Skip to main content
Performing Art
Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Jun. 10, 2009 8 years ago

The wheel watcher

by: Heidi Kurpiela Contributing Writer

You’d think Carla O’Brien was talking about yoga the way she describes running a potter’s wheel.

“Once you center the clay, it becomes you,” O’Brien says. “Without sounding hokey, it’s like you and the clay become one.”

O’Brien, 50, is the comic, Zen-like proprietress of Carla’s Clay, a 5,000-square-foot pottery warehouse in an industrial park near the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.

A former pottery instructor at the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a Division of Ringling College of Art and Design, O’Brien moved into the space four years ago. The building, which functions as a studio, supply store and gallery, is more than double the size of her previous shop at the corner of Oak Street and U.S. 301 next-door to Sarasota Ford.

At the height of season, she sees up to 60 students a week, including Stephen King’s wife, Tabitha, who recently installed a pottery studio in her Casey Key home so she could practice outside of class.

“Tabby’s a very unassuming lady,” O’Brien says.

When her students seem distracted, O’Brien tells them to stay off the wheel.

“It’s for their own good,” she laughs. “You don’t want to throw a pot when you’ve got guests coming over for dinner and you’re stressing over the pot roast.”

Wait. Throw a pot? What exactly does that mean? The term is tossed around casually between potters and students, like a kind of secret clay code.

“Throwing a pot is the act of throwing the clay on the wheel,” O’Brien says.

Plopping it in place, so to speak.

The first step to throwing is wedging. “Wedging” is a fancy word for kneading the clay to work out the air pockets.

The second step is throwing, but you don’t want to throw until your hands are good and wet and the wheel bat is good and dry.

“The clay must stick to the bat,” O’Brien says.

The third step is centering. O’Brien says most beginners struggle with centering.

“Everything is instant gratification these days,” she says. “Pottery isn’t. It takes some time before you get it down pat.”

With one foot on the pedal, she begins to work the clay up and down into a cone shape, using her whole body to force it to stay in the center of the wheel. The process can be tiring with just two pounds of clay — you’ve got to get your moxie up, as O’Brien likes to say.

She recently threw a 25-pound bowl — an act of brute force for a 5-foot-tall woman.

“I stood on top of it like I was diving into a swimming pool,” O’Brien says.

The next step is opening. Leaning on her elbows and using her thumb to push into the center of the cone,
O’Brien pulls the clay toward her stomach and forms a hole.

Once the cylinder has an opening, she can pull the sides up.

With one hand inside the cylinder and the other on the outside, O’Brien varies pressure and begins molding the clay into a trophy-like shape.

“The thing you’ll always hear people say about pottery is that it’s therapeutic. You can leave the world behind and just focus,” she says.

As for the wheel’s speed, she likes to keep hers running at a medium clip. You risk losing control of the clay when the wheel is whizzing too fast.

“The ones who drive fast tend to throw fast,” O’Brien says.

The final steps involve tools — a pin tool for trimming the top and a flat-headed rib tool for trimming the base and smoothing the sides of the pot.

When O’Brien is through with her piece, she runs a wire under the clay to free it from the wheel bat.

“Always make sure your wheel is off,” she says, smiling. “I’ve seen someone launch a 25-pound bowl because he forgot to turn his machine off.”

Carla O’Brien pays $16.50 for a 25-pound bag of clay from North Carolina.

• A tiny, cheap, yellow sponge is often a potter’s most important tool.

• Pottery wheels can cost as little as $800 or as much as $3,500.

• O’Brien’s wheels cost $1,200.

• O’Brien stocks her kitchen cupboards with many of her own mugs, plates and casserole dishes.

• Remember the term “score and slip” from elementary-school art class? O’Brien likes to call it “Tic-Tac-Toe and H2O.” 

• O’Brien has had some of the same pottery students for 12 years.

• Once it’s glazed, stoneware pottery is fired between 2,100 and 2,300 degrees Fahrenheit.    

Related Stories