My Misshapen Pottery Sets Are Perfect Even When They’re Not
How learning how to make bowls and plates gave me freedom to buy my own.
Few things bring me more joy than finely crafted tableware. Growing up, I never understood why my mother had a china cabinet stuffed with shiny plates we seldom used. But for the past few years, I’ve loved these beautiful objects from afar, gazing at storefronts that boasted handmade ceramic bowls and plates. I never felt like it was for me until I began making my own.
I first began thinking about the thrill of tableware when I thrifted my first set of dishes — which were IKEA plates with fossilized fork marks embedded in the white glaze — from the 14th Street Goodwill in Manhattan, after a long day of dorm shopping with my roommate. We couldn’t afford the playful, whimsical bowls from Anthropologie that evoked a sense of dinner party glamour and adulthood. Still, the IKEA plates were trusty and had a good heft to them. We never burned our hands on the edge of the plates after microwaving them, and we never broke a single one despite dropping them several times. I ended up gaining custody of the plate set when my roommate and I split ways two years later.
At my next place, I kept the plates in rotation, along with four beige porcelain bowls (two big, two small) that I purchased from Muji. Finally an upgrade. I still played around with the idea of a new set, something trendy and matching, but it never happened. It felt like another big purchase I couldn’t justify. It was during this time that my interest in handmade pottery began to skyrocket. No matter where I went, pottery followed me. I noticed when restaurants and coffee shops had their own special line of dinnerware and admired how the shape of the pottery accentuated the meals. I pined after the finger nail-like bowls at O Cafe, the earth-toned bowls of various sizes at Her Name is Han, and the tan plates with a sharp ridge at Di and Di. Each plate and bowl felt like an extension of the place, of the minds behind the meals, of the feeling that the meals kindled when eating with friends. If that were true, then what could be more representative than bowls I made with my own two hands? I remembered how back in high school, I used to love handbuilding vases with clay in art class. Maybe making my own dinnerware could be a solution to quench my desire.
After months of obsessive deliberating, I finally joined a local pottery studio in May as a birthday gift to myself. Naturally, because of the pandemic, the class was learning how to handbuild through Zoom at first. I lugged 25 pounds of clay every few weeks to my boyfriend’s apartment, where I had been quarantining. Slowly, I relearned the techniques I vaguely remembered from art class. I made little pinch pots and bowls in the shape of strawberries, but nothing to the degree I was envisioning. You see, handbuilding, while extremely satisfying, isn’t meant for making identical sets. I was hoping to make symmetrical bowls, but ended up with mishap after mishap.
And it wasn’t until late July that I got access to a wheel, which I had never used before. Woof, let me tell you: That shit is hard. Throwing clay on a wheel always seemed so effortless, but it’s not. The push and pull of the clay combined with the extremely physical aspects of throwing is hard for the uninitiated. First, you have to center the clay and then apply counter-pressure to get it to the shape you want. At any moment, your piece can collapse, tear, or wobble into oblivion. With time, I learned that sometimes the clay just wants to be what it wants to be. Not everything can be exactly what you hope for, but you can try. Even if the piece survives the first firing in the kiln, glazing can bring unexpected results (those strawberry bowls I made earlier became unmitigated disasters). But throwing became my way of letting go my desire for perfection; even the most perfect piece of pottery will have echoes of mistakes. But those mistakes are what make it mine.
While I feel tons more comfortable throwing now, I wouldn’t say that I am in any place to make the handmade dinnerware set of my dreams. I don’t even know what that set would look like. I’m still trying to find my own voice with my pottery, exploring different shapes and glazes. I’m not a great ceramicist and that’s okay. The bright side? I finally feel free to invest in a set of handmade dinnerware that reflects who I am. I don’t need to be a dinner party-loving adult or a restaurant owner, and I certainly don’t need to make my own in order to justify the purchase. I can enjoy the beauty, appreciate the labor, and express myself — all through a set of bowls.