Surviving the pandemic one ceramic at a time

Staff writer Sara Butler attempts making a ceramic on pottery wheel
My hands attempting to form a mushroom shape with the clay on the pottery wheel, one of the many steps in making ceramics.
(Connor McBride)

Lessons learned from a new hobby helped me grow during stay-at-home orders


It all started with a quarantine birthday.

On March 30, the world was in a state of panic. My boyfriend Connor and I had been sheltering in place for 15 days and only left our apartment to stock up at the grocery store downstairs. COVID-19 anxiety was at an all-time high and “the new normal” still had a murky definition.

Our 2020 resolutions were to travel, be more social and start making ceramics. So when the pandemic hit, it felt like the year collapsed in my hands — just like my pieces of clay from our first (and only) pottery class we took back in January.

When my birthday rolled around, Connor knew I was very close to a quarter-life quarantine crisis. He thoughtfully gifted me a pottery wheel so we could attempt at least one of our 2020 resolutions while indefinitely stuck at home.

Staff writer Sara Butler attempting to make a ceramic on her pottery wheel
Our ceramics journey started with a pottery wheel Connor bought online as a quarantine birthday gift.
(Connor McBride)

I was ecstatic — maybe the year wouldn’t be a waste after all! We could get off the couch and behind the wheel, spin our clay and worries away, and become ceramics experts in the process.

... Or so I thought.

At first, I couldn’t wait to get my hands dirty. As I wedged my clay, I thought back to that pottery class we took three months prior at Art Wheel School & Studio in Imperial Beach. I haphazardly watched a few YouTube videos about centering and opening, and read online that we could temporarily use a microwave kiln while professional facilities were shut down.

Armed with all this knowledge, I was bound to be successful, right?

Not so fast.

Staff writer Sara Butler attempts making a ceramic on pottery wheel
My hands attempting to form the clay into a dome shape by pressing the side of my thumbs together. This step proved to be one of the hardest for me, often resulting in accidentally ripping the clay off of the wheel.
(Connor McBride)

My hands were either covered with too much water or not enough. My palms forgot to apply a consistent amount of pressure. I’d use too much force when forming the dome, causing the clay to rip off its base; I’d overestimate the thickness of the piece and poke holes in it with my fingers; I’d slice the entire bottom surface of the item when I attempted to remove it from the wheel. The $30 microwave kiln proved unpredictable and arduous, with the guessing-game approach often resulting in cracked or shattered pieces.

The few ceramics I somehow salvaged looked sad, lopsided and like a five-year-old made them. Instead of channeling more quarantine time and energy into improving my craft, I walked away (like a five-year-old).

Staff writer Sara Butler attempts making a ceramic on pottery wheel
Trimming one of my ceramics pieces with a sculpting tool while the wheel spins.
(Connor McBride)

For about three months, I scowled every time I walked past the pottery wheel taunting me in the hallway. I was especially annoyed when Connor, who has much more self-discipline than me, was using it. How could he deal with the feeling of failure when the world was falling apart around us?

Once summer hit and I realized that COVID-19 wasn’t going away anytime soon, I knew something had to change. I refused to waste all of 2020 harboring resentment for the situation — of both the uncontained virus and unsuccessful ceramics endeavor.

So I forced myself back on the pottery wheel. And since then, that’s where I’ve spent most of my time after 6 p.m. every day.

I can now throw, trim, bisque, glaze and fire my creations ... with about a 70 percent success rate. I learned the hard way not to trim my greenware when it’s bone dry, and that there is such a thing as too much glaze. I replaced Instagram scrolling with leafing through a pamphlet listing glaze colors and clay types, and currently keep track of the hours spent in quarantine by the kiln’s firing schedule.

No, I’m not a ceramics expert — not even close — but I am improving. And turns out that pottery lessons weren’t the only things I learned in the process.

Staff writer Sara Butler's in-home art studio
Our upgraded art studio, located in the hallway of our single room apartment. We surrounded the space with a wall of cinder blocks and wood planks to make it feel intentional, as well as keep our dog out. We also bought a shelf unit from IKEA and kiln from Facebook Marketplace.
(Connor McBride)


Schedule time for creativity

I take pride in being a creative person. For years, I convinced myself that trait meant I had to be the “spontaneous, free spirit artist” type. Scheduling in time for artistic projects always felt like cheating. Because of that, I waited around for a burst of creative energy to lead me to the wheel ... but it never came. Instead, I clocked in hours on my couch bingeing Hulu.

Truth is, I’m a Type A individual who needs to have a set plan in order to accomplish something — especially during a global crisis, when my emotional energy is at an all-time low.

So I let go of the notion of being spontaneous and started scheduling time behind the wheel. At first, it felt uncomfortable and forced, but after a few days the routine started to feel like a rhythm. More time at the wheel meant more chances to create something.

Staff writer Sara Butler attempts making a ceramic on pottery wheel
Through my ceramics journey I’ve learned to not take my failures so seriously and have more fun with the hobby.
(Connor McBride)

With time, my skills began to improve and I had more finished ceramics to show for it. Plus, while I may still be Type A, I’ve slowly abandoned my need for perfection and began taking more risks, even if it ultimately destroys the piece.

Now I feel more inspired than I have since 2019. I finally realized that setting a schedule doesn’t mean I’m not creative, it just means I need a little structure to get there.


Use the buddy system

I’ve tried an embarrassing amount of hobbies in the past, but none of them stuck. On my best days I thought it was because I hadn’t found the right fit yet; at my worst I believed I was a failure at everything.

Through my ceramics trial, I’ve found that I’ve been missing a key element in all of these artistic attempts: a buddy. Because I didn’t have anyone watching me while I weaved, painted or played ukulele, I didn’t feel obligated to continue once I became distracted, disinterested or discouraged.

Staff writer Sara Butler attempting to make a ceramic on her pottery wheel
Though Connor is behind the camera here while I work solo, we spend a lot of time together in the art studio cheering each other on and offering constructive criticism with our technique.
(Connor McBride)

Obviously, a partner is not requirement for a hobby. But I realized that in order for me to complete a task, my brain needed to know someone was keeping tabs on me. I meet my article deadlines at work because my editor is expecting me to complete my writing ... why would a hobby be any different? Having my boyfriend by my side to hold me accountable in my ceramics journey inspired me to keep at it.

Bonus points: Our new joint hobby can be done both together and alone — the perfect combination for a couple stuck at home indefinitely in a single room apartment.


Invest in the craft

After the initial investment of the pottery wheel, we wanted to be conservative in our spending during a pandemic. We bought cheap supplies, set up an ugly blue tarp, and filled a YouTube playlist with mediocre instructional videos. Once the novelty of the pottery wheel wore off, the makeshift hallway art studio quickly became a place I didn’t feel inspired to visit.

As Connor improved his pottery skills, he wanted to start investing in the hobby. I initially resisted ... therefore, he researched better techniques and bought new supplies without me. Naturally that made me curious (and admittedly a bit bitter) so eventually I was inclined to join him.

Pottery supplies stored on an IKEA shelf unit
Our growing collection of supplies, including glazing paintbrushes and pounds of clay, are now housed in our IKEA shelf unit next to the pottery wheel and kiln.
(Sara Butler)

We planned at-home, weekend coffee dates accompanied by an edited YouTube playlist of pottery tutorials. Connor introduced me to ceramics companies that we could buy materials from to avoid giving our money to Amazon. By mid-July, I found myself on a six-hour road trip to Yuma, Arizona to buy a professional kiln from a pawn shop that didn’t know its value.

Once I invested — both emotionally and financially — in the hobby, I became much more attached to it. I now have my own ceramics uniform, an upgraded art studio, and a socially-distanced excursion to Freeform Clay & Supplies in National City on my calendar. Every weekend I look forward to our morning dates with Earth Nation Ceramics’ YouTube channel and Chemex coffee — knowing that one day we’ll drink those cups of coffee out of our own handmade mugs.

A ceramics kiln
The beautiful kiln we drove to Yuma, Arizona for ... which was totally worth the drive.
(Sara Butler)

For now, I’ve placed a few of my proudest pieces — humble trays and shallow bowls I use as coasters and for office supplies — on my WFH desk. I’m hopeful my creations will be more impressive and useful in the future. Until then, these little ceramics serve as a token of my artistic and personal progress, as well as a reminder for what awaits me in the hallway after I submit this article.