Feet of Clay? Not.Sep 01, 2021 10:30AM ● By Karey Solomon
Remember the fun of playing with clay? Whether it was the squish of mud through your fingers or the feeling of accomplishment when a bit of plasticine or Play-Doh got shaped into a miniature facsimile of your cat, the concentration required to turn an earthy lump into something that looks recognizable is a pleasure that seems to still keep the worries of the world at bay.
Wanting to share this was a large part of why Bethany Conway, with her husband, Brent, began the heART pottery studio in Lindley. Bethany’s background includes the influences of several generations of artistic relatives—her grandfather was a sign painter and her mother is a photographer. And pottery has long been part of the family—Brent introduced Bethany to the fun of the pottery studio at Corning Community College when they were first dating.
Now both employed by Corning, Inc., Brent as a scientist and materials engineer and Bethany as a ceramics scientist, the time of COVID gave them the impetus to put a long-held dream of a hands-on pottery studio into action. “Now seemed a good time to try something new,” they say. “You shouldn’t go to the grave with a song still in your heart,” Bethany adds.
The pair decided to start with what they have—a pristine garage space that opens to the outdoors on two sides. They invested in several electric potter’s wheels and a capacious kiln. Brent built a work counter on hinges so they can fold it down when they need to adjust the space to accommodate a larger capacity group, like a birthday party or the recent group of visiting seniors.
Brent and Bethany themselves embody the spirit of play and experimentation in their own pottery explorations. They noticed promising-looking deposits of natural clay when they purchased their hillside home, and they’re currently refining test batches to explore how it will work as pottery.
At last report, Bethany found the clay from her own backyard made a decent pot on the wheel. “It’s really nice clay,” she says. While the experimentation continues, they’re relying on the commercially prepared clay.
Before “throwing” a pot, the stoneware clay she works with has to be “wedged,” that is, kneaded, sliced, and smacked down on a hard surface to get air bubbles out. Taking up an already prepared soft-ball-sized sphere of clay, she turns on the wheel. Using wet hands, she carefully positions the clay in the middle of the rotating work surface. Moistening it repeatedly with water dipped from a nearby bowl, she sits with her elbows braced on her knees for support, using the outer edge of her palms to begin shaping. Exerting inward and upward pressure with opposing hands, she changes the ball into a cone, stretching it upwards, then flattening it with downward pressure, until it’s gently flattened, continuing the preparation of the clay.
A thumb is pressed down to “dimple” the middle, then two thumbs plunge into the heart of the clay, working against the pressure of her fingers on the outside of the evolving structure to shape the lump into a vessel.
This is the fascinating part of the process to watch, and to try, as the clay walls thin, take shape, and rise as the bowl or mug or teapot or other vessel is fashioned. The imprint of the potter’s hands leaves its mark forever on what will become a finished piece.
Today it’s going to become a vase, but Bethany often makes mugs, plates, and decorative ceramics. “What better satisfaction than to drink your morning coffee from a mug you made?” she asks. Some of her work is sold in Corning’s FLX Unique on Market Street.
“It’s a struggle with being in control,” she says of working with clay. Clay may have plasticity, but it takes muscle and practice to move it in the desired direction and into the desired shape, and even then the material may seem to have its own ideas about the final result. When a piece feels done, it’s carefully removed from the wheel and allowed to dry before its first firing.
There are other techniques one could use to explore the medium. You might try rolling the clay into a stacked spiral of coils stuck together with water, or using a rolling pin to create flat slabs that may be cut and joined to each other like pie crust.
Perhaps there’s something philosophical as well as practical going on here. Bethany has long suspected the practice of pottery can be therapeutic, and invites those who visit her studio to assess their state of mind before and after a session using a self-reporting questionnaire known as Positive and Negative Affect Schedule. This allows participants an opportunity to acknowledge how their feelings may have changed after a bout with clay creating. In the curing process and through several firings, the piece may change as well. It still may surprise everyone by developing small cracks or unexpected patterns of finish after it’s glazed. It takes time to see the final result.
“Ours is a culture of instant gratification,” Bethany says. “This teaches patience.” The process is part of the product. With one’s hands in clay, “you’re subconsciously using the creative part of your brain as you’re consciously making choices,” she says.
The Conways’ studio offers an opportunity to explore the craft of pottery before making a serious investment, to take lessons, rent equipment, or simply get a “taste” of pottery. For more information, or to learn more about booking a pottery-making session, find them online at bethanysheart.com and use the contact form on the page or call (607) 346-2437.