Jen­nifer Goes

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[To Things & Does Stuff] Jen­nifer Levin tries her hand at ce­ram­ics

The last time I made some­thing out of clay was 32 years ago, at sum­mer camp, so I was pretty much go­ing in fresh for my foray into ce­ram­ics at Santa Fe Clay, which is a much larger fa­cil­ity than it ap­pears to be from the out­side. Santa Fe Clay is lo­cated in the Rai­l­yard, across the train tracks from the Farm­ers Mar­ket, where it has been since 1974. I en­tered through the sup­ply shop and cut through the gallery ex­hi­bi­tion space to the stu­dio, where I was to par­tic­i­pate in a Tues­day-af­ter­noon class called “The Ex­pres­sive Fig­ure,” taught by Ralph Scala, who is also the stu­dio man­ager. I have an art-school back­ground that fo­cused mostly on paint­ing, and I have al­ways been cu­ri­ously hope­less at mak­ing three-di­men­sional ob­jects, so I was daunted. But the feel of Santa Fe Clay put me at ease. Fin­ished and un­fin­ished pieces clut­tered the shelves of the stu­dio, which was bright with sun­light and bustling with ac­tiv­ity. Yet the mood was mel­low and muted — which might be the ef­fect of ev­ery­thing be­ing coated in a layer of clay dust. Our as­sign­ment for the day was to work on heads. The rest of the stu­dents were a few ses­sions into a seven-week course, and this was their sec­ond time with this body part, so I was a lit­tle be­hind. Luck­ily my pinch-pot skills have not suf­fered over the years, so I was able to catch up. Guided by Scala, I made one pot for the top half of the head and one for the bot­tom, and then at­tached them to­gether be­fore cre­at­ing a neck-hole through which to stick my fingers, so that I could sup­port the clay while sculpt­ing fa­cial fea­tures. Scala had each of us write down an emo­tion or emo­tional state that would serve as in­spi­ra­tion. Peo­ple wrote things like “peace­ful,” “tired,” and “anx­ious.” I’d been hav­ing a re­cent bout of in­som­nia, so I went with “night ter­rors.” He said the goal of the class was not to sculpt some­thing en­tirely re­al­is­tic but to fo­cus on ges­ture and emo­tion, us­ing ex­ag­ger­ated ex­pres­sions and de­tails if we wanted. That said, I had a lot of trouble know­ing where a nose goes on the face, and my un­der­stand­ing of lips is par­tial at best. I didn’t even at­tempt to fig­ure out ears. “But you’re not afraid of the clay,” Scala told me. “You jumped right in. And you def­i­nitely cap­tured night ter­rors.” All of the stu­dents in the class were fe­male, and most were of re­tire­ment age, which is sim­i­lar to the de­mo­graphic that pop­u­lates the other af­ter­noon classes. One of the stu­dents, MacKen­zie Wendler, is a work­ing artist in her twen­ties with years of ce­ram­ics ex­pe­ri­ence, but many of the peo­ple I met had never done any art at all be­fore trying their hand at Santa Fe Clay — and now they are hooked, tak­ing classes ev­ery ses­sion in or­der to use the stu­dio and so­cial­ize with one an­other. For un­der $300, you get seven three-hour classes, clay, and un­lim­ited stu­dio time. Santa Fe Clay is a full-ser­vice

fa­cil­ity, with classes for teens, week­end work­shops, open stu­dio use, and pri­vate stu­dio rental, as well as their pop­u­lar sum­mer work­shops — Mon­day-to-Fri­day full-day cour­ses with in­struc­tors from in­side and out­side New Mex­ico.

Stu­dents come from out of town as well. One of my class­mates, Rhonda Baker, lives in Canada but has been spending win­ters in Santa Fe in or­der to hike, do yoga, and take ce­ram­ics classes. Marian An­der­son — “like the singer!” every­one told me — is Santa Fe Clay’s old­est artist and was us­ing the stu­dio dur­ing the Ex­pres­sive Fig­ure class. An­der­son is ninety-six and full of vim and vigor. She skied un­til she was eighty-nine, she said. She had a ca­reer in graphic de­sign and con­sid­ered her­self a sculp­tor, but she didn’t turn into a pot­ter un­til much later in life. She lives in Michi­gan and, like Baker, win­ters at Santa Fe Clay.

At my sec­ond class, we made hands. Scala had us sculpt four fingers and a thumb, adding de­tails like fin­ger­nails and ten­dons, fol­lowed by an egg-shape that we pinched out and turned into the hand proper. You can look at your own hands for ref­er­ence as you go, but at­tach­ing the fingers is a known chal­lenge be­cause they break eas­ily. One of mine cracked off at the sec­ond knuckle, and I had to reat­tach it with slip, which is a mix­ture of wa­ter and clay. It’s one of the few ce­ram­ics vo­cab­u­lary words with which I am fa­mil­iar. Scala, who has been work­ing in the medium since the 1990s, rat­tles off ter­mi­nol­ogy about style and tech­nique with the ease of a na­tive speaker, mak­ing me want to learn a lot more about glazes, for in­stance. My heads from the first week had been fired in the kiln, so af­ter I fin­ished with my hand, I went about glaz­ing my heads, know­ing I had no idea what the fin­ished prod­uct would look like be­cause glazes of­ten go on as one color and come out of the kiln look­ing com­pletely dif­fer­ent. The only way to learn is to try some­thing and see what hap­pens, and then in­cor­po­rate your ex­pe­ri­ence into your next at­tempt. (One of my fin­ished pieces turned out look­ing al­most like rusted pewter, while the other is shiny with in­digo hues. Both have the heft of stone, which is in­cred­i­bly sat­is­fy­ing.)

An ar­ray of per­sonal styles emerged from the clay around me in the Ex­pres­sive Fig­ure class, from small and ex­cru­ci­at­ingly life­like to sprawl­ing and ges­tu­ral, festooned with birds. Clay is cold, which I like, and work­ing with it is both ab­sorb­ing and med­i­ta­tive. Be­ing at Santa Fe Clay struck me as the per­fect com­bi­na­tion of art school and sum­mer camp. Every­one was hav­ing fun — with a sense of pur­pose. I would love to go back and make more heads. If I do, I will bring a mir­ror to look in so that I can give them some ears.

Santa Fe Clay is lo­cated at 545 Camino de la Fa­milia, 505-984-1122. For more in­for­ma­tion about classes, stu­dio options, and gallery ex­hi­bi­tions, visit www.santafe­clay.com.

“But you’re not afraid of the clay,” teacher Ralph Scala told me. “You jumped right in. And you def­i­nitely cap­tured night ter­rors.”

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