My Favorite Work of Art

In summer 1998, I had the first serious accident of my whole life. I was scraping paint off of some windows at my house, and I slipped and jammed the razor tool into the back of my knuckle. A quick trip to the hospital confirmed that I had severed my tendon. Using a surgical procedure called “fileting,” they opened my hand, reattached the severed bits, and hoped for the best.

I was devastated. Yea, it hurt and I was scared and it was a bother. But here’s what really got me: I’m an artist, and I was afraid that the scars on my hand and loss of muscle control would keep me from being able to work on the potter’s wheel.

It wasn’t just about making art, either. When you are an artist, that art form becomes a language, a way of making sense of the world. For my daughter, that language is dance. For my friend Bob, his voice is his guitar. For Malcolm Guite and Ralph Carlson and Andrew Lazo and Pia Taavila and Kelly Belmonte, poetry is their native tongue.

When J. R. R. Tolkien injured his arm and couldn’t write, he said, “I found not being able to use a pen or pencil as defeating as the loss of her beak would be to a hen.”

That’s exactly how I felt when I thought I’d never work with clay again.

After the stitches healed up, I sat down at the potter’s wheel to try again. It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done. My scars reacted to the water. My hand stiffened up. My injured muscles and limited range of motion changed everything about the process. I wanted to give it up.

But I stuck with it, and then suddenly I got the hang of it. I threw several very small cylinders, tiny little things, only 3 or 4 inches tall. I wrote the date on them: 102998. October. 29. 1998.

Every time I see those ugly little pots, I smile, ear to ear.

Learning to throw on the potter’s wheel all over again took a time. Everything had changed: it was like the “center of gravity” for my hand had shifted, and I had to learn a whole new kind of muscle memory. But after that first attempt, I made rapid progress. I don’t even think about it much anymore. Except to feel proud when I remember.

Courage. Persistence. Faith.  It’s a work of art. It’s a beautiful thing.

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