By Christina Kottmann
Sandpaper scratched the clay, shearing away a layer of dust onto the white tabletop. Other hands might have stopped at this point. The surface of the bowl was smooth. Though the object in her hands lacked craters, marks, or deviations of any kind, she continued to polish the surface roughly. It was not yet perfect.
Pottery can be more than an artistic hobby, it can be an experience in acceptance. But today the old familiar mantra was pulsating in her mind fervently. The hum of the fan overhead beat the rhythm as her fingers traced an invisible imperfection in the dried clay bowl. “Not good enough.”
Her hair was wild today, pulled up in a haphazard bun, bits springing up and out like weeds. The worn old black apron protected her blue t-shirt, though it was unnecessary. The shirt was stained and pockmarked by age and previous projects. She never wore it in public. Today, hidden in her corner room, her makeshift art studio, the blue shirt was a comfort she afforded herself. The soft cotton and loose fit allowed freedom of movement externally, in contrast to the internal rigidity. Every visual element of her appearance in this moment said that she didn’t care about perfection, yet the mantra beat in her skull and her hands obeyed the internal command.
A limp hand raised to wipe sweat from her brow. Clay dust splattered her face lightly like cosmetic powder. She resumed her endless task. “Not good enough.”
Pottery had been a good recommendation. A way for her to face the perfectionist mental block physically. Some days were better than today. She glanced at the far wall where a line of bowls, cups, and plates were displayed on a shelf. They were the ones she was proud of.
Unconsciously her eyes drifted to the cabinet in the corner. Closed behind the brown doors stood her unsuccessful works of art. A collection of failures, pieces that had not been correct and therefore were discarded to the darkness. She hadn’t thrown them away however, succumbing to the other mental block of wastefulness by convincing herself that she could reuse them or repurpose the glazed pieces in a future project.
The bowl under her hands was done, but she continued to rub it with the sandpaper. It was destined for the display wall, if she didn’t screw it up like she had with the pieces in the cabinet. When they recommended pottery they likely didn’t anticipate that she would reject the imperfect pieces. They probably wanted her to display all her works equally, proudly showcasing her progress as an artist and presenting pieces that were wonderful alongside those that were terrible. An observing friend would likely praise all her work equally, ignoring the horribly malformed ones and those with scars caused by air bubbles in the glaze.
Pottery gave her control over the final product, but when the glaze was too thick, the clay too thin, or the color too streaky, she did not calmly accept the piece as a product of her meticulous control plus the randomness of circumstances. She blamed herself, beginning a mental diatrite of all the factors she should have calculated and adjusted accordingly but didn’t, because if she had, this physical piece in her hands would not be a disaster. It failed to be beautiful because she failed to control all of the factors perfectly. She was not good enough to make it good enough.
Her hand slipped, the sandpaper scraping against the skin of her forefinger knuckle. She set the bowl solidly on the table and raised the injured finger to examine it. A tiny nick, but there was blood. Sharp blue eyes darted to the white polished clay of the dried bowl. There were a few infinitesimal specks of red on the lip of the bowl where she had been holding it. Blood would not affect the clay, and could be washed off easily. She moved to get a wet rag, but paused by the cabinet.
The scraped left hand reached for the doors and drew them open. The offending pieces greeted the light of the studio like guests arriving at a party. She peered at them critically, staring judgmentally at the nearest creation. A small bowl intended to be a dish for earrings. Glazed black, it had landed here because the color was uneven. The marked hand lifted it fully into the light.
The fired glaze had ruined this piece, but otherwise it was flawless. The sides were smooth, bottom flat, and the clay had taken the glaze evenly. She recalled the day she had dipped it. No touch-ups were needed. The black glaze had been new and she had been excited to try it. “You didn’t mix it right,” a chastising thought reminded her. It was true, something was wrong with the glaze mixture to cause this distribution. But, it was not as terrible as she had remembered it.
The black dish was streaky, but its dark color helped hide that from an untrained eye. It was not the quality she held herself too, even as an amateur potter, but it was a well-made piece structurally. She carried it to the display wall, setting it beside a tall vase. The vase was turquoise with a white glaze on the base, a drip design that she was very proud of. Setting the black dish beside it, the contrast highlighted a small nick in the clay of the vase. She lifted the prized object to question it further.
The dent was miniscule, covered by the white glaze and originally she hadn’t noticed it, probably because the mark was on the border of the white and turquoise. Now however, she couldn’t unsee it. She began to carry the vase to the cabinet, muttering internally that even her best work was shoddy. A realization interrupted her intentions. All of her works were terrible, even the ones she had thought perfect.
A moment later she had removed the contents of the cabinet and the display wall, placing the pieces of pottery on the large white table among the remaining dust of her latest project. The rash impulse to smash them all flooded her body with angry adrenaline. A blue plate caught her tense eyes.
It was square and medium-sized. Her face scrunched in question, “Which group had it belonged to?” The plate was not immediately offensive. The edges were smooth and equal. The base was sturdy and uncovered by glaze. The glazed color was radiant and clear. But an air bubble marked the underside of the plate, disrupting the glaze. This had been a reject.
Her critical eyes appraised the object, pleased to find the defect. But her hands were satisfied with the plate, and the mark was not immediately visible. She knew it was there, but was it enough to hide the plate in a dark cabinet? “Not good enough,” the sing-song mantra tap danced in her mind.
Tired fingers gently set the plate down. Surveying the rest of the pieces with a slow gaze, another realization grew in her soul. “They are all good enough”, she thought quietly. Each piece inevitably had some imperfection, some more offending than others. But they were all works of creation that she had spent time and energy on. They were all hers, and they did not deserve to be crammed in a cabinet. She couldn’t even tell by glancing at them which ones were the worst.
The analytical side of her mind offered to assess their value one by one, detailing their flaws so that she could display only the best ones. But the new understanding silenced that idea. They were handmade pieces of design, not measures on a chart. Their value was in their existence and expression in her life.
Carefully she began to move the pieces onto the display shelf. The judgemental mantra fought back in her mind, struggling to regain its control. “They are not good enough,” it jeered. “They are all worth displaying,” she answered back calmly.
The display shelf grew full of art. The remaining pieces earned homes in her living space. A blue plate with an air bubble scar joined the kitchen. A streaky black dish became a home for earrings in her bedroom. A dented white and turquoise vase awaited flowers on the dining room table. With the placement of each one she felt more security in her new mantra.
Returning to the studio table, she picked up the dried clay bowl. The blood had dried and she didn’t want to wash it off anymore. It didn’t matter. This piece of creation was good enough.