When It All Explodes: A Love Letter to Pottery

“Pottery is life. The finished product is just a reminder of the steps taken on the way.”

Growing up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, I was fortunate to experience many mediums of art in a community that valued it. My mediums were metal work and beading. Making jewelry was predictable: If I spent hours on a piece, I knew I would have the finished product that I planned for. When I took ceramics for the first time in high school, I experienced the opposite.

I hated pottery. I would spend hours at the wheel, not able to center my ball of clay for an entire class period. When I finally had something that resembled a cylinder, I would mess it up just removing it from the wheel. Once, I had a small cup that I managed to take all the way to a fully glazed piece. My uneven cup with an anemic yellow-grey glaze could barely hold 4 ounces of water. After the semester ended, I swore I would never do ceramics again.

I was always interested in medicine but never pursued it. I did not naturally excel in science the way I did in English or my other language classes. How on earth would I be a good doctor? When I made the decision to go to medical school, something changed in me. Losing 15 pounds to Graves’ disease with a resting heart rate of 130, I was sick. When a physician diagnosed me and started my treatment, I finally started to live again. At the same time, the desire to do more for my clients beyond my scope as an esthetician was brewing in the background.

Sitting on the stairs of the fire escape at my school in San Francisco’s China Town, I called my mom and told her that I wanted to go to medical school. Willing the dream into existence by saying it out loud, I knew I would do whatever it took, no matter how difficult. Just because I was not naturally good at something did not mean I could never be.

During my post-baccalaureate studies, I needed something else to do—something meditative. Having seen my best friend’s creations from his ceramics class, I felt inspired to try pottery again. Even the bowls from his “reject pile” were beautiful to me. Maybe my little rejects could be beautiful, too.

I still took hours to center a piece of clay. I left the studio days in a row empty-handed. But the feeling of kneading the clay, the smell of it, and the way it slipped between my fingers as I finally learned to pull it up was magical. When I finally learned to trim, watching the curls of clay fall around my piece as it spun hypnotically on the wheel put me in a trance that made me forget my stressors. My cups were far from perfect. They were “rustic,” but I made them. When a piece would explode in the kiln, it was okay. I could always make another cup and have another excuse to be in the studio—to be present. Unlike fixed metal, clay was flexible. Like my mindset, clay could grow.

Life goes through stages. It has never gone the way I expected, but the beauty for me has been in the experience—the process. From making mistakes to learning from them to being okay with an outcome that was not planned for—pottery is life. The finished product is just a reminder of the steps taken on the way.

When It All Explodes

Molecules aligned

Centered silica spinning

Pull up, hollow out

Drying in plastic

Leather hard, ready to trim

Coils of clay fall

Fire, ready to glaze

Gently dipped in powdered glass

Bottom wiped with care

Expanding bubble

The piece next door exploding

Caught in the crossfire

Shattered, shining piece

Shards lay helpless in the kiln

They did not make it

Nothing to take home

But a lesson learned:

It will be okay

Mx Mendelow is a fourth-year medical student at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville. They received their Bachelor of Arts in Romance Languages and Literature and International Studies from the University of Michigan and practiced as a licensed aesthetician before medical school. They hope to pursue Ob/Gyn and incorporate their love of psychiatry into their practice.