better.

The weather is finally getting cooler, still very comfortably warm for me, but everyone else feels the chill. I head up the hill with two other students on a couple of evenings. One time watching an impending monsoon storm drive over the landscape towards us. We decide we’re just fine getting wet and stay to get drenched for a wet walk back down. One of my favourite things, like a drowned rat, back to the farm to grab snacks, then to the room for a hot shower and curl up on my bed with a movie.

We’re into the final straight again. Bisque firing, glazing etc. Unfortunately we have lost one of our number, who departs before the bisque firing, leaving the remaining students to ruminate on what happened. Each have their own version. Mine… all that was needed was simple kindness and respect for others. Our time here is short, to allow petty dislikes and grievances to taint our month here is a travesty.

The group is now only functioning on the surface. There is relief with final departures. I really hope the next, my final month here, is more chilled.

Inbetween times (a 5 day break) I am staying on the farm during the break. Kathiks relatives are visiting; I have a shopping trip planned to the nearest large size town, Chittoor. The purpose to pick up supplies (read highly unhealthy snacks) for the next month; plus core ingredients and spices to take back to London to continue my South Indian cooking oddesy . I’m also on the hunt for an appam dish, a casr iron skillet like pan to make small balls of deliciousness.

It is a totally different place without students, so peaceful. The four dogs seem a little lost without students to coo over them. There has been a lot of cooing! The staff are all busy, checking room roofs for potential leaks, repairing the paths from the monsoon downpours, cleaning rooms, prepping the studio to Nikita’s exacting standards, clearing foliage, bringing in supplies for the next batch. I introduce Kannaka to French Toast.

Final month starts (month 3 - week 1). Starting this month fully rested. No travelling in the break this time, I decided to stay on the farm, with just a quick shopping trip for supplies into Chitoor. So it has been a few very lazy days, hanging out with some of Karthik’s relatives visiting from Singapore with their new baby; easy climbs up the hill; hanging out with the tribal women; getting scolded by Kannaka and Kavita for cleaning their kitchen whilst they were working hard cleaning and prepping the rooms for the next group of students. Students don’t work they say…. relax!

This month we are two advanced students and eight beginners. A full house. The group is a little older, more easygoing and relaxed. The group dynamic feels great.

Advanced students are back to the brown sandalwood clay. Bliss. Definitely my preferred clay. Throwing amount increases again to 1kg and above. Just the two of us as advanced students feels more relaxed, the syllabus for the month is new larger forms essentially building on the base skills cylinders/bowls of the last two months.

Repeated lessons, focussed effort (month 3 - week 2) Realised in this third month we are getting the all levels taught repeated, getting to hear again the same lessons we had as beginners whilst working on Nikita’s advanced syllabus. Listening to the beginners with the same questions and working on the same challenges on the wheel. Stay for three months, get the all levels repeated three times to embed in, whilst working on the level you are on. Great.

The feeling in the studio this month is one of concentration and effort, more so than the previous two months. The weather is also much improved…. Cooler! Mosquitoes however have stayed very active. My body looks like a war zone, I cannot stop myself scratching.

Teapots, crisp bowls and pears (month 3 - week 3) whilst the countdown to leaving has started, the days have merged into a steady rhythm, get up, shower, meander to breakfast, into the studio at 10:30, start with an easy warm-up throw, wedge some clay, listen to the beginners lessons, throw for the collection, hopefully produce a decent piece (occasional failures), have an advanced lesson, head for lunch, back to the studio for more throwing or trimming, light chatter, peaceful working, mosquito time… close doors to keep them out, Ravi arrives with smoking iron bowl, finish off pieces for the day, clean and lock up studio, head to dining room for snacks, head for rooms for rest or communal spaces for chat, dinner, bonfires, beer and sleep.

This week teapots has been the focus. I have managed to produce two reasonably good ones, but cracks have emerged on the handle of one… hoping it gets through the firings. The race is on to finish out collection in time for drying and bisque firing this week. Foram and I get our own firing separate from the beginners, so more space! But still a limit on number of pieces but a little more relaxed. I have given up on my pears with lids for ‘amuse bouche’… these will have to wait until I get home. Crisp and dip bowls, a large bowl with a mini bowl fitted into the lip are my new favourite forms. There is a challenge with the trying process where the smaller bowl is squeezed out of shape by the larger. Fingers crossed for the end result.

Collection finally done, pressure is off and it’s a bonfire and kayaking at the lake, followed up with a party which the beginner students have a day recovering from, whilst I keep an eye on the temperature risings of the first bisque firing.

Last week (month 3 - week 4). What I did not expect, but got, is stronger hands, shoulders, forearms and biceps from all the coning, centring and pulling. An added benefit! Plus also steadier hands.
The last firing produced some decent pieces, but I am still a little frustrated with the glazes. I tried, deliberately this time, to get ‘errors’ in the glazes to get them to run, but failed. Some of the colours did not come out as they had in previous firings. A warning to always keep your expectations low until you truly know your glaze and how it will behave.

My experience at Slow Pottery has led me to my favourite poem, passed to me many years ago by a woman in the Nicaraguan jungle. It is particularly resonant given the bonfires, moonlight, lakes, dramas, the personalities, new experiences for some, far away from home on their own for the first time in their lives…

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living
 I want to know what you ache for
And if you dare to dream 
of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool 
For love
For  your dreams
For the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets 
are squaring your moon…
I want to know if you have touched the center of your own
If you have been opened by life’s betrayals
Orhave become shrivelled and closedfrom fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
Mine or your own 
Without moving to hide it 
Or fade it 
or fix it.

I want to know if you can be with joy
Mine or your own 
If you can dance with wildness 
And let the ecstasy fill you 
to the tips of your fingers and toes 
without  cautioning us to 
Be careful
Be realistic
To remember the limitations of being human.

It doesn’t interest me if the story you tell of me 
is true or false
I want to know if you can look
into your heart
And be true to yourself.

I want to know if you can see beauty 
even when it is not pretty 
every day.
And if you can source your own life 
from its presence.

I want to know if you can live with failure 
yours and mine 
and still stand on the edge of the lake
And shout “Yes” 
to the silver of the full moon.

It doesn’t interest me to know where you live 
or how much money you have.
I want to know if you can get up 
weary and bruised to the bone 
and do what needs to be done
or fall into a lazy malaise.

It doesn’t interest me who you know
Or how you came to be here.
I want to know if you will stand 
in the center of the fire
With me and not shrink back.
Your physical beauty is lost on me
The line between 
Good and bad 
Truth and lies
Runs straight through both our hearts.
I want to know on which side of the line
you fall

It doesn’t interest me where 
or what or with whom 
you have studied.
I want to know what sustains you 
from the inside 
when all else falls away.

I want to know if you can be alone 
with yourself 
and if you truly like the company you keep
 in the empty moments…

SlowPottery and Velanga Orchards, with Nikita and Karthik has been a wonderful experience, one that I will treasure and add to my list of adventures. My pottery skills have come on leaps and bounds. I have some new firm friendships, received lovely gifts from Kannaka, Nikita and Karthik (I shall ring my new antique tinkling bell daily!). I hope to return to India or at least catch up with some for more shared adventures in pottery in times to come…