Pangaea to Panacea

Pangaea (Pangea/Pangaia), n. The supercontinent that was made up of all of the continents on Earth, which was assembled from earlier continental units approximately 335 million years ago. It began to break apart about 175 million years ago, and is still shifting today. (Wikipedia amalgamation)

I don’t imagine that any one of us really has a great footing on what to do during a Corona Virus pandemic, so I find myself walking into my studio, which has recently been disassembled, sorted through, painted Gothic Purple, and reassembled in a new order. There is a huge pile of things that need to find new homes, but that is unlikely in these times. (If you’re looking for a potter’s wheel, a ridiculous number of tools and useful items, buckets of glaze ingredients, or a strange amount of ‘found objects’ for inspiration, I’m your person….but not until this virus passes.) There is also a big stack of bagged clay from a few years ago, most of it marked ‘PAN.’

With a closed-system studio, there is no waste. What that means is that the waste that I create is managed into a hopefully useful product, in my case, a type of clay that will hopefully be useful for some project at some point. The clay scraps, local clay, glaze bucket waste, extra ingredients I’m not using, and even other ceramists’ scraps, are all put into a big bathtub, slaked down, mixed over and over again by hand, dried out a bit on pillowcases, wedged a few times, put in re-used plastic bags, labelled, stacked in a corner, and ideally, forgotten about for a few years while they age and become more plastic, more user friendly.

One would not describe this clay as easy to work with, that’s for sure. There are veins of who-knows-what running through each bag, some jagged little rocks from the local clay, even a few sticks and leaves here and there. I call this clay Pangaea. There is something in each bag from every continent, at least in my mind. English Grolleg, China Clay, and those are just the ones with countries in their names. So PAN was originally, in my mind, the one-continent, the rejoining of all of our fractured cultures into one bag of clay. And this clay has been awaiting its next form, patiently, in a quiet corner of my studio.

Pandemonium, n. …2.An uproar; a riotous assemblage; great confusion and noise. (Webster’s Dictionary, 1951)

Somehow, I knew that it would be possible to work with this clay, but I knew it would not be simple. There is glaze in there, and high fire stoneware, and earthenware, and local native clay, and you name it, it’s in there. If it’s been in my studio, there is a little bit in the mix. How do I fire this clay? Will it melt down? Will the glaze ingrendients mean it sticks to everything? Through trial and error, I’ve found a single-fire schedule that works for me and the clay, plus small trivets or wads under each piece, as sticking is inevitable, but not catastrophic.

Pandora’s Box. Pandora, n. In classic mythology, the first woman formed of clay by Vulcan at the request of Prometheus. The gods vied in making her presents. Jupiter gave her a box filled with innumerable evils, which she was to give to the man who married her. She was then conducted to Prometheus, who would not accept the present; but his brother, Epimetheus, fell a victim to Pandora’s charms, and accepted the box, from which on its being opened there issued all the ills and diseases which have afflicted the human race. Hope alone remained at the bottom of the box, as the only consolation for the troubles of mankind. (Webster, 1951)

What I didn’t realize is that the symbolism of this clay would be so rich.

Pandemic, n. A widespread epidemic. a. Incident to a whole people. (Webster, 1951)

As Monty Python said, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.” There is no expecting a pandemic, a global phenomenon that affects people without consideration of their gender, class, skin color, political beliefs, or even the piece of Pangaea that they call home. While parts of my life may look the same, just like the rest of you, so many things are different, so many things are shifting and morphing. As a ceramist, my sense of purpose and usefulness has come to a standstill. As a naturalist, I’m in a state of bliss, surrounded by budding springtime. As a community member, the flow of energy has shifted, and while we are all isolated, there is an interesting sense of unity and together-ness that I did not expect, and I find myself continually wondering how to contribute.

Panacea, n. 1. A remedy for all diseases; a universal medicine. (Webster, 1951)

And there are those bags of clay, with PAN in big black sharpie marker, looking right at me. So I pick one up, plunk it down on the work table that I built just two weeks ago (but feels like years ago), open it up and feel the grit and cool clay between my fingers. I feel the rocks, the smooth white vein of small-particle porcelain, the chunky bits of native clay from under my own feet. It is a panacea to have clay in my hands, and no special order to check off, no pre-conceived plan to adhere to. I try a bit of coil work to get into the swing of things, and while time passes, music on tapes rotates side A to side B and back again, the coils slowly, methodically, lusciously start to grow. There is no set method at first, just a remembering of what it feels like, what feels good, what seems to make sense.

There is a spider plant in the dining room that sorely needed to be relieved of all of the little offspring sucking water and nutrients from the mother plant. They now have new pots, and are awaiting new homes. The jade plant in the studio finally had its drooping arms trimmed back, and many small jade plants are starting to take root in their new soil, in these PAN pots. Next is the aloe, a giving plant that has been waiting far too long for some new root space.

The gift of this clay is gentle, and while it has been a challenge to figure out how it would like to be worked, what it would like to be, how it would prefer to be fired into permanency, there is the slow, intentional pace to look forward to, the continued sense of play to remember. And while I still have no idea how I can be useful during this international crisis, I have at least found a way to stay out of the way, to isolate myself within Pandora’s Box, and to carry hope along with me, ready to give it away to any one who needs a little hope in the form of a new plant to nurture, get to know, and grow along with.