By Dina Pfeffer ’22
My sophomore year at Commonwealth, my schedule happened to be arranged so that on Wednesdays I could spend three uninterrupted periods in the ceramics studio. It was during these long, meditative sessions that I began to hone my wheel-throwing skills, devoting hours to the slow construction of just one or two vessels. This year, I was elated to spend Project Week in the ceramics studio and again commit myself wholeheartedly to the pursuit for six hours each day, an endeavor both tiring and utterly joyful. For a week my whole life was ceramics; I saw the wheel spinning whenever I closed my eyes. These long hours at the wheel gave me time to think not only about form and technique but about why I’m drawn to throwing in the first place.
Though I love ceramics and sculpture, I consider my primary artform to be songwriting. I think I like the wheel for the same reason I like my favorite songs: the art says what it means. Though the usual products of the ceramics wheel—bowls, cups, plates, vases—don’t necessarily “mean” something in the way a song might, they all have a function that, in most cases, is obvious at first glance. I delight in turning a lump of clay into an object with a purpose. Like a well-worn chord change or the structure of a pop song, the wheel allows for beauty to spring up within the confines of the form. Verse, pre-chorus, chorus, bridge, chorus. Center, open, pull, trim. When the structure falls away, I feel lost.
Perhaps you see where this is going. The pandemic, obviously, collapsed all structure, including in my art making. Because I could no longer access the ceramics wheel, I felt lost, until Kyla, our wonderful ceramics teacher, proposed a quarantine assignment: build a vessel out of household materials. After a few days of pondering, an image sprung fully formed into my head of a soft vase sewn from fabric and stuffed with polyester fiberfill to hold shape. I used an old and faded green curtain as my base fabric and cut out a cardboard pattern with three main components: two sizes of pillow panels that would form the wall of the vase and a circular base. As I constructed the vessel, I tried to include details that you might find on a pot thrown in the studio: a foot at the base, created with a stuffed fabric ring, and my initials, which, instead of carved into clay, were embroidered in white thread. The exercise of creating a vessel similar in function to a clay pot but made with wildly different methods of fabrication was so exciting that I ended up creating three additional “pandemic pots” of varying size and shape.
I was so excited about my newfound soft sculpture skills that I decided to embark on an additional artistic adventure during Project Week: the creation of a set of giant tea bags. I sewed fabric prisms and cast concrete into them, ripping the fabric off the forms when they set, to create gently curved lumps of “tea.” To make the tea bags themselves, I slid the concrete tea into white mesh laundry bags and sewed them shut in the shape of standard tea bags, and used the drawstring cord that came with the bags to create the tea bag string. When I finished, the bags came almost to my waist. This manipulation of scale provided an opportunity to think carefully about detail; I didn’t have quite the right materials to mimic the construction of a functional teabag, which involves a complicated series of folds, and so I chose to sew my teabags in a way that resembled the construction of the object visually but conserved fabric. It was most important to capture the drape of the mesh and to construct the bags so that they would be recognizable even at a blown-up scale.
Before Project Week began, Kyla told me she thought it might be a good time to explore abstraction. My art has leaned representational during the years she’s taught me, and the possibility of trying new things was thrilling. But I didn’t try new things; I continued to throw functional pottery, and even my non-functional sculptural work, the giant tea bags, were scaled-up representations of a household object. Rather than usher me down a new artistic path, Project Week gave me the space to think about why I feel good about the path I’m on. Joni Mitchell, one of my songwriting icons, once told the Toronto Globe and Mail that she “always thought of [her]self as a painter derailed by circumstance." She and other artists make clear to me that there can be room in one’s life to pursue art fully in all of its forms (although being Joni Mitchell probably makes it easier). My project reminded me how much I love creating visual art, but not at the expense of anything else, and how much I still can grow as an artist. I hope I have the courage to continue the journey.
This article was published in the Summer 2021 issue of Commonwealth Magazine.