Ep1: In The Clay Studio with Art Educator Matthew Duke

In this episode we explore the intimate relationship between people and clay. We visit Kids ‘N’ Clay, a children’s ceramics studio in Berkeley, California, where we learn more from creative director and art educator Matthew Duke. My conversation with Matthew takes me back to my initial encounters with clay as a young adult. I weave my memories in with his experiences and observations as an artist and educator.

Matthew Duke of Kids ‘N’ Clay getting ready to throw

Deep Dive: Details on The Material

Clay is a natural material that comes from the earth. It is decomposed rock that takes a bit of time to form (oh, just a million years or so). People have been shaping clay into functional pottery, tools and works of art for tens of thousands of years. We see the results every day: dinnerware, planters, tiles in the bathroom.

You can buy clay processed in a bag from store, but sometimes you can also can dig it out of the ground, depending on what your soil is like and if you have a backyard. When clay has been prepared for pottery or sculpture has had the twigs, pebbles, roots that are naturally dispersed in it sifted out.

Then you mix in some additional stuff, things that make it easier to work with. Sand, grog, silica… The clay is now a clay body that can be sculpted, molded, carved, cut, coiled or thrown on the wheel into various shapes. It can be turned into slip, a liquid form of clay used for mold making. As sculptures or vessels begin to dry, we call them “leather hard.” It’s in that leather hard stage that we can carve shapes into it or, if it’s a thrown vessel, trim the pot on the wheel to fine tune the shape.

Then there is the firing process. Once you fire clay in a kiln, it becomes ceramic. We call it bisque ware when it comes out of the kiln the first time. Then we add glazes for color, texture and other effects. The glaze also seals the surface so that the pieces are water-resistant. We fire it again and bring our work into the world (or we smash it, depending on how we feel).

Catching The Feels: Dedications

I intend to dedicate each episode from here on out. This intention came up organically when, during the making of this first episode, I discovered that Mr. Rabetz (or Walter, as I should probably refer to him, now that it appears I am a grown up…), the art educator who first mentored me in the clay studio, had passed away that very month. Walter was also a basketball coach, photography teacher and the Head of the Art Department at The Loomis Chaffee School for 37 years. He produced a series of photo-essays together titled Embracing Place: The Bear Mountain Bridge, The Jewel of the Hudson.

Original Music by Lizdelise

We close out each episode with a song created by my collaborator Liz de Lise. They take inspiration from the material, the feels, or both. Listen for Hudson Glows For You / Walter’s Song at the end of Episode 1 or here, with the rest Liz’s podcast music.

Every day 
Somehow a surprise
The way the growing darkness
Can open up your eyes

Every day
You’re made again
Hudson glows for you
Hudson glows for you

There’s a dance
Captured by your hand
There’s one single moment
At your command

The destination becomes the doorway home
Hudson glows for you
Hudson glows for you

Credits & Contributions

Special thanks to Matthew Duke of Kids N’ Clay, composer and musician extraordinaire Liz de Lise of lizdelise, a band based in Philadelphia, Heath Ceramics (though I didn’t use any of the audio, my field trip up to Sausalito was so instructive), the staff at Berkeley Advanced Media Institute for your instruction and my fellow podcasters / audio geeks Mia, Jessica and Jackie for keeping me motivated. Oh yes, and Walter Rabetz, for setting my relationship with clay in motion 16 years ago.

Episode Transcript

Intro music plays: a slow, low loop of an acoustic bass.

Catherine Monahon, Host (CXM): So low key this podcast is about art materials. High key, it’s about love.

Welcome to Material Feels, a podcast all about the intimate relationship between artists and their materials.

I’m Catherine Monahon, your host, and I’ve worked with art materials my whole life. I’ve been flirting with clay, watercolor and ink ever since I can remember. But I’ve never been able to focus on a specific medium. I guess this podcast is my way of trying.

What you work with a material every day, the process becomes a conversation. I want in on that conversation. So we’re gonna learn about a specific material every episode. What it is, how people work with it. And we’re gonna spend some time with an artist, an art educator, a manufacturer… someone who connects with that material everyday of their lives.

Also, in a wonderful turn of events, each episode comes with an original piece of music, composed by my talented collaborator Liz de Lise. I include the song at the end, so be sure to listen all the way through! You can also listen to the songs Liz creates in tandem with the show by clicking the link I’ve put in the description.

Our first main character? I chose one close to my heart… the first art material I ever fell in love with.

<The plastic on a bag of clay is peeled back, clay is taken out, wedged against a canvas wrapped table, pat into a ball. A finger dips into the water bucket by the wheel head to moisten the wheel. The clay hits the potter’s wheel with a satisfying smack that signals the start of a session on the wheel. The quiet hum of the wheel begins.>

CXM: Do you feel like clay has a personality?

Matthew Duke, Kids ’N’ Clay (MD): Oh yeah, definitely. Because there’s lots of different clays to work with and each clay body… porcelain versus stoneware, really groggy clay versus a smooth clay, I mean each clay is different. Some clays are very forgiving, you can push and pull the shape, some clays are not forgiving, and so each clay kinda dictates its own, you know, purpose when you are working with it. You can be loose, carefree or you can be very specific and precise…<talking fades away>

<gentle, slow drums to introduce our guest>

This is Matthew. He’s been working with clay for over a decade. He runs a children’s ceramics studio where he works with kids, and clay every single day.  I met Matthew when I was biking by his studio one day, on my way to a meeting for one of my jobs. I was juggling a bunch of different jobs at the time, as many of us artsy types who can’t settle on one thing often do… and as I was pedaling by <sound of bicycle cruising down the street> the studio sign caught my eye <bicycle breaks and stops>, and I poked my head in to see if they were hiring. They were. 

<drums continue>

I ended up working as an instructor with Matthew for a few years. So when I was putting together this episode and thinking about people with a special, enduring, intense relationship with clay, I knew who I exactly who I wanted to talk to.

MD: I first started working with clay in 2006. It was in college. Took an introductory class, fell in love with it. I had gone to school for photography, and I had sort of hit a wall, wasn’t learning much, and the clay studio was the exact opposite of the darkroom. Instead of being alone, by yourself, in a dust free environment, you’re in a well-lit place with lots of people, it was messy, it was just… about as far away from the darkroom as you could get. And I just fell in love with it.

CXM: What was your first ceramics teacher like?

MD: His name was Clifton Pearson, and he taught a summer class, and he was the dean of the department… or at least the department chair, I can’t remember. But, he taught like a six week class, and it covered everything, from you know, hand-building, wheel throwing, mold-making, glaze-making, it was all of it. So, it was sort of a crash course into all things clay.

CXM: What was your favorite thing to do in that class, the first time you were like, “Oh, wow, I really like this.”

MD: I really enjoyed hand-building, it was sort of… for lack of a better word, it was magic. <sparkly soft chimes start in the background> To be able to manifest something, to think it and make it right in front of you, that was great. But I really gravitated towards the potter’s wheel. I had a short background in mechanical work, in like, machine work, and working with steel and aluminum, working on a lathe… very similar to working on a potter’s wheel. So, the difference is that when you are working with metal it takes hour and hours to make a shape, but the potter’s wheel is instantaneous. <soft choir voices come in gently, build as he shares what he loves about this experience> So I sort of had a natural instinct for the potter’s wheel. I just really loved sitting at the wheel and sort of you know time-warping…you sort of just loose yourself on the potter’s wheel, your brain doesn’t do anything, you’re just there physically, working with your hands, then, you know hours go by… I loved it.

<acoustic bass picks up story line>

Hearing Matthew tell his story about how he fell in love with clay reminds me of how I got into it. I like to borrow a term from the film industry: “meet cute.” A meet cute is that spontaneous moment when two characters first meet, and it’s the moment that leads to the development of a romantic relationship between them.

<a harp plays, from a high C to a low C, sort of like a typical cartoon sound when an angel appears>

Just listening to the sound of clay being centered on the wheel takes me back….

I’m 13 years old <drums start> and it’s my first year at boarding school.

I ended up in a ceramics class because the painting class I had signed up for was full. And I didn’t even really know what ceramics was… so I was pretty pissed. I had been counting on that painting class, though now I can’t remember why it was so important to my master plan.

My ceramics teacher was a man named Walter Rabetz. He was actually the photography teacher but I guess they needed someone in the clay studio, and he knew how to work with clay. He always had this twinkle in his eye, and he taught us how to center clay on the wheel in what I thought was a round about way.

CXM: (to MD) What is centering?

MD: <the pit-pat of hands shaping a rough mound of clay into a ball> Centering is when you take a rough lump of clay and put it on the potter’s wheel <smack or clay on the wheel> and once the clay begins spinning you have to get it perfectly round in the very middle of the wheel because you can start to change its shape. <low hum of the potter’s wheel in the background, the sounds of the potter wetting their hands> So centering the clay in my opinion is the hardest part in the process, it the things that takes the longest to master. That first step is sitting down, being braced, making contact with the clay and holding still so the clay becomes centered.

<drums kick us back to my high school days>

In my mind, Mr. Rabetz refused to help us center.  That is, he refused to do it for us.

He would tell us how to do it, model it for us, but he wouldn’t put his hands on our clay and do it for us – which is what a lot of us wanted.

Like Matthew mentioned, centering clay is one of the first steps when you are throwing on the potter’s wheel, and it can be really frustrating. A lot of people want to skip it and get to the good stuff: meaning making something they can take home and show their parents. Mr. Rabetz was insistent: if we tried enough times, we would figure it out. He told us that learning to center could take up to a year. People were shocked. How were we supposed to get an A when all of us were failing miserably at the very first step!?

If you’re a perfectionist, it really comes out when you are trying to center clay on the wheel and failing at it.  There is no hiding from that rotating mound of earth. It’s either smooth and centered, right in the middle of the wheel, or it’s unapologetically, undeniably wobbly.

<relaxing acoustic loop>

But Mr. Rabetz wasn’t concerned when our projects came out lopsided. “If you think something is ugly, throw ten more just like it,” he would say. “Then you’ll really learn to appreciate it.”

After a few months I actually figured out how to center, and clay became my addiction. I even got my school to accept clay as my winter sport so I that could spend more time in the studio. Mr. Rabetz’s classroom became my first home away from home.

CXM: What does clay bring to you every day?

<the sound of a wooden rib tool scraping the wheel head gently to remove excess clay, the flow of water from a sponge being squeezed out>

MD: Um, that is a really good question. Well, as an artist and business owner, clay is the lifeblood of what I do. Clay is the main attraction. Clay is what brings children and adults to the studio. So, I mean wiithout that, obviously we wouldn’t exist. For me personally, clay represents a medium that is based on transformation, transition. And s, everyday, being able to transform something. To take a ball of clay and transform it into a pot. Or take, you know, a blob of clay and make it into a sculpture. I feel like every day has that potential, no matter where you are, where you start, once you enter the studio you can transform it into something better or you know, you can just work through things. And I like that clay has that as part of it…

<Matt’s voice fades out>

<sound of wheel picks up again, narration begins>

As I think about my meet cute with clay back in the ninth grade, I realize that clay was meeting specific needs for me, just like in any intimate relationship. I was really homesick, living away from home for the first time. Being with clay brought me peace. Made me feel at home.

But art supplies are wonderfully polyamorous, and the needs that a material meets for one person can change with depending on personality and circumstance. For me, peace. For Matthew, transformation. These are pretty positive words – but it’s not always sunshine and butterflies. Like any relationship, there are some dark times, too. And materials can make space for that. As an art educator, Matthew has this exclusive window, this unique opportunity, to see clay impacting people in different ways during stages of their lives.

MD: Every kid is different, every person is different, but for me biggest most immediately noticeable impact is on spectrum children. To see children that are very distracted very scattered to see them suddenly become quiet and focused on one thing, it’s really wonderful to see that. And you can see in those moments how clay can, like I mentioned, pull you into the present moment… and so for children who are not often in the present moment seeing them make contact with the clay suddenly just become in to a trance almost, they are quiet, they are focused, maybe even they are listening… I hear a lot of feedback from parents about how like, ‘Oh my god they were all listening to you, focused, I’ve never need them so calm and attentive.’ Just know, it’s the clay, it’s the medium, it’s not a magic spell we are casting, it’s not you know necessary our skills as educators, it’s the medium, the clay. Once they are there and they are touching it, it’s are responding, everything else fades away.

CXM: When you say clay responds to them, does that mean?

MD: Well, I feel like holding a pencil, making a mark <sound of pencil on paper, gently scribbling>, you know, there is a response. You’re holding something, you’re doing something. When you’re painting, you’re moving color around, you know, something’s happening <sound of paintbrush on canvas>. There is a response there. … but, for clay, when you’ve got a squishy lump of clay and you poke your finger into it, it makes a hole. When it squish it with your hand, it changes its shape. And so, it responds. And when you’re on the potter’s wheel, I repeat a lot to children that clay doesn’t really respects strength, it respects patience. When you are working on the wheel and you touch it very gently, it changes shape. It responds. But if you jam your finger into it, it just pokes a hole in the side…if you are working on a pot and you want to change its shape, you can’t just pull as hard as you can towards yourself and make the clay stretch out really wide or it will just rip! But if you go really slow and take your time, you can make a cylinder into a big wide bowl…or you can take a big wide bowl and slowly smush it into a cylinder.

Narration: Matthew tells me about one student in particular. She’s been coming to Kid’s N Clay for years.

MD: If she’s having a bad day, she comes in here in a bad mood and maybe she’s being a little too heavy-handed and the clay doesn’t respond. It sort of worsens the bad day if she allows it…I’ve seen her over the years sort of control that and if she’s in a bad mood the clay will make her feel better. And to see her be able to quiet her mind, quiet her emotions and throw a pot very slowly and carefully. I can see that transform her, and it’s because the clay is responding to what she is doing to it.

<acoustic loop starts up>

Narration: And sometimes, even if the storm rages on, there is liberation.

CXM: I’ve worked here and seen students sort of get frustrated, loose their… bearings… and, what do you do in the instance? You let them go out in the garden and let them… <laughs>

MD: <laughs gently> Well, failure is a big part of a learning process. I should say, the program here is very open ended. We have a loose structure…we don’t have, you know, guided projects for students. There comes a point when we might recognize that this is not gonna work, the project they are moving towards is going to end poorly. But we have to let them do that. And that’s a difficult as an educator to let someone fail but it’s important. And sometimes when kids are working on a pot, and they want a certain thing and it’s just not working out for them… Maybe they’ve fired it, glazed it, and It’s hideous, they’re embarrassed by it and they don’t want to keep it. Alot of times, especially the younger students, elementary and middle school kids will be like, ‘Well, what do I do with this?” You know?

<sound of smashing>

We just say, ‘Well, let’s smash it.’ And lot of times they’ll respond with just wide eyes, like, really, we can do this??? This is allowed? So I give them safety glasses, protective gloves, a hammer…and I let’em go outside and smash it… it’s… I don’t want to say a weekly occurrence, but it happens fairly often.

Narration: As Matt and I were chatting, I remembered… I had a piece that had been sitting at the studio for over two years now. Every time I would stop by and visit, I would see it out of the corner of my eye. It was a large reddish vase I had tried to paint the phases of the moon on it, then I tried writing on it in some Nordic runes, it did not come out the way I wanted, I dipped it in yellow. That did not help. I had no love for this vase, and our conversation I got an idea…

<new room tone: we are out in the garden at Kids ’N’ Clay>

Small child: Do you know what these are? Don’t smash these because these are mine, I made them.

CXM: Yeah, no, I would only ever smash my own pot.

Small child: You are gonna smash that?

CXM: Yeah, that pot, right there.

Small child: You don’t like it?

CXM: No…

Small child: But before you liked it…

CXM: I liked it when I first made it, and then I kept on doing stuff to it, and it never worked out the way I wanted.

<Someone says, toss it up! and a smashing sound indicates the vase is no more>

Middle schooler: That was so satisfying!

<Matt, CXM and kids laugh>

CXM: Sorry I made a mess!

MD: Ah, that’s half the fun.

CXM: Now I clean it up…

MD: Mmhmm! Yep.

Middle schooler: That was so cool…

<chatter of students and clink of ceramic pieces fade out>

Narration: Yeah. Smashing that thing felt good.

MD: I really appreciate that aspect of clay, and ceramics. Because if you do a bad drawing you can erase it, crinkle up the paper, throw it away… but when you smash a pot, it no longer exists, to see it smashed, to feel that release of all the work you put into it… it’s actually a really like… wonderful thing to feel…and I get a certain amount of catharsis watching them go through that process. And a lot of times they’ll say, ‘Oh, can I smash more?’ <Matthew laughs> ‘Is there something else I can smash?’ It’s like, well, let’s not make things just to break them but… but, you know… I should say we always clean up afterwards…

Narration: You might be thinking, what’s the point then? Fail, smash, repeat? What’s the point of art at all if you are just going to destroy it?

CXM: Do you feel like all these kids are gonna grow up to be fine artists?

MD:  No, no not at all. Um, I myself, before I committed to art school, I was a handy man, I was a maintenance man. And so, I didn’t grow up thinking I was gonna be an artist my whole life, I sort of found the power in art-making and how it can help sort of… anyone and everyone. My approach to it is, yeah, I’m happy when kids leave and they go off to art school, if they want to pursue an artistic life. But I don’t ever push that and I’m never expecting it. Some of the most talented, amazing artists here have left to pursue other things and I just want to be supportive of that. But I think art is something that you don’t have to validate with a degree or a career to really enjoy it. You can really use it at any time. Art making can be your own personal practice. And the catharsis of expressing and making art is something that can benefit everyone.

Adults tend to have… baggage <laughs>. And they have preconceived notions, where kids are sort of a blank slate a lot of times and you can expose them to the medium and they just kind of run with it, whereas adults might have… preconceived notions of their own abilities.

Like I said earlier… one of the reasons I started Material Feels was to “get in” on the conversations between artists and their materials.

But sometimes those creative conversations might be lying dormant or… they are waiting to be started. Maybe you have relationship with a particular material that got cut short. Interrupted.  A lot of creative people have stories like that. When you told your third grade teacher you wanted to be an artist when you grew up, and they laugh. Or in college, relatives asking, ‘An art major? Good luck getting a job…’

 Maybe a job got in the way, or an unexpected a life change.

So, yes, Material Feels is about honoring the intimate relationship between artists and their materials.

But it’s also about re-activating creative conversations a lot of us have on hold.

It’s about making time to listen to the materials that speak to us, connect with them, learn from them…

CXM: What can clay teach people?

MD: Well, it is a humbling medium…one of the things that really drew me into it is that clay is so adaptable. It really can be anything you want. In can be precise and fine and clean and smooth, or it can be rough and chaotic and messy. It can be everywhere in between. If you were to pick any one particular thing, one kind of genre, one style, it’s endless once you dive into that. So if you wanted to be a potter you could throw pots forever and you could explore infinite shapes. If you’re a sculptor, say you are an abstract sculpture. There is no limit to anything you choose I really like that, I really like that it can be adaptable and shift around and change for people.

<the sounds of throwing come back>

<gentle chimes come in>

While I was making this first episode, Mr. Rabetz, my high school ceramics teacher who taught me how to center, he passed away.

Every time I wedge and center clay, every time I tell someone about clay, every time I eat dinner out of my favorite bowl or when I can’t sleep at night and I visualize centering on the potter’s wheel, I’m transported back to that classroom. I hear Mr. Rabtez’s voice, telling stories and sharing words of wisdom about art, and life in general.

So, this episode is dedicated to you, Mr. Rabetz. Thank you.

This episode of Material Feels was written and produced by me, your host, Catherine Monahon! Woo! I write about art materials for a living and make art for fun.

Thank you Matthew for hanging out in a supply closet with me and talking about clay…and for taking a chance on me that day I walked into the studio looking for a job. Shout out to the UC Berkeley Advanced Media Institute, where the staff at their Podcast Bootcamp taught me how to record, edit and write for audio, and to my friends, family members and pod-luckers who have been asking about Material Feels and keeping me motivated to finish Episode 1… which, low key, I was kinda worried that I never would.

Next time on Material Feels, we’ll be getting to know a material who is as natural as it gets. Simultaneously delicate and strong, they are particularly nuanced, depending on how you handle them… and, I’m extra stoked, because we are going to get a chance to visit the material it its very source… okay, teeny tiny hint. At some point, on our journey next time, there will be sheep… and it won’t be random. <sheep baaing in background>. It has to do with it. Yeah, that’s it…

<whispering> You give me the feels! The material feels… <singing softly to Madonna…> Cause we are living in a Material World, and I am a material…meow meow… Material, material, woohoo>

Wouldn’t that just be so disappointing if that were the original piece of music I had talked about in the beginning, but no, it was just a bloopers reel because that’s my style… and.. actually the episode is for real for real over and it’s time to close out with an original piece of music composed by the incredible Liz de Lise. It’s called, Hudson Glows For You – Walter’s Song.

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