Need a new outlet? Give ceramics a spin

Dongzhu Pottery Studio has re-opened its doors for small classes.
Dongzhu Pottery and guy with mask
Photo Courtesy of Dongzhu Pottery / Pavel Shmelov
Dongzhu Pottery is open with socially-distanced classes with a limited capacity.

Through much of human civilization, there has been pottery. But how many of us have actually eaten from a bowl or had a drink from a cup of our own making? Making pottery — containers made of clay by hand or on a wheel or by a combination of both methods — is a technical, yet relaxing undertaking.

A highly meditative art form, work in ceramics (made of non-metal material, including clay, permanently changed by applying heat) is intriguing and utilitarian, making it the perfect activity to pick up regardless of your age or skill level.

Leija Dongzhu, owner of Dongzhu Pottery in Madison, encourages newbies to give the art a shot. His tight-knit crew of clay-slinging regulars don’t bite, he insists.

“COVID-19 has changed the way we live our lives, and pottery can certainly take our minds off of things and get us out of the door,” Dongzhu says. “We have members who are very experienced to a few that had never touched clay until our studio class. … Many members [have even] become full-fledged potters since we’ve opened.”

Dongzhu says he first became interested in pottery while at Madison West High School, where teacher Phil Lyons piqued his interest. Lyons was so influential, Dongzhu went on to pursue ceramics as a career.

Classes of limited size have resumed at Dongzhu’s Monroe Street studio following pandemic shutdowns. Check out the Casual Friday Night events for an introduction to pottery wheel basics.

Regardless of how you form, throw and glaze your work, Dongzhu’s advice to new creators is to focus, focus, focus.

“You will need to be one with the clay,” he says, “You need to pay close attention to how the clay is changing and moving on the wheel.”

After all, pottery is a lot like life — it requires time and dedication, creativity and quick thinking.

Dongzhu says making ceramics taught him patience. Anyone who has stepped foot on a potter’s wheel can attest to the unpredictable and piece-demolishing fluctuations that can result. Split-second reactions must be made as the clay rises and falls, the center of the structure weaving in and out of the center.

Sometimes, it feels like a really, really messy tango full of missteps.

“You need to dance with it!” Dongzhu says. “More often than not, you need to accept what happens on the wheel, accept what you have made, and love using it.”

Dongzhu Pottery hopes to open another location — this time in Middleton — sometime this fall.

Sam Jones is an editorial intern at Madison Magazine.