The Magic of Clay

By Linda Jordan

Jenna slapped the ball of stiff stoneware clay on her table, warming it and kneading it like bread, feeling the firmness. She dipped her left hand in the bowl of cold water and spread the wetness onto the clay, making it looser and more pliable.

Her studio, out in the garden, was cold this afternoon. And dark. The sky covered with thick gray clouds made the room feel like dusk. She went over to the light switch and flipped it on with her elbow.

It felt cold even through the sweatpants and flannel shirt she wore. Cooler in here even than outside, hence the open door. She couldn’t bear to turn the heat on yet. To admit summer was over even though it was nearing the end of September.

Jonathon had died a year ago December. They’d been together nearly all of their adult lives. She was dreading the coming darkness of winter. The cold and the loneliness. In summer, at least, she stood and chatted over the fence with her neighbors, who loved to garden. This winter there would be only work at the library. Jenna wasn’t sure she’d be able to hold herself together. Her days all seemed the same, with nothing to look forward to, no hope for the future being different.

The small building was mostly bare and unfinished inside. Jonathon had wired it and put up sheetrock over the insulation, but never gotten any further. The floor was still gray cement except for the thick black mat she stood on. Her potter’s wheel sat in one corner and a small kiln in another. Her table and the metal racks of things she’d made filled the rest of the studio. The south wall was entirely window and door, with windows on the west and east side as well.

The effect was of a work in progress, functional, but not pretty or comfortable. She’d always meant to paint the inside in bright colors to liven it up. The studio smelled earthy from all the clay.

Outside the open door, a tree frog croaked. The rains had returned and summer was gone. The garden was looking as tired and worn as she felt. She sighed, not ready for another wet, cold winter. She hadn’t soaked up enough sunshine this summer to offset the darkness.

It wasn’t quite a year yet since Jonathon had died in the car accident. She’d returned to work at the library, out of financial necessity, and quite simply the need to be around people.

She went back to the chunk of clay, working it and wondering what it needed to be. It was the last piece of this brick. Not enough to make a vase or bowl.

Jenna glanced up at the shelves filled with ornamental vases, bowls, plates and mugs. Nearly all of them glazed and fired. Just waiting to be packed up.

To combat her loneliness, she’d devised a plan. This fall she’d decided to be in the local holiday fairs. That would force her to get out and be around people and had the bonus of seeing if she could make her hobby pay for itself. She could no longer afford the luxury of buying clay and glazes on a whim.

She should open an Etsy store and she needed her own website and business cards, but couldn’t bring herself to deal with any of that yet.

So she just made more things. It was satisfying. Beneath her fingers a small horse began to take shape. She’d spent last weekend with her sister Janice and her husband Mark at their home in the country, trying not to remember all the wonderful times she and Jonathon had spent there, playing cards, drinking wine and having marvelous conversations.

The neighbors had horses and Jenna had spent a fair amount of time walking around outside and leaning over the fence, watching the horses. The way they moved with such grace and power. The wind whipping through their manes and tails. The scent of dry dust in her nose.

This would need to be raku fired. She scooped some sand out of a nearby tin and worked it into the clay. She hadn’t done any raku in years. That would be fun.

As Jenna shaped the muscular legs, she realized that making all this stock for the holiday shows had become boring. She was bored. Her job at the library was boring. None of that would pull her out of the grief and depression that still enveloped her like those wet rain clouds.

She needed a change.

What that was Jenna couldn’t say.

Tomorrow was work again. She finished the horse, using a sharp carving tool to detail the eyes, nostrils and muscles. She decided to use copper wire for the mane and tail, so made insertion holes for it. Finally, she finished it and set the horse on a piece of old plywood to let it dry. It looked delightful. She had some new glazes to test out on it. Bronze and turquoise. That would be interesting.

She squished the clay off her hands using her fingers as squeegees. Then washed off in the old industrial size sink, wiping her hands dry with a towel and rubbing on the thick balm she always used after working with clay. Otherwise, her skin became so dry it cracked and bled.

The days flew past and Jenna seemed to only feel alive when in her studio. She felt invigorated by making the horse and began working with her next brick of clay after work every night, instead of watching TV. She left the heater running in the studio so the clay would dry a bit more quickly.

By the end of the week she had created a huge herd of horses, each one in a slightly different position. It was as if those hours spent watching the horses at her sister’s magically flowed through her fingers and into the clay, creating lifelike horses. They were only about three inches tall and five inches long, so she’d be able to tuck them into the boxes of dishes when packing for shows.

The following week she began making dogs, cats and cows. Then the next week came the unicorns and pegasi. By that time the horses were ready to bisque fire. She loaded them into her small kiln and turned it on.

After firing she glazed the horses, each one with different colors and designs. Some she made spotted like pintos, others marked like appaloosas or dappled. Others with mystical symbols on them. Jenna liked them each so much, she wondered how she’d be able to sell them.

She’d decided to do the final firing of everything on Saturday, when she had more time.

It was a bright fall day, crisp and sunny. Jenna set up a row of metal containers just outside the door of the studio, filling them with sawdust and newspaper strips, and setting a lid nearby each one. Then a metal tub of water close to them. Filling up the tub, she splashed water all over her jeans and leather boots.

She loaded all the creatures into her kiln, set the temperature and turned the kiln on. ​​ She opened all the windows and the double doors to let any noxious fumes from the glazes out.

Then went to make herself a cup of tea and tie her hair back. Jenna took her tea outside and waited, sipping the strong black tea and listening to the chickadees in the bushes.

This was fun. She needed to do more raku. Needed to make more interesting things than the next stack of bowls. Her art had grown as stale as her life.

When the animals were almost hot enough she put her leather apron and the respirator on. The glaze fumes were toxic. Next came her leather gloves.

Now the real work began. She turned the kiln off, picked up the large metal tongs, opened the kiln door and began delicately moving the fragile pieces from the kiln to the containers filled with flammable materials, taking care that none touched each other.

The hot creatures made the newspaper and sawdust burst into flames. After she’d started several containers on fire, she put lids on them. Glancing at the clock, she set a mental timer for fifteen minutes. Then began filling the other containers until the kiln was empty.

She removed the lids from pots that were done, flames leapt up as they got oxygen again. They soon burnt out and the creatures were left to cool slightly.

She worked quickly, sweat beading around the edges of the respirator. It was hot work, but she needed the coverage of long sleeves and jeans. Even so, she barely finished emptying the kiln when the first pieces were cool enough. Removing the respirator, she wiped her face with a clean rag, pushing back the stray strands of hair.

With tongs, she picked up the first pieces and plunged them into the tub of water. When they’d cooled more, she took the rag and began to rub some of the burnt spots off them. The glazes shined, bringing the animals to life.

The entire process took hours but when it was finished she had a tableful of beautiful glistening animals.

She spent Sunday cleaning up all the pots and debris. Then began making wire manes and tails for the horses, tinier wire whiskers for the cats and wire horns for the cows and unicorns. She used turquoise, jet or amber for the eyes. ​​ Then glued little felt pads on all their feet so they wouldn’t scratch people’s furniture.

They looked magical, each one different.

She took several to a craft sale held at the library the following weekend, along with her dishes. It was her day off, so she sat at the table for all four hours. People knew her and came to chat.

They were enchanted with the animals, which sold out quickly, long before all the other pottery. The other librarians all wanted one or more, so she brought those in the following week.

She did three more craft fairs over the next few weeks, making more animals during the week. The drying, bisque firing, glazing and raku firing was a long process.

At a craft fair held on a Saturday in November at a school, a smartly dressed, older woman approached her.

“Hello, I’m Gayle. I own a boutique over on James Street.” She handed Jenna her card.

“Oh, I know that shop.” It was very fancy, with upscale clothing and jewelry. Plus a few other odd things: art-glass wine glasses, one of a kind phone covers and handmade wooden shoe racks. Plenty of artisan made objects.

“I think your animals would be perfect in my store. I’m willing to pay you sixty-five percent of ​​ what you charge here, although I really think you should bump up your prices a couple of dollars. I’ll sell them for the same price you decide to charge, plus tax. That way neither of us is undercutting the other.”

“So you’ll be making thirty-five percent.”

“Yes, that’s what I generally charge for one of a kind pieces. And these are definitely one of a kind. I think my customers would love them.”

“How many would you want?”

“I think thirty to begin with. I have tourists coming in year round. Then I’ll order when the stock gets low.”

Jenna thrilled at the prospect of making more animals. She was doing well selling the dishes, but the animals were much more fun to make, each one different.

“I think that would be wonderful,” said Jenna.

“Do you have enough stock that I could get some next week? Black Friday you know.”

“I’m not sure if I have thirty. I’ll need to count what I have left. I have one more holiday market I’m selling at. There are plenty more in progress, but it takes weeks for all the drying and firing.”

“Well, what if you bring me what you have, when you have them? They are so adorable. I want to give a bunch as gifts.”

“I’ll bring some by Monday after work.”

Gayle nodded and left.

Jenna sipped her now cold coffee, savoring the richness, and smiled. She’d need to price out the clay, glazes and other supplies. Make sure she was making enough to cover her costs still. Perhaps she should raise her prices a bit.

Since Jonathon died she’d been focused on survival. Keeping herself together, going to work, paying the bills. Trying to get completely out of debt and build up the savings and retirement accounts. Perhaps, just perhaps, she could make this little side business pay for a vacation.

A big vacation. She’d always longed to go to Venice.

Perhaps there was hope for her future after all.

About The Author

Linda Jordan writes surprising characters, funny dialogue and imaginative science fiction and fantasy worlds. She creates novels and short fiction, serious and silly. Her main themes revolve around healing and transformation.
She’s fascinated by nature’s peculiarities, mythology and spirituality, what makes humans (and aliens) tick, political systems and the creation of music and art. She loves including all this and more in her stories.
In another lifetime, Linda coordinated the Clarion West Writers Workshop as well as the Reading Series for two years. She also spent four years as Chair of the Board of Directors during Clarion West’s formative period. She’s worked many other jobs, more than she cares to count. Eventually, she fled the city to live out among the tall cedars.
She lives in the rainy wilds of Washington state with her husband, daughter, four cats, eighteen Koi and an infinite number of slugs and snails.