An artful sabbatical

Pamela Mertz
Jan. 5, 2022

I was on sabbatical for the 2020-2021 academic year, and one of my goals was to include more art in my life. My 12-year-old son has attended art camps and taken many lessons, and I always wished I could take classes with him, but during a typical academic year, it’s hard to find time to focus on art.

More than a dozen years ago, I signed up for my first ceramics class on a whim at a time when I was sad about my mother’s recent death as well as other personal issues. It turned out to be a painting class; the ceramics were already made, and we just decorated them. It was fun and relaxing, but I really wanted to get my hands on the clay itself, not just a premade bowl or dish.

Images courtesy of Pam Mertz
This mug was built on the wheel; then the handle was added.

I discovered an art studio closer to my house and took a few pottery classes, but life got fuller with the birth of my son, and I stopped. A few years ago, I started taking classes off and on again. During my sabbatical, I decided to take classes consistently and work on improving. Like so much in life, pottery takes a lot of practice to get better.

Pottery is one of the few things I can do to let go of external stressors or problems I am trying to solve — and the pandemic sure brought extra worries. I sometimes take yoga classes to stretch and help with stress, but I struggle to mediate during Savasana; I’m already thinking about the next few things I need to do when it’s time to get up off the mat. I am sure there is an art to relaxing during Corpse Pose, but I haven’t mastered it, so I prefer to relax by focusing on creating something. With pottery, I am able to focus on the task at hand. And working with clay, especially the glazes, is all about experimentation, which parallels my scientific interests.

Unnamed pots.
A porcelain vase.

During my sabbatical year with art, I took a number of pottery classes (both wheel and hand building).

When the local art studio closed due to the pandemic, my teacher offered classes at his home studio to keep us engaged. (We did this safely with masks, distancing, and small classes.) The hand-building classes opened up more levels of creativity for me than wheel work. For example, I made a vase with square corners and a few charcuterie platters. But I also got better at the wheel and felt that some of my pieces were good enough to give as gifts to friends and family members.

Other artists visited my teacher’s studio to offer specialized pottery classes on different techniques or specific projects — from hand building a delicate porcelain vase to making a decorative tile with a relief sculpted bird as well as fun seasonal projects like pumpkins in October. I learned about surface treatments of clay such as slip trailing, the application of watered down clay, often containing colorant, onto leather-hard clay to add dimension after firing, and sgraffito, a form of decoration that involves scratching a design onto a dark coated surface.

I really enjoyed sgraffito, even though it takes planning and lots of patience to do well. Besides getting out of the house, I enjoyed meeting new people and seeing what others in my classes were creating.

Sgraffito tiles.

I also took free online classes in drawing, watercolor and acrylic painting through my local library and an art studio. I discovered that I liked watercolor much better than acrylic painting; I enjoy the fluidity and use of water to dilute and blend colors, and the final product appeals more to me. I bought myself a good set of watercolor pigments and a few high-quality brushes for a Christmas present.

Leaf and heron in watercolor.

To end my sabbatical year, I did a raku workshop with my son just before the new academic year started; this was something I had wanted to try for a long time. Raku firing is a reductive process; pieces are taken out of a kiln when they are red hot and placed in closed containers with sawdust to starve them of oxygen. People usually do this outdoors in kilns that might be just glorified garbage cans.

The kiln used for raku firing is a modified trash can. At top, you can see a piece being fired. At right, the author’s son, Nathaniel, puts glaze on a pot for firing.
Finished pieces from raku firing.

This type of firing involves so many variables that you really don’t know what you will get until you cool the pieces with water and wipe off some of the black from the firing.

My son and I created some very colorful fish and small cups. It seemed somehow fitting to end the year with a lot of fire and smoke and the excitement of not having a clue how things would turn out.

I am back on campus with a full teaching load and struggling to find time to keep up with grading, course preparation, the laundry and grocery shopping. But I hope to continue to create art in the future; the stressors never go away, but keeping them at bay and manageable is a lifelong skill. Plus, I feel joy when I look at something and think, “Wow, I actually created that.”

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Pamela Mertz

Pamela Mertz is a professor of biochemistry at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and chair of the ASBMB Student Chapters Steering Committee.

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