The last time I made something out of clay was 32 years ago, at summer camp, so I was pretty much going in fresh for my foray into ceramics at Santa Fe Clay, which is a much larger facility than it appears to be from the outside. Santa Fe Clay is located in the Railyard, across the train tracks from the Farmers Market, where it has been since 1974. I entered through the supply shop and cut through the gallery exhibition space to the studio, where I was to participate in a Tuesday-afternoon class called “The Expressive Figure,” taught by Ralph Scala, who is also the studio manager. I have an art-school background that focused mostly on painting, and I have always been curiously hopeless at making three-dimensional objects, so I was daunted. But the feel of Santa Fe Clay put me at ease. Finished and unfinished pieces cluttered the shelves of the studio, which was bright with sunlight and bustling with activity. Yet the mood was mellow and muted — which might be the effect of everything being coated in a layer of clay dust.

Our assignment for the day was to work on heads. The rest of the students were a few sessions into a seven-week course, and this was their second time with this body part, so I was a little behind. Luckily my pinch-pot skills have not suffered over the years, so I was able to catch up. Guided by Scala, I made one pot for the top half of the head and one for the bottom, and then attached them together before creating a neck-hole through which to stick my fingers, so that I could support the clay while sculpting facial features. Scala had each of us write down an emotion or emotional state that would serve as inspiration. People wrote things like “peaceful,” “tired,” and “anxious.” I’d been having a recent bout of insomnia, so I went with “night terrors.” He said the goal of the class was not to sculpt something entirely realistic but to focus on gesture and emotion, using exaggerated expressions and details if we wanted. That said, I had a lot of trouble knowing where a nose goes on the face, and my understanding of lips is partial at best. I didn’t even attempt to figure out ears.

“But you’re not afraid of the clay,” Scala told me. “You jumped right in. And you definitely captured night terrors.”

All of the students in the class were female, and most were of retirement age, which is similar to the demographic that populates the other afternoon classes. One of the students, MacKenzie Wendler, is a working artist in her twenties with years of ceramics experience, but many of the people I met had never done any art at all before trying their hand at Santa Fe Clay — and now they are hooked, taking classes every session in order to use the studio and socialize with one another. For under $300, you get seven three-hour classes, clay, and unlimited studio time. Santa Fe Clay is a full-service facility, with classes for teens, weekend workshops, open studio use, and private studio rental, as well as their popular summer workshops — Monday-to-Friday full-day courses with instructors from inside and outside New Mexico.

Students come from out of town as well. One of my classmates, Rhonda Baker, lives in Canada but has been spending winters in Santa Fe in order to hike, do yoga, and take ceramics classes. Marian Anderson — “like the singer!” everyone told me — is Santa Fe Clay’s oldest artist and was using the studio during the Expressive Figure class. Anderson is ninety-six and full of vim and vigor. She skied until she was eighty-nine, she said. She had a career in graphic design and considered herself a sculptor, but she didn’t turn into a potter until much later in life. She lives in Michigan and, like Baker, winters at Santa Fe Clay.

At my second class, we made hands. Scala had us sculpt four fingers and a thumb, adding details like fingernails and tendons, followed by an egg-shape that we pinched out and turned into the hand proper. You can look at your own hands for reference as you go, but attaching the fingers is a known challenge because they break easily. One of mine cracked off at the second knuckle, and I had to reattach it with slip, which is a mixture of water and clay. It’s one of the few ceramics vocabulary words with which I am familiar. Scala, who has been working in the medium since the 1990s, rattles off terminology about style and technique with the ease of a native speaker, making me want to learn a lot more about glazes, for instance. My heads from the first week had been fired in the kiln, so after I finished with my hand, I went about glazing my heads, knowing I had no idea what the finished product would look like because glazes often go on as one color and come out of the kiln looking completely different. The only way to learn is to try something and see what happens, and then incorporate your experience into your next attempt. (One of my finished pieces turned out looking almost like rusted pewter, while the other is shiny with indigo hues. Both have the heft of stone, which is incredibly satisfying.) 

An array of personal styles emerged from the clay around me in the Expressive Figure class, from small and excruciatingly lifelike to sprawling and gestural, festooned with birds. Clay is cold, which I like, and working with it is both absorbing and meditative. Being at Santa Fe Clay struck me as the perfect combination of art school and summer camp. Everyone was having fun — with a sense of purpose. I would love to go back and make more heads. If I do, I will bring a mirror to look in so that I can give them some ears.

Santa Fe Clay is located at 545 Camino de la Familia, 505-984-1122. For more information about classes, studio options, and gallery exhibitions, visit www.santafeclay.com.

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