Ceramics Club sculpts spaces for de-stressing

Above, participants in Ceramics Club work on their projects. Courtesy of Jane McLeod.

For Ceramics Club crafters Jane McLeod ’20 and Sasha Ekman ’22, time does not exist in the new ceramics studio below Noyes. The studio serves as a retreat from the frenzy of Vassar life. “You lose track of time when you’re focusing on your art that you’re creating,” said Ekman who, along with McLeod, is a member of the Ceramics Club. “ It’s very calming. I’m alone. There’s no one around me. I just get to listen to my music and build my art.”

Although Ceramics Club has been around Vassar for a while, the studio in Noyes’ basement is only a year and a half old. “For a long time, the Ceramics Club was basically in the Main MPR,” said McLeod. “And they used ‘easy baked’ clay because that’s kind of all that we had access to.” This type of clay could only be used to make small crafts, such as animal figurines or little food items. Only when members Jocelyn Dryfoos ’21, Claire Walker ’21 and Calvin Scannell ’21 talked to President Bradley did the club manage to receive the funds for building the studio. Later, the three also met with Dean Alamo, people from the Residential Life office, as well as workers for electricity and buildings and grounds. The space was built during the 2018-19 winter break.

The Ceramics Club has no formal meeting times; instead, the studio is open every day for two to four hours. Each member of the club’s executive board—including McLeod and Ekman—maintains the studio space and offers assistance to anyone who requests help on their crafts. “Basically, anyone here can go and check out the studio,” McLeod summarized. “Students, faculty, staff.”

McLeod has worked with ceramics since high school, but only recently did she learn the tricky and rewarding trade of running a studio. After coming to Vassar, McLeod discovered Fall Kill Clay Works, a ceramics studio in Poughkeepsie for which she now volunteers. “There’s a lot of work that goes into running a studio, a real studio,” she said, “like maintenance stuff, cleaning, materials that we need to buy and just like getting [everyone] on the same page [as] ours.”

The club has been hosting Saturday workshops as a way to foster interest in those wanting to learn about ceramics. Unlike regular hours at the studio, where only one member of the executive board supervises, workshops feature more executive members to assist with the workshop’s projects. Generally, executive members are hands-off during their regular hours, only assisting when requested. These workshops, however, serve as lessons on different forms of ceramics such making mugs, flasks and salad bowls. The interaction within these workshops is what makes them so engaging, as workshop attendees can simultaneously learn how to mold clay while forming connections with the club members.

The craft of ceramics, as Ekman later noted, requires a high level of dexterity in the creative process. There are learning steps, she explained, “And if you miss those steps, then things can go wrong.”

Despite the very methodical nature of the craft, McLeod described ceramics as physical. “Throwing [clay] on the wheel is very much like a grounding exercise just for myself,” she said. “Like you have to center the clay on the wheel. And in order to do that you have to be centered yourself. Your core has to be in alignment with your legs and your arms.” Such a description evokes the image of Buddha statues, their position balanced and their composure centered in mediation.

In line with this sentiment, Ekman believes a connection between body and craft elicits an appreciation for the art made. Part of what makes ceramics beautiful is the ability to interact with the finished product. For example, when a painter creates a painting, the brush separates the artist from the art, never allowing the painter to touch their piece. But ceramics requires a connection between the sculptor and their work. Ekman emphasized, “The whole thing with ceramics—when you pick it up, it’s supposed to be light.” Plates, mugs, bowls—all these crafts are material, and the craftsmanship can be felt within one’s fingertips. The smooth edges or bumpy patterns are touchable, a physical of the care and concentration put into creating the art.

Because doing ceramics requires so much concentration, members described the club as an outlet for de-stressing. “In life, but especially at Vassar, sometimes I just forget to breathe,” McLeod said. “So much is happening: You’re overwhelmed with work, with other activities—life, family, friends, etc. And for me, to go into the studio and to just take some time to create something reminds me to breathe and take a step back.” Creating with your hands with a heavy self-centered focus lets many ceramics club members foster mindfulness.

The club’s coil workshop last week was no different in focus; it served as a space for attendees to wind down while looping strings of clay. “It didn’t necessarily seem like [de-stressing] in the like the normal way you kind of think of it, like maybe meditation,” Ekman remembered. “But it was de-stressing in that we were all communicating with each other and focusing on the art and each other. So we put all of the work and excess stressors that we had in our lives outside of the space.” The club also has a set of certain boundaries towards communication in the studio, such as avoiding stressful topics like schoolwork. This allows the club’s space to be isolated from the hecticness of daily life.

Another de-stressing event will take place this Friday, Feb. 28, in collaboration with SAVP. This event is much like their typical workshops, but also has an emphasis on allowing people in the SAVP office to de-stress as well.

For ceramics beginners who may want to take advantage of the club’s space and partake in mindful sculpting, Ekman and McLeod suggest coming in without a project in mind. Ceramics is unpredictable, and for those new to clay, it is important to focus on the process rather than the result. “You’re gonna mess up,” Ekman said. “There are certain right ways to do things—that doesn’t mean that you can’t change them a little bit, but there are certain basic skills that you should try and learn and will help you. Once you have that foundation, you can kind of go off the rails.” For those seeking to crack out of the mold of academic life, the kiln and wheels are waiting at the Noyes basement.

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