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Try patting your head and rubbing your tummy. Tricky, huh?
Now try centering a lump of clay on a spinning wheel, keeping your elbows tight against your ribs, your left hand on the side of the lump, your right on the top of the lump. With five or six strangers silently watching, try to muscle that stubborn lump to the exact center of the spinning wheel. And don’t forget to breathe. Beyond tricky! But Tony Gebauer of TR Pottery in Fish Creek is a calm and patient guide, who kindly introduced me to the primary process Door County potters use to create their stunning, often functional wares.
When I arrived at the gallery displaying ceramic mugs, vases, platters, and pitchers glazed in glossy yellows, purples, and blues, Renee Gebauer stood behind a counter tying twine to price tags while Tony sat at his wheel, framed by an open wall at the far side of the gallery. The couple greeted me with bright smiles and hearty ‘hellos,’ before leading me through a tall curtain, past high shelves stocked with ceramic pieces in various stages, to the wheel itself.
“How old were you?” I asked.
“27,” he replied.
“I’ve just turned 30,” I said, encouraged and hopeful that this whole experience would be a breeze.
I saddled up to the wheel and Tony plopped that lump of clay before me. The first and most important step: centering. He talked and aided me through the awkward ordeal described earlier. Finally, the lump was in a good place, spinning slowly with a soft mechanical hum. Next I dug my thumb in the moist clay, creating some room to expand from. “Good,” Tony said after I (or we, I should say) completed each step.
The small crowd observed with amused smiles as Tony instructed me use two fingers to pull the lip of the little bowl we were creating out wide. I was a bit hesitant to use the force necessary. “A little more,” he said, placing his fingers over mine to demonstrate. ‘Goodness,’ I thought. ‘Potters make it look like such a gentle, fluid process. It’s not!’
After the little bowl looked like an over-sized candle holder, Tony brought out a plastic tool to help ease the lip out further, in a more even fashion. I gently pressed the tool to the clay. “A little harder,” he encouraged. I gritted my teeth, tried again with my elbows all over the place, my head leaning to the side. He laughed as he moved the tool to a proper spot, where it was easy to see and use with elbows in place. “Oh, that makes sense,” I laughed, a nervous laugh, while the small crowd laughed along.
Finally, the bowl looked like a bowl, and a few more tools were employed to shrink up the bottom of the piece and remove my prized creation from the wheel.
Once I carefully lifted the bowl from the wheel and placed it along side a series of Tony’s stunning, seemingly identical small pitchers, I whooped, exhaled, and gave Tony a high five. There was such a feeling of accomplishment and pride, then the wave of soreness one feels after their tense muscles can finally relax.
“Wow, that’s very physical,” I commented.
“Oh yeah,” Renee agreed, recalling the dress shirts Tony couldn’t fit into after a few months working at the wheel.
Tony took up his proper place once more, the crowd smiled and congratulated me as I walked past. “It’s really hard to do,” a young woman wearing a knit hat said to me. “Amen!” I replied. “They make it look so easy.”
I walked out of the gallery with a new appreciation for the many Door County potters who create their own brand of beautiful pottery (which make incredible, functional keepsakes and gifts I might add). Each comes from their own school of pottery, employing different throwing, glazing, and firing techniques, yet they maintain a solidarity, a community that is both welcoming and encouraging of one another.
Now go experience Door County pottery for yourself! Check out the many Door County galleries featuring ceramic wares, sculptures, and jewelry; ask the artists questions about their creations; and enroll in a pottery class, where you can get your hands dirty and experience the satisfying soreness I’m talking about.
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