Dirty hands, red earth, & clay creatures

During the last days of the year, in our living room with the warm light pouring in the from the window, I sat on a white chair before a small working table. I laid out a sheet of paper towel on it, brought out the air dry terracotta clay we bought months ago that I never got to use immediately, and began kneading it, molding it, trying to discover what creature was inside the clay, what it would become in my hands.

While my fingers formed the first creature – a cross between a cat and a bear, but in my mind, I was hoping to make a bear – I felt a deep connection in what I was doing and in what I was creating: the process and the tiny piece of art slowly becoming, transforming.

Shoulders hunched, eyebrows meeting, eyes set on the bearcat, suddenly, I thought of how I loved this little creature, even if he looked imperfect with all his crevices and chinks and rough texture. I would dab little water across his form, smoothing the uneven parts and filling in the cracks. I didn’t aim to make him perfect. What he was becoming by himself, I truly took joy in.

Suddenly, I thought…

Had the Creator felt this way too when He made us one by one in His hands? Had He lovingly formed us, the Potter in heaven? Had He delighted in our entirety and also embraced our crooked smiles, wrinkly foreheads and necks, crinkly eyes – the things that made us uniquely us?

“There is much to love in this one.”

I’d like to think that the Potter had said that.

After forming the bearcat and deciding that he was done (but no one’s ever really finished or completed in this life) and ready to dry, I set out to make the rest of his friends.

I let them dry for at least 24 hours on a thick piece of brown paper on top of three big carton boxes because the cats might play with them! Then it was painting time.

I love warm tones.

Especially terracotta.

However, it does get lighter when it’s dry.

Still, it’s a good sight.

Terracotta.

Words are lovely, don’t you think?

Serendipity.

Turtle.

Patches.

Pickle.

And terracotta.

It means ‘baked earth’ with terra meaning earth and cotta meaning baked. It was derived from the Latin word terra cocta.

Baked earth brings to mind the color red and the heat of the sun.

Meet Barry, the Bearcat!

I’ve had some realizations about using clay. I’ve used modeling clay before as a child, and I remember enjoying it, making things like meals, plates, animals, and whatever my childish imagination put forth on the clay in my little hands. In recent years, I’ve wanted to join workshops and try it, but I never got to. And so, I just attempted it on my own last December.

Snailey-Bailey. Named after one of the snails we have in our garden.

Firstly, remember the meaning of terracotta: baked earth?

Ancient terracotta figures were fired in kilns. They were made underneath open fires: clay that was exposed to heat. I liked the metaphor of it all: how the fires purify us and help us take a sturdier shape.

The temperature required is around 1,800 F to 2,400 F. When we convert this to Celsius, it’s 982.22 C to 1,315.56 C. I can’t imagine how hot that must be. My fingers can’t even hold in three seconds a hot ceramic cup containing just-made-coffee.

When we’re taken to the extremes or to our limits, it is when we are tested. There will be pain, there will be suffering, there will be excruciating burns and cuts and cries.

Will we break, or will we come out of the kiln stronger?

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…” (2 Corinthians 4:7-9)

Inspired by the fox from Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, one of my favorite books. I think I’ll name this little one Felipe.

Second, before trying to form what you intend to make, you must massage the clay first – knead it, soften it, so it can be better prepared to be more what it was meant to be. I likened it to our own selves, how the problems we face mold us and help us to be the people we were meant to be. There’s also that word: to be softer.

Cat, the Caterpillar Cat. 😉

The world pushes us to be as hard and emotionless as a rock, to be unshakeable, to be jagged, but it is softness and vulnerability that allow us to change, to adapt, for the better. They carry that quiet and transcendental understanding that although we came out of the oven stronger, it doesn’t mean that we’re hard, proud, and stubborn. Strong and hard are two different things.

Rocky, rockin’ his hair.

We can’t really transform when we’re a rigid square. It is only when we’re like clay, we’re like earth, that we can become.

Willy the Whale! I’m naming him after Willy, the captive killer whale from a movie my Mom and I loved as a child: Free Willy
Here’s a better angle of him!

Lastly, when you create a sculpture, no matter how small or large, you get a little protective over it, as if it were a child – your own child.

When checking the dragonfly I made, I held its body tenderly and moved it in the light to see it better, but I did it all so carefully, fearing that its wings would break, and I’d terribly hate to accidentally break a dragonfly’s wings, even if it were just made of clay.

Dorothy the dragonfly!

I’ve put effort, intention, love, and time into making them. I would never do anything brashly or handle them carelessly.

I am no potter.

But my heart lifts whenever my Dad calls me Arlipotter (You know where that came from).

Just for this past moment, in the last days of 2019, I let myself be a student, or rather, a child, who held clay for the first time. I felt free with no inhibitions, with my dirty hands forming clay creatures from red earth.

We shouldn’t be so caught up in being the ‘best,’ in putting talent and hard work on a pedestal and worshiping them and forgetting about the joy, laughter, and freedom that making art gives. I get sad sometimes when I compare what I’ve done with others, and I would feel guilty when I’m resting because there’s that tiny imagined voice of society saying that I should be working on something.

But then… I am reminded of the importance of just being, compared to the modern pace of things of doing, doing, doing.

“The only art we can create is that which authentically reflects who we are. Our soul is the material for all we create. Thus, to nurture the artisan soul, essence is far more important than talent.” (The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus)

This is what art is supposed to be:

To be free for every person to experience.

To learn from.

To try.

To seek refuge and healing in.

To simply enjoy.

To delight in its beauty.

To embrace what you created in all their imperfections.

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