by Gena Mavuli
I didn’t realize just how filthy it could be. After three hours of work, mud covered everything, pants, clothes, glasses. In the dark of night, I walked out of the pottery studio wearing streaks of mud that might look like ‘70s make-up, flames streaking from the eyes towards the ears and sky.
A robust life that engaged my body more than my head and laptop—that was the silent longing driving my entry into ceramics in my mid-thirties. During the day I was miserable. Midlife was so close, yet the career path I was on seemed deeply uninspired and full of land mines. I had a job with a good title at a nonprofit, seeming like a solid step forward yet rife with insane personalities and hidden local politics. I was stuck between the optimistic potential and the stark reality of this role.
At the same time the sense of my forties was both expansive and open like a field, full of potential and ready to be filled.
The thick mess of clay on one’s hands takes some getting used to in this sterile world we often prefer. Sanitize, bleach, mop, wash our children’s clothes or pajamas when they’ve been worn just once. Computer-based jobs, heady project management. Meetings, structures, marketing, social media—we spend our days in our heads, communicating with robots, and utterly disconnected from our bodies. Our hearts and souls hardly have a chance.
Imagine if it weren’t ludicrous to believe that you could make a meaningful living as an artist. What if career counselors taught that the options for a life well lived stretched beyond the practical “marketable” skills, if they believed that corporate jobs weren’t better? What if society didn’t sell the idea of a perfect house, many children, and 9–5 dreams? Perhaps we would know that reliability and extra-clean, folded toddler clothes are a farce. Maybe we would be stretched beyond thinking of where we could always get a job. Maybe we would design the society, social systems, and cultural imagination that valued creative and happy people as much as 401Ks, real estate value, and practicality.
What if we didn’t relegate our passions into weekend hobbies, given just a few hours a week of attention? What if we translated them into a livelihood, and we saw them represented in vibrant local magazines and newspapers: more people who built things with their hands; more people finding ways to navigate this world led by their hearts instead of their bank accounts; more people willing to trade a bit of money and security for more beauty and passion.
The mess begetting a beautiful hand-made structure drew me in quickly. As soon as I had a taste of the wet ball of clay rising up into a round vessel, I was hooked. It was so drastically different from the daily life of complicated relationships in non-profit management and the basics of child rearing. Something physical, tangible, a bit magical and insanely different from anything I’d done or from the way I’d lived my life thus far. Mud into a vessel, water into wine.
Bare hands, motorized wheels complete with speed pedals, spread legs, sharp tools, and powdered chemicals. Raw and alive, it is everything primal that we crave when the noise of the world quiets down. It’s the yowling response to an inner urge. There’s no room for argument—it is or it isn’t, and no other opinion matters unless I want it to. It’s the ugliest and most complicated of processes necessary to create beauty.
Ceramics has grown exponentially in the last decade, with hobby potters developing around the globe at rapid rates. Thanks to social media, many have carved out a nice living selling their stylized mugs for niche tastes. During the pandemic, community studio members set up their own home studios and drove up demand on kilns such that Skutt, the popular manufacturer, had a five-month waiting list. Kilns are notoriously expensive to buy and install, requiring a roughly $5000 investment—wheel, clay, and glazes notwithstanding. People have been getting serious.
The equipment is one huge part of the buy-in, but the mindset and love of process is even more vital. I once met a lady so very excited about ceramics, yet she could not return after the first few classes. The sustained mud-on-hand sensation proved too much for her. She simply couldn’t be that messy; she couldn’t move beyond the thick and wet coating, no matter the result, no matter the outcome. It was a cost she wasn’t willing to pay. When I suggested the significantly tidier avenue of hand-building, she gave a vague “maybe,” but we both seemed to know she wouldn’t be back. Some things push people too far beyond their boundaries, and some boundaries are just too strong.
The mess before the masterpiece—it’s what so many of us fear. Usually because we don’t know what the structure will be. Sure, we want an awesome life complete with a satisfying job, dynamic and loving partner, perfect children. But are we willing to leave mediocrity for it? Are we willing to leave the bloody but ok-enough job? Are we willing to fail first? To make a few wrong turns?
Perhaps we want to make a tall vase, but so many things can get in the way of that. Perhaps we didn’t wedge as well as we’d thought and there’s an air bubble that throws off one of the first pulls. As we go to shape the shoulders we knock it off center, unable to regroup despite our efforts. Or maybe there’s a loud bang in the street that startles us and jolts our careful hands as we’re trimming and the foot has a huge gauge. External forces so often throw us off course.
Maybe we’ve thrown the perfect piece, yet in the final stage we leave the glaze too thick and it runs off the pot in the kiln. Worse still, through no fault of our own, our pot is ruined in the final fire because of someone else’s dripping glaze from a shelf above. Or whoever is unloading the kiln drops the pot when putting it on the shelf.
Some people want the guarantee of the outcome before they’re willing to be free enough to be ruined. If I know I’ll get a better job soon, I’ll tell off my boss and quit this miserable place. If I know I’ll find my dream man, I’ll leave my detached husband. If the mess is manageable, if the costs aren’t too high, if I can maintain some control. If I know the people around me won’t negatively affect my success, won’t put up roadblocks, maybe then the mess is worth it. That type of thinking means very few messes will ever even begin, very few lives will ever get changed.
The longer I live, heck, the longer I do anything at all, the more I realize that the best things in life follow the biggest messes. This metaphor is what brings us back to art, to sport, to new careers, to marriage, to divorce, to spontaneous moves, or new inner urges. Humans like the struggle, the journey, more than the short-lived satisfaction of achievement—any married couple can vouch for that. Enjoying fruit of one’s labor is short-lived peace; we need more challenges, more tests of ourselves, we need to change, grow, evolve. What if I picked up a new skill, a new language, a new city of residence, then how would my life expand? What new adventures would I have? It’d be thick with challenge at first, and then eventually a new form of life would emerge. Earth into vessel, water into wine.
Early in my pottery days, my then goal was to build a teapot. I’d sneak to the studio after work, sometimes with muddy farm boots still on; from slaughter to the pursuit of elegance. The components are tricky beyond throwing a well-shaped pot, adding rims and designing a lid that fits. The cohesion of the pot, from handle to lid and spout, all need to speak to one another in style, size, and shape. The intricacies of getting the lid to fit, the handle centered, the spout sliced at the right angle and pouring well continue to challenge me. The mess was constant and varied. Not just muddy hands, but dry trimming pieces littered around the studio. Discarded spout and handle options, carving and slicing tools, a bucket of water to keep clay moist and pliable. The teapot remained elusive.
In the beginning I thought I just needed a hobby to escape from the non-profit drama, something that wasn’t work or kids. Something truly my own. Thankfully, at the time I didn’t know the mess that would come, just how dirty and sticky life would get before it settled into something more smooth and rhythmic. Before there was something that I got to control, that measured my abilities in such a tangible way.
Eventually the stark contrast between my pursuit of beautiful pots with the job at the nonprofit became impossible to ignore. In one instance there was immense creative joy, in the other I was constantly butting up against impenetrable walls. I knew I couldn’t go on like this, and once I made that realization, the job dissolved unspectacularly just a month before my 40th birthday. It was behind me. Suddenly I was able to walk into my forties with open space in which to expand and time to regularly work with my hands.
With all of my newfound freedom, I set a goal to build that pinnacle-project that had been getting me stuck earlier—a teapot. The combination of a variety of skills that considers a range of factors including matching handle and spout size and angles. First the round body, high belly with a well-trimmed foot. Then the lid, practicing styles with several sugar-jars. Handle thickness, curve to support the weight. Now that I was free from non-profit drama, the teapot came together smoothly and quickly.
Soon thereafter, I let myself dream and conceived of a community art studio in my neighborhood. With concrete and deliberate steps, the dream slowly became reality. I leased the space, kitted it out, marketed its programs—all without ceramics and focusing on other mediums. I should have known by then that pirouetting around what I really want never works out in the end.
I opened the studio and closed it six weeks later thanks to COVID-19. Five months after that with the studio crawling along under capacity restrictions, I woke up one morning with the cliché “why not me?” and knew that I needed to buy some wheels and add ceramics to the studio offerings. Invest. It was instinct with a bit of justification and experimentation. Spend money when it feels scarce. Defy odds, put goodness out there when so little is visible.
If I knew how mud would grow to encompass my life, would I have sunken my hands deep into that bucket years ago? Who asks for so much trouble? For so much drama? For so much mess? Why couldn’t this stay as a nice little side hobby, as most potters have?
I realized years ago that in spite of my ability to juggle and coordinate, I really have the bandwidth for only two major areas in my life. Work and family are the two that are dominating in this phase. Loving on my kids is a non-negotiable daily requirement. So, if I have work, then I don’t have time for a hobby. Which means, the hobby takes center stage and becomes my work.
It is not how I’ve ever planned it, indeed so many times I’ve tried to worm my way out of this pattern and “just get a normal job.” But the mythical normal job, something I’ve heard about in rumors and casual conversations, hasn’t been in the cards for me. There’s usually a murky period that precludes a wonderful new stage, a swamp to wade through before the clear field of warm sunshine. Coming to accept my reality, that ebb and flow, has been the goal of my midlife.
I now have seven more wheels, a kiln, 1000-plus pounds of clay, glazes, and all the fixins’ of a busy studio to manage in the hardest of times. Ironically, I find it hard to get enough time to quietly throw and dive back into the mess that led me here, but when I do, I hear that quiet inner whisper, ever so soft, saying “yeeessss, keep going.” Steady on.
Now when I dress for work, it’s in jeans, and I put on a nice sweater that I inevitably take off as soon as I get in, replaced by a clay-caked apron. Hauling 50-pound bags of clay, wedging large rolls of reclaimed clay until my shoulders are slightly sore and building more muscle. Mid-40s and with young children is an odd time of life to get a physical job and it’s exhilarating. I mix the powder of glaze materials with ease now, can usually tell the right thickness with my finger alone. On the wheel I center the clay, pull up the walls, compress the base, and then get busy shaping the belly and final form. Hands wet and caked with mud, my midlife is a getting a shape of its own. This mess is an enormous improvement on the non-profit world I left. Still filthy with complications and mud, I’ve become comfortable with this chaos of my own making. In fact, I’ve fallen in love with it.
Gena Mavuli is a writer, potter, and owner of Create: Art in Community. She holds a B.A. from University of Massachusetts in Amherst, and an M.A. from the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Gena resides in Boston, Massachusetts with her family, but her mind enjoys 1000 lives in 1000 different locales each night.