by Melissa Ostrom
Ernest painted in oils and either brushed as many details as he could fit into a diminutive space, like a village reflected in the curve of a cane handle, or exhausted over a large canvas one detail, like a blade of grass in all of its minutiae: the tear from a rabbit’s gnaw, dew’s glitter, the vein through the middle.
Eden supposed she liked his work. At least she didn’t dislike it. She’d seen his microscopic and telescopic approaches in the gallery owned by the university where he taught. He’d won some acclaim. She didn’t particularly care.
She was a potter, intent on creating objects intended for daily use in a home. Usually this imagined home included elements she missed or lacked, a parent who baked a favorite dessert, a child who trailed a favorite blanket on her way to the table. Her pot could find its way into these domestic scenes, and she liked to think it might become yet another favorite something for someone.
Mostly she sold on consignment. She taught, too, at the university, just twice a week, Tuesday and Thursday evenings, enough to augment her irregular earnings.
In the beginning of the fall semester, she greeted her new students. One was the artist professor. Ernest. While she reviewed the syllabus, he wandered from the worktable where the class had gathered. He smiled at the glass case that exhibited her pots. He smoothed his thin bangs across his forehead. The students’ eyes followed him. When she finished trying to recall their attention with her list of course expectations, she asked if anyone had questions. They didn’t know if they had questions. They hadn’t been listening.
However, Ernest, with a tap against the case, called across the studio, ‘Don’t you sculpt?’
‘No.’ Eden neatened the extra syllabi into a stack. ‘I work on the wheel.’
‘Ah.’ He returned to the stool he’d vacated earlier, gently kicked the floor and twirled a little so that he faced her directly. ‘Just functional pottery.’
‘Yes.’ She patted the syllabi against her thigh. ‘Dysfunctional pottery wouldn’t work so well for people.’
She was annoyed and confused. She hadn’t misrepresented her class in the course description. She hadn’t set out to trick students into thinking she taught the fundamentals of sculpting. Clearly, her class focused on wheelwork: wedging, centering, opening, raising walls, shaping, trimming, glazing and firing. Yet he made her feel fraudulent.
Throughout the semester, he deigned to watch her demos. But instead of taking his turn at the wheel, he spent the remainder of each class at a worktable, his tools carefully arranged around him, and attempted to teach himself what he could about sculpting. After she showed her students how to alter a lip for a pitcher, he experimented with impressing objects into a slab. The next class, after she demonstrated pulling a handle, he sidled back to his table to connect the slabs in an artful way.
Only once, during a workshop’s final minutes, when it was time to bag clay scraps and clean tools, did he try the wheel. Eden had the satisfaction of watching him struggle with a too-big lump of clay. It flayed in his stranglehold. It spewed red iron oxide droplets across his shirt. He looked like a cowboy wrangling a rabid steer. She turned to hide her grin.
He was never short on advice. He instructed her on how to use her own tools (for decorating purposes) and showed her photos from ceramists’ books that proved how pots – distorted, composited, employed as round canvases – could escape functionality. She smiled politely and got back to work.
Toward the semester’s end, he stood over her where she still sat, having just modeled a technique for handling an especially large portion of clay. Then he suggested, ‘You could cut right into that vase with a pointed slab and proclaim something violently poignant about the atrocities of modernity encroaching on the mundane rituals of everyday life.’ He went so far as to demonstrate what he meant. With a slapped-together sword of clay. Straight into her vase.
The students shuffled back.
‘See? Now that makes a statement.’
The Tuesday night they mixed glazes, he asked her out on a date.
Eden mutely stared at him. She thought about the violence with which a circumstance can encroach on her life’s peaceful rituals. But she didn’t tell him off. Rather, she invited him to meet her here on Friday, at eight o’clock, when she planned to start the glaze firing.
They met by the gas kiln. It was large, a room in itself, domed and bricked. Its interior held shelves of imperfect work. It would take years for the students to produce anything that didn’t possess the unevenness of a kindergarten project. Years. She told him this. She was defending the years she, herself, had committed to the learning, the practice. She was giving him a last chance.
He snorted a laugh then stepped into the kiln to better examine the peep hole where she kept the small cone that would bend in accordance to the heat.
The next semester, she taught her evening class. But one night in her own studio, she wedged an incredible amount of clay, a kind especially laden with grog. It was not a throwing body. Its substantial structure made it a sculpting medium. She threw it on the wheel anyway, ignoring how its grog of hard fired bits cut into her hands. She made this pot big, enormous actually, until she had to stand on her stool to finish the neck and flare its inch-thick lip with her piece of wet chamois. When it was done, her arms ached, and her palms felt crucified. But after she stepped off the stool, she took in her work.
It was the grandest pot she’d ever made, large enough to collect a year’s worth of rainwater, hold a bacchanalian feast, envelop, like a womb, a grown man.
– Melissa Ostrom lives in rural Western New York with her husband and children. She teaches English at a community college, serves as a public school curriculum consultant and writes whenever and however much her four year old and six year old let her.