“Yo, can someone put a handle on this one for me?”
Ben set a delicate marbled porcelain cup on the studio table. He’d just finished trimming the piece, and trimming had enhanced a swirled pattern of mixed clays. (Since a recent shopping trip, we’ve all been on a colored clay kick in the Art & Advocacy class.)
Without missing a beat, Dave smiled and nodded, “sure.”
Only about ten minutes remained in the class, and he’d just started attaching a handle to another stoneware piece. I glanced up from the piece I was cleaning. “Sure you’ve got time?”
“I got this, KP,” he said with a smile and a shrug.
One of the fascinating aspects of our Art & Advocacy class is how members of our team have learned each others’ strengths, and how we are all capitalizing on these strengths to make the most of our working time. It didn’t happen with any personality test or get-to-know-you game. We’ve been learning each others’ strengths by working together daily, everywhere from the boardroom to the kiln room and back again, with authentic goals.
John C. is the slab-man. Although he can throw and trim proficiently, he likes the challenge of thinking about clay differently, shifting the forms from two dimensions to three. John M. is the critic. He keeps us all on our toes by monitoring craftsmanship, and challenging us whenever we need to improve. He’s also an aspirational leader who aims higher than what any of us think we can accomplish. (“We’ll make at least two hundred this weekend, right KP?”)
John G. is the master of say-do. When he commits to a task, he completes it, and in his own quiet way, he inspires the others on our team to do the same. Ben is an artful trimmer, and the realist of the bunch. (“Johnny, we’ll maybe make fifty.”) He’s also developing skill as an impromptu public speaker—like this time we threw him on the spot to speak to the Mothers’ Club.
After less than four months of regularly pulling handles, Dave’s handles are as good as, if not better than, his teacher’s efforts after nearly fifteen years. He’s an all-around solid potter, but what I’ve come to appreciate most about Dave is how open he is to saying ‘yes’ to any challenge that comes his way, and persisting when things aren’t easy.
So back to that marbled cup. Ben threw it and trimmed it, but he knew that Dave would probably make the strongest handle. Yet porcelain is finicky, and Dave’s first attempt ended in the porcelain falling off the cup. I heard him swear under his breath as he wiped the cup to try again. His second try—same thing. He was doing everything right, but clay is like this. Sometimes you can follow every step of a process correctly and still end up frustrated.
He set the cup down and took a deep breath. Class was now over. “Can I do this later?” he asked.
I shook my head. “It’s going to be too dry later. Here,” I reached for the cup. “I’ll finish it. I’ve got some time.”
Dave picked the cup back up again. “No, I’ve got this,” he said. He reached for fresh porcelain.
On his third try, the handle was just about perfect. He held it up to examine the negative space of the curve, then smiled at his work. The other students had left for lunch. Just two people were left—this young man with a gift for persistence, and a teacher who all too often feels like giving up.
It was my turn to take a deep breath.
“You know,” I said, “there are few things more rewarding for a teacher than seeing a student struggle, push through it, and then eventually succeed.”
I paused. What I didn’t say was how Dave’s handle on Ben’s cup felt like a metaphor for our whole process of collaborative making in our studio, relying on each others’ strengths to make our best work. Or, on another level, how his frustration, regrouping, and eventual success suggested a mindset I should remember to get through some very long days.
Dave was still smiling—a one-eighty from the frustration of a few minutes ago. “It might seem like a little thing,” I continued, “but that just made my day.”
Learning each other’s strengths and celebrating the little accomplishments. For me, this sums up what it’s been like working as a co-learner alongside my students this semester. Each new discovery and each new reminder supply the energy we need to keep going.