Worth the Mess | Kate Plows

This morning started with a huge mess.  I was absent from school for a few days, and when I returned, my students informed me that one of our glazes had settled out.  I plugged in the electric mixer, planted my feet, flipped the switch, and the bucket went flying.  Red glaze, steeped in iron oxide, splattered everywhere – the walls, floor, glaze buckets, my pants, a few nearby students’ uniforms.  The incident felt like slow motion.  When the action stopped, we all just stood there, blinking, until one student pulled out his cell phone and snapped this picture – which sent us all into throes of laughter.


Out came the mops and sponges.  On came the spare clothes.  I made the cameraman promise to send the picture to me and only me.  I’m sure he will be thrilled that it is reaching a larger audience.  A few students shied away from getting any more grime on their uniforms, but the others pulled them in, and we all worked together to clean up the mess I’d made.  We grumbled together, we laughed together, and the feeling of unity was as tangible as crusting glaze splatters on our shoes.  The glaze was re-mixed and ready to use by next period.  Slightly messier than before, the day went on.

In the ceramics studio, we are sloppy every day.  Clay is plastic mud, and mud is dirty.  It gets under your nails and up your nose, it smears your skin, it gets stuck in your eyebrows, though I’m never sure how.  The biggest mess happens when beginners get started.  Clumsy hands fumble through the early steps of handbuilding and centering, using far too much water and not nearly enough patience.  Yet, I’m becoming convinced that the mess itself may be one of the real advantages of a studio experience.

The April 2013  issue of The Atlantic features the Hannah Rosin’s article “The Touch-Screen Generation,” which notes that for today’s young children, “it has always been possible to do so many things with the swipe of a finger, to have hundreds of games packed into a gadget the same size as Goodnight Moon.”  The article investigates current research and anecdotes about the value and purpose of touch-screen devices in child development.  Rosin reaches a fairly optimistic conclusion – that adults can personalize an approach to touch-screen technology that works best for a child, and that in moderation, these devices represent some high-quality – if very un-messy – entertainment and learning solutions.

A child can even learn to throw a pot – without any mess, accidents, or possibility of throwing the clay off-center.  And a student recently introduced me to a new feature of this app – hit the print button, enter your credit card number, and in five days you’ll have a “perfect” 3D-printed pot made out of “powdered minerals” shipped to your doorstep.


Artists understand mess.  We know that in order to make something real – a pot, a performance, a painting, or a poem – you have to get it wrong a bunch of times before you get it right.  Working hands-on, making mistakes, cleaning up, and trying again – these physical actions leave us with stories, experiences, and connections that enrich our art.

I consider the shared experience of cleaning up today’s mess with my students valuable to our artistic process.  Tomorrow, when he dips a cup into that re-mixed glaze, a student will remember the messy morning.  He might think about that glaze differently, or he might smile as he applies it, or, inspired by the patterns that we couldn’t quite scrub off the wall, he might choose to splatter it on his pot instead of the traditional dip.  The accident has become part of the story, and part of his art.  Actions and consequences are real – with no undo key and no off switch, just like the work.

When I consider the difference between the touch-screen and the touch of clay, I can’t help but think that many of the decisions and actions awaiting my students in the world are tactile, hands-on challenges.  Whether the challenge is making educated consumer decisions about what to purchase, or considering how one’s actions affect the environment, or making sure that children all over the world have access to shelter and clean water, I want my students to be able to engage with – and affect – the world using all of their senses.  As connected as our world has become, the computer screen can also be a lens of disconnect from the physicality of real challenge.  How can we understand what it is like to make, problem-solve, or invent with materials in the real world if we are more fluent with the virtual swipe than with the physical object?

Today I think my students recognized that sometimes it takes a mess to make masterpiece.

Kate Plows teaches ceramics and graphic design at the high school level in suburban Philadelphia.  During summers, she is Assistant Director of the Blue Ridge Summer Institute for Young Artists (BLUR) in Virginia.  Kate holds a Bachelor in Fine Arts in Drawing from St. Vincent College, and a Masters in Art Education from The University of the Arts.  She is interested in the intersection of craft and technology, and exploring social justice through projects linked to the arts curriculum.  Kate makes and occasionally exhibits functional pots.  Blog: teachingcraft.wordpress.com

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