Heather Chapman first made pottery as a girl in Wilkes County, finger-punching bowls in a local program.
She looked forward to graduating from hand work to throwing pieces on a potter’s wheel, Chapman said, but her family moved away before that day came. In the ensuing years, she held on to the dream of learning to use the wheel but never could find the time or opportunity.
Then, Chapman moved to Smithfield last September and began looking into community programs. When she saw a beginning wheel-throwing class on the list, she could hardly believe her eyes.
On Tuesday, Chapman finally got to try her had at a potter’s wheel alongside two other first-time students at the Smithfield Recreation and Aquatics Center.
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Chapman said she was a little nervous at first, but before long, she had thrown two bowls and could hardly contain her joy as she began work on a third piece.
“I am thrilled to pieces,” she said. “I’ve been wanting to get on the wheel since I was a teenager, and I haven’t had a chance until now.
“I actually had butterflies in my stomach, which was weird, but it’s a delight.”
Before turning her students loose on the wheels, instructor Kristin Sasser started the class with some directions and a demonstration. Sasser has been playing with pottery for about 20 years, she said, and it takes practice and persistence to master the technique.
“It can be quite frustrating for beginners,” she said. “Eventually you’re able to respond to the clay, and the clay responds to you.”
Pottery also requires a good deal of patience, Sasser said, and throwing the clay is only the first step in the process. Next the piece needs time to dry slowly and evenly before going into the kiln for a firing at 2,200 degrees. After that, a piece must be glazed and fired a second time before it’s finished. Only SRAC staff may use the kiln, so potters leave their work on shelves and wait for someone to fire a batch of pottery.
The process lasts about two weeks, and Sasser said a lot can go wrong along the way – from cracking and breaking because of uneven drying to more violent catastrophes, such as melting or exploding in the kiln.
“You don’t get attached to a piece until it comes out of the kiln,” she said.
After completing the six-week class, Sasser said, students who want to continue can purchase a pottery studio pass. Those cost $100 for six months and grant access to the wheels during the SRAC’s regular hours, plus kiln and glazing services.
The SRAC also offers classes on Thursdays that teach making pottery by hand. Because the center gets very busy during the summer months, no new pottery classes will begin until September.
After taking the hand-building class, Kathy Lassiter of Four Oaks said she decided to move on to wheel throwing. A few bowls into her first session, Lassiter said she had already taken a liking to the process.
“I like to play with learning how to do anything, so it’s fun,” she said. “I haven’t got any particular goals; just learn how to make a few pieces.”
Tasha Sherman of Four Oaks asked for the pottery lessons as an early Mother’s Day gift. Sherman felt some nerves coming into the class, she said, but started to relax after Lassiter helped her put things into perspective.
“As Ms. Kathy keeps telling me, it’s just clay,” she said.