Words by Elisabeth Fondell
“The thing about creating is that it allows you to enter into the tiny world of your creation and live in it, just briefly: in the glaze colors and the lines and the way it makes you feel, in the warmth of purpose and accomplishment, in the small feeling of wonder at your new companion. Hello, new friends. Mind if I stay awhile?” -Elisabeth Fondell
About five years ago, my mother suggested to our immediate family that we exchange only handmade gifts for Christmas. My family, made up of woodcarvers, jewelry makers, knitters, and artists, responded positively in agreement. But not me. I balked at the idea. “I’m not creative, this isn’t fair!” I remember saying, slightly annoyed at the suggestion and feeling entirely uninspired. Somehow I survived, though I don’t remember what I placed under the tree that year.
My creative journey began a few years later in March of 2014 with a wheel-throwing pottery class at Lillstreet Art Center in Chicago. My friend convinced me to join her even though I had zero experience with clay. At first, it was just a fun activity, something to do weekly with friends in the most casual way. Over wine and conversation, our class met for three hours every Monday night for ten weeks. Though I experienced a wide range of feelings during those ten weeks, I mainly dwelled in the realm of desperation and frustration. I lacked the form displayed by every other student and couldn’t center the clay consistently, much less at all. In truth, I was the worst in the class, by far. Yes, many of them had taken a class before and I hadn’t. But it was a new feeling for me, and it was hard.
Even when I managed to fire and glaze a vessel, it didn’t seem right to be proud or excited about my creations. I knew they weren’t well done, but they were mine, something made with my own two hands. Though that should be enough, somehow it wasn’t. I found myself constantly giving disclaimers when people looked at my pots – “I’ve only been doing it for 10 weeks!” or “I know these are terrible!”
Then one day a fellow classmate spoke some words that rang clear through the fog of my crushed spirit and shaped my mind space for the remainder of my practice: “The only thing you have to get over is yourself. Once you do that, the clay will respond.” And so, with a full acceptance of these words I carried on, week by week. I signed up for the next ten-week session, knowing I could certainly use the practice. Then I signed up for another ten weeks. And then another. And another. Two and a half years passed this way. The clay studio became my favorite place to go – a respite from my corporate job, a trusted community of new friends, a place of inspiration, and above all else, a space to evolve my perception and slowly, very slowly and quietly at first give myself the rather audacious, self-proclaimed title of “creative."
Three years later, I find myself in a place once thought unimaginable during those early weeks at Lillstreet: living in rural Minnesota and learning from a master potter. I spend my days in a beautiful space that’s seen decades of daily rhythms. The studio’s large windows bring the evolving seasons inside: sundogs signaling cold weather ahead, the changing trees, the growth of wildflowers, the spring green of corn emerging from the nearby fields.
As the weather outside changes, the studio remains a place of light, openness, and creativity. Each week, I learn a new form and spend hours trying to replicate the work done effortlessly by my teacher. Sometimes I feel the rush of excitement as a piece I make resembles his. Other times the frustration is overpowering as I struggle to create the correct shape of a wine glass, keep the dishing on my plates consistent, or make two colanders that look alike. When the discouragement is clear he gently reminds me, “I’ve been doing this for 45 years, Elisabeth. Practice. You just need more practice. I’ve made thousands of these.” These simple words keep me moving forward.
About six months ago, I started an Etsy shop to share my work with the world. It’s one thing to make pottery on your own. But it’s another thing entirely to tell the world that you think what you’ve made is worth money. Even now, with hundreds of pots on my shelves and compliments from many on my progress and form, I worry that my pottery isn’t good enough, that I should be better by now, that I’m foolish to think I can succeed as an artist.
But every time I think this way, I remind myself: look how far I’ve come.
We will never stop comparing ourselves to others – it’s human nature. So as I compare, as I criticize my work, as I judge my progress, so too shall I dwell in my creations in gratitude. I will take a moment to feel the accomplishment of creating a dinner plate, a lidded casserole, or a large vase, and let myself ignore the imperfections. I will celebrate where I am and what this season of life allows and above all else, I will keep moving forward. The clay is waiting.
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Elisabeth Fondell is a potter and writer currently residing on the family farm in rural Minnesota. After quitting her corporate job in May of 2016 to reclaim her life, she's been on a creative sabbatical filled with travel to illuminating places, thought provoking words, pottery, and the pursuit of wholeness.
Her pottery is available on Etsy: https://www.etsy.com/shop/elisabethafondell.