2020 Word of the Year: Resilience

Creating with clay is an inherently resilient process; it requires our patience and persistence until we deliver it into the fire where it withstands and eventually resolves to be transfigured by immense heat. Clay echoes and reminds us of the innate resilience of human beings—that we are capable of adapting and persevering through great stresses. Making with clay has also served many as more than just a metaphor during these difficult times, it has supported some as an absorber of stress, and has prompted many others to recall and cling to another essential facet of our humanity: creating.

Sheila Murray, working in her home clay set-up for a Clay-Along Class.

We asked some of NCC’s students about their journey with clay this year, and if and how it has changed since the pandemic began. Long-time student Amy Boland has not returned to in- person learning, but has taken up the opportunity and challenge to start a practice from home with Clay-Along Virtual Classes. She says of her transition to handbuilding, “Pre-COVID, I’d not been very interested in handbuilding; now the joke is on me—I’ve grown to enjoy the physicality of handbuilding techniques, to appreciate the variations in thickness and texture that aren’t achievable on the wheel, and to like the handbuilt pots I’m making. I’ve lately found that it’s possible to integrate favorite techniques I learned in the studio with the new things I’m learning over Zoom.”

Jean Witson, another Clay-Along student, was also a little hesitant to embrace a new way of making initially, but was taken by surprise when she found a remodeled way to do clay community. “I was grateful for the ability to be creative and interact with other creative people in my virtual class while I was isolated at home. Surprisingly, we created a community among the participants as we learned together, discussed our ideas, shared our challenges and watched each other’s progress. This has been particularly satisfying to me in a time when my personal interactions are more limited than usual.”

Both Amy and Jean concluded their comments by dwelling on the unexpected and prevailing benefits of their Clay-Along experience. Amy shared that, “Clay-Along has made it possible for me to use this isolated time to keep growing and changing as a craftsperson.” Jean shared, “Learning the [new] techniques to do so became an enjoyable means to an end. It has been a very freeing experience and I’ve loved every minute of it.”

As Clay-Along classes continued to open new doors, NCC also re-opened its physical doors, welcoming students back into the studios beginning in July. These students encountered changes of their own, not only because of a much more regulated setting, but in the role that clay evolved to serve. Handbuilding student, Marty Rehkamp reflected on her journey with clay this year, “The feel of clay—being able to put my hands in it was anxiety reducing. I definitely felt it had a more therapeutic quality than usual, rather than pure creation or recreation. To focus on an idea and to try and execute it was a wonderful diversion from the outside world. To have conversations with friends that were driven about creating art has buoyed my spirits and sustained me this year.”

Robin Polenchek safely masked in the NCC handbuilding studio.

Veronica Torres recently began taking classes at NCC and attested to a similar experience about the supportive effect of working with clay, “[It] is a meditative practice that teaches patience and mitigates expectation—an important skill during these uncertain times. It is a reflective and solitary work that molds my character as much as I try to mold the clay into a shape. I am grateful to be able to focus my energy and divert my attention from all the uncertainty this year has brought into developing my skills and craft.”

Another NCC student commented optimistically about their experience jumping back into clay during the pandemic, “This year was actually my first year back since college—over 10 years ago. I was searching for a distraction and something to challenge me. I’ve actually had more time to work on my skill set. This last class I created my first teapot and I look forward to continuing to challenge myself to create.”

The events of this year have also weighed heavily on creative prowess for many and changed the way we approach making. Marty Rehkamp felt this impact, yet inspiringly, worked to transform her experience, embracing an adjusted process that made creating during hard times more approachable. Marty says, “I am dealing with low levels of anxiety from the daily news and national events and this has put a damper on my bigger creative self, [but] I could not let this crazy, depressing time we are living through take away one of the most meaningful things I do. I worked on smaller forms I could repeat well and tinkered with bigger ideas that I tucked into the back of mind for later.”

To say this year has been far from simple is a gross understatement. Despite the mass changes, it has been a comforting sight to see human resilience flourishing in the form of pots rotating through the kilns in our studios, reminding us that creativity and making new things is a beautiful and crucial distinction of humanity, the thing that moves us forward. An NCC student of seven years, Mike Monsor, expresses the cornerstone of his approach to clay, and an eloquent summary of a medium that is enduring as the people who create with it. He writes, “The search for the perfect curve and proportion is timeless… The feeling of clay forming in my hands is timeless…”