You're Never Too Old to Play With Clay

Quarantine is the perfect time to enjoy a personal renaissance of making crude, ugly-cute things just because you feel like it.
July 3, 2020, 11:00am
ceramic bowl
Image by Špáta from Pixabay
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I always thought "grow up!" was a pretty biting insult. After all, so many people concern themselves with petty drama that feels better suited to middle schoolers than educated, responsible adults that it only feels right to lob at those who seem delusional. But now that the world's problems constantly feel overbearing, I don't want to grow up; I see the appeal of shrinking down instead—of eating bologna sandwiches and playing defunct Nintendo consoles and maybe even watching YouTube clips of Eureka's Castle. Of course, I still wake up older every morning, but in quarantine, I'm learning that there are some simple pleasures from childhood that remain comforting and therapeutic activities as adults. One of those id-brain joys, I've recently rediscovered, is playing with clay.

When I was a kid, my exceptionally patient mother allowed my brother and I to temporarily turn our family dining room into an entire clay universe. There was a miniature clay restaurant with tiny clay burgers and hot dogs, a clay costume shop where our clay characters (with names like Percy and Furbus) could dress up as a flower or a cowboy, and even a fictional rivalry between two clay pop stars, Beaver Deluxe and Beaver Supreme, both of whom happened to be, uh, beavers. (We were too young to understand the innuendo of their names.) Oddly, I don't remember by what fate our clay community saw its end; I only know that after the age of nine or ten, I never picked up Sculpey again.

Until about a month ago, that is. I am now a grown adult woman who plays with clay.

And no, I didn't become a self-important ceramicist who sells $75 bowls for you to put your crystals in or makes generically bohemian plant pots. OK, I should mention that last year, I did take one wheel class (at an absolutely wonderful studio in Echo Park called POT), and that was great, too. My stuff even came out looking charmingly ugly-cute!


Many thanks to my extremely patient instructor Amber at POT.

But being in a ceramic studio means a) paying to use that space, and b) sharing equipment with many other people, which is not a super great idea during these very casual Deadly Pandemic Times. So this new phase of Getting Into Clay is not about "learning" how to be "good" at a well-established craft; it's just about messing around with your hands, seeing where your own fine motor skills can take you, being creative for no reason at all, and most importantly, getting away from your television and your "feed" of exhausting, dueling hot takes. It's about remembering what it feels like to make something just for the hell of it.

So when you can make anything, what do you make? This is a question that I cannot answer for you, but which I recently answered for myself by making three ashtray/catchall kinda things—one with a checkerboard interior and two pieces of fruit for accessories, one with a piña colada and leopard print and hibiscus flowers, and one with a snake and a smiley face just because I felt like it!—and a disembodied wolf head, which I painted blue and purple, because why not?


Please ignore the miscellaneous crumbs and plastic utensils were were on my messy kitchen table.

My medium of choice in both my youth and my present is Sculpey, a polymer clay which is affordable, comes in a rainbow of colors, and can be baked in any home oven. I have found that buying white Sculpey and painting it creates a multi-step process that puts me in an even greater state of mind-clearing tranquility, as I delicately and repetitively stroke individual blades of grass or spots onto the clay's surface. Polymer clays are great because they essentially turn into plastic rather than ceramic, so they're durable, paintable with acrylics, and unlikely to crack or chip. It also does not stick to your hands or leave a funky mess all over your work surface.

Of course, they say that perfect is the enemy of good. This has never been truer than when you're trying to make an amorphous blob into an object that is at least recognizable. But just keep in mind that the point is not to produce something impressive, let alone sellable. Like children, even something that is probably ugly to other people becomes beautiful to you when you made it.

Sculpey is available at art supply stores nationwide. I got mine from Blick .