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Life lessons at a potter’s wheel

By Tarris Rosell

Being a clay artist is a lesson in humility. What I intend to create when sitting down at the wheel oftentimes turns out rather differently than I’d imagined—or it doesn’t turn out at all. Those would-be pots we call “flops.” It happens. Watch me long enough at my potter’s wheel and you will see a flop.

We can learn a lot from flops. Since I don’t like to fail, I typically try to save my flops on the wheel. Usually that’s a bad idea. Occasionally it works out wonderfully, however. Some of my favorite pots started out as flops. Just like some of us mortals, I suppose.

Tarris Rosell uses his potter’s wheel.

Being a clay artist is also a lesson in mortality. I am reminded at the wheel that virtually everything I create in the studio will outlast me, its creator, by hundreds of years. Maybe millennia. We find clay pots and potsherds that were created by artists who lived and died 15,000 to 18,000 years ago. Their clay work, even if only in fragments, remains long after the potter is gone. Clay pots are almost immortal. I am not.

At the wheel I am reminded of those words I have repeated so many times when officiating the interment of a body or cremains, ashes. But really those ashes are just dust. As the interred body will someday be also. And so we clergy officiants recite the words from Genesis 3:19: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” At the gravesite we say, “We commit this body to the elements: earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” We humans are indeed mortal, as I am reminded when working clay extracted from the earth.

Everything that has an end also had some beginning. We come from somewhere. At the wheel, I am reminded not just of mortality but of my beginnings. And yours. Another verse we recite at the graveside is actually about our origins. The psalmist wrote: “For God knows how we were made; God remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103)

One of Tarris Rosell’s mugs.

The Genesis creation story has the Creator fashioning humans from dust. Something like a potter. Add a bit of water, do a bit of shaping, and voila! A human. Hydrated dust. That’s what we are. Which is what clay is also. Just hydrated dust. The glaze that I use—before it is fired to 2200 degrees in the kiln—those glazes start out as hydrated dust. I don’t feel very god-like sitting at a wheel creating things out of hydrated dust. But I do feel some kinship with the clay that I shape and form. As the poet of Ecclesiastes notes: “All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Ecclesiastes 3:20 NRSV). That’s a reference to all humans, surely, but I feel some kinship also with the clay when working at the wheel. We have the same origins.

Plate and chalice by Tarris Rosell.

Hydrated dust. A lot of useful and/or beautiful things can come of it in the interim space between dusty origins and dusty endings. That is what I intend as a functional clay artist: to fashion useful things that might be beautiful sometimes also. When gazing at my clay creations, you can decide for yourself whether I have been successful or to what extent.

I believe we mortals are created to be useful and beautiful. Beautiful in spirit and functionally useful—making a difference in the world for the short time we inhabit it. Each of us can decide for ourselves whether we are being successful in that regard or to what extent. It’s something I ponder for myself while sitting at a potter’s wheel—which has become for me a place to create and to learn.

—Tarris Rosell, of Amani Lamps and Pots, a bioethicist and ethics professor, participated in the recent PeaceWorks KC Local Art Fair.

© 2022, Tarris Rosell, Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 International License.

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