Posted by: Jamie Hahn | October 25, 2010

Creativity lessons from a lump of clay

I have an unnatural fear of sculpting clay. The kind potters throw on a wheel and turn into marvelous pots. The kind Rodin might have used to make prototypes of his famous sculptures. That unformed, gray substance that lives in a moist plastic bag, as if it has a life of its own and was just dredged from the bottom of a sediment-filled stream. Never being a potter, or a Rodin for that matter, my first reaction to seeing this clay is fear and dread. Fear that I will never turn it into something beautiful and dread that I will have to try.

Clay and I got off to a rough start. It’s the early eighties, and I’m a first grader. Like all first graders, I march to Mrs. Lease’s light-drenched art room for our weekly get-together. I know the routine. Wash your hands. Grab your smock (which is actually a man’s cast-off suit shirt, if you’re lucky), put it on backwards, and find your seat. I wait patiently for my familiar finger paints or paper mache, but they don’t come.

Instead, Mrs. Lease is wielding a long wire between two thin wooden handles and a sack of something gray and alien. She dips her hands into the bag and drags the wire across the gray substance in a motion that you’d use to sever a head. She plops the gray blob in front of me with a smile and moves on. For the next 20 minutes I stare with dread while the other kids are happily at work pinching and pulling, poking and patting. I feel no joy, only the fear of having to create something out of this foreign substance.

I left my chair that day without a sculpture. Since that day, I’ve had many run-ins with clay. None of them much more successful than my first. I’ve thrown peculiarly shaped pots on wheels, glazed coiled bowls that looked like lopsided ashtrays, and carved figures that resembled block-headed LEGO pieces. Clay was just never my creative medium, and we both knew it.

I graduated from high school and felt sure that clay and I had parted ways for good. I knew as an adult that I would only encounter the dreaded stuff if I made a conscious decision to do so, and I knew that that wouldn’t happen. I was safe.

That held true until just a few weeks ago. You see, I’m taking a class. It’s not a pottery or sculpture class. It’s a class that’s not really a class and can’t really be categorized. It’s called “Approaching the Sacred,” and it’s best described by the instructor, so I will quote her here:

“The purpose of the course is to develop a group committed to positive life changes based on universal guidance. Our intent will be to become more conscious, more compassionate, and more connected to a sense of the sacred in everyday life. Through study, discussion, practice, and ritual we will grow together as we develop habits and practices that bring a new sense of peace, contentment, purpose, and direction to our lives.” (read more about the class here).

On my path toward a higher consciousness and greater connection to the sacred, I have run smack into my old nemesis. During one session of the class, it was our goal to create something using materials we’d found. I was already dreading this session — bogged down with worries and judgments about the beauty of my potential art (or lack thereof) before I even started. And to my horror, when I arrived at the session, someone had brought a bag of clay.

I cursed her for being an artist and a potter who had this material on hand. All my feelings of inferiority hit me with a rush, and I couldn’t help feeling a little depressed as the bag of clay was passed from happy hand to happy hand around the table. I looked at it with undisguised contempt when it landed in front of me. I was at a crossroads.

I had convinced myself all day that the importance of this session was to create without judgment, without worry about whether or not whatever I created would be worthy to display in my house or hang on my wall. I wanted to truly trust the process of creation on this night and try to create something that surprised me, not something that sprouted from my will to create something pretty. The universe in all it’s wisdom had upped the ante.

I decided that I was willing to play her game. So, I dug into that bag and grabbed a chunk of clay. I closed my eyes and willed my hands to start moving. Make shapes. Tear pieces. Keep it simple. Just do something. And I did. After a few minutes, I was rolling. I had no idea where I was rolling to, but I was creating without any preconceived notions, and it felt wonderful. I even started incorporating some of the other materials people had brought in.

By the end of the session, I hadn’t created an incredible work of art. But I had created something, and that was the point that I’d been missing since that day in first grade. And even better, what I did create is a simple reminder that creativity is mostly about openness and trust. My creation is no Rodin, but it came from me, and it’s perfect in it’s own right.

This is "Clay." I created him in my recent class, and he's my reminder that wonderful things happen when you trust the creative process


Potter’s wheel photo from Bill Longshaw /



  1. Jamie,
    I LOVED this post. What a great lesson you imparted about trusting the creative process, getting past our own fears, and how the pursuit of ‘perfection’ is simply a waste of otherwise good energy. You’d better keep up with that novel, because your writing on this blog is exceptional; you transported me right back to your feelings of inadequacy with clay & had me on the edge of my seat as you decided to grab that hunk of clay and take the challenge. And “Clay,” is quite the piece of art. He’s a symbol of your courage to move forward!

  2. Hi Melissa,

    Thanks so much for your wonderful and supportive comments. I am constantly plauged by perfectionism. So much so that often I kill my ideas before I get started (hence, the novel is just a seed of an idea that is languishing in a dusty corner of my mind). I’m starting to understand that perfectionism is just an excuse that keeps me from trying and trusting. So, hopefully, “Clay” will keep me on track. 🙂


  3. what a great class! can we trade virtual lessons?

    your “clay” reminds me of what my rally songs do for my recovery. a tangible symbol of courage. and risk.

    when i made my first digital story, at the age of 35, i realized for the first time that creativity comes from the word create. it changed my life in so many ways. i know, i know, we need to get something scheduled.

  4. This is amazing! I would like to display your art in my permanent collection. Remember in Italy I used to ask if you would draw me pictures so that I could color them? I think you only did 1 and refused the rest of the time. I liked the one you did 🙂

    Clay is an amazing metaphor for components of our life that do reside at the bottom of the lake. The things we fear and the stuff we would rather remain buried. Its literary our fears and insecurities manifest. Though due to their pliable nature they are also our source for infinite potential.

    Its exciting you dug deep inside yourself and created something revolutionary.

  5. Jamie – you blow me away! I need to hang around you and Jen more – I love this blog – Sounds like the reason your Mom took the Drawing class and the singing class.
    I’m going to give this to our ceramics teacher; hope that’s ok – love am

  6. oh, and I love your sculpture!

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