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Winter 2007, Volume 23.2



Judy ElsleyPhoto of Judy Elsley.

Clay Lessons

Judy Elsley was born and raised in England. After moving to the U. S. in 1979, she completed an MA at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas in 1985, and a PhD in English Literature at the University of Arizona in Tucson in 1990. She has taught in the English Department at Weber State University for the past 17 years, and in addition to being the coordinator of the Weber State Bachelor of Integrated Studies Program, she is current director of the Honors Program. Judy, who is married to Alan Livingston, lives in Ogden, Utah.  Read other essays by Judy Elsley published in Weber StudiesVol. 9.2Vol. 13.3, and Vol. 17.1.


"Iím not staying here. Hours of grunt work and then bored out of my mind the rest of the day." Natalie arrived at the same time as I, both of us volunteers for a month in a labor-for-lodging program at Maho Bay Camp in the U.S.Virgin Islands. When I heard her complaint, I sympathized. I wondered, too, on this, the second day of our four-week stay, about the wisdom of the commitment Iíd made to hard physical work in a sub-tropical climate. Iíd chosen to take this break from my usual work of university teaching because I was on sabbatical and wanted to do something entirely different from my day-to-day life at home. Iím not sure why Natalie had come, but a couple of days later, she packed her bags and left. I stayed for the month. I donít know if, given a little time, Natalie would have found the experience worthwhile; I certainly did.

Iím sure youíve seen the ads for these Caribbean islandsówhite sand, blue water, a hammock, a glamorous couple in swim suits walking along an empty beach, the sun always shining, a constantly warm temperature. Some of that is true. The beaches are beautiful, and the snorkeling is spectacular in the clear, warm water. What the ads donít mention is the humidity that makes 80 degree temperature seem very hot indeed. You rarely read about the constant threat of winter hurricanes, nor do you see photos of the Caribbean in a rain storm, a regular occurrence that increases the humidity and creates a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. The focus on the beach in those alluring photos probably means you donít notice the background of dense sub-tropical jungle covering the entire island except the thin ribbon of beach. "Postcard from Paradise" was proudly printed on the cards I mailed to friends, but one should always be suspicious of ideal places.

I arrived in St. John with a small suitcase, the kind you see people wheel on the plane and then struggle to hoist into the overhead bin. Before I boast about taking so little with me for a month, I must admit that in an informal and hot climate like the Caribbean, thereís not much call for business pumps, make-up, overcoat, pantyhose, laptopóany of the things I might need for, say, a professional conference. Two pairs of shorts, four t-shirts, a swimsuit, some underwear, snorkeling gear, lots of insect repellent, sun screen, and my wash kit pretty much covered my basic requirements. I like traveling light. At least once a year, I leave home and my many possessions to remind myself how little I really need to live comfortably. At some point, the things I own clutter me up and weigh me down more than they free me. When I hone down to just what I need, by some non-scientific law of the Universe I make room for new things to come into my life.

At home, for example, every room contains a bookshelf crammed with books, but in St. John, I soon ran out of reading material. I started to scan the "Help Yourself" shelf where guests are invited to leave behind the clothes, books, food they donít want to take home. I wasnít interested in the clothes or food, but I paid close attention to the books. I donated the books Iíd brought, and in return discovered Margaret Atwoodís The Blind Assassin, Bernard Shlinkís The Reader, and Robert Gravesí I, Claudius. Great reads, all of them, that I would have missed if I had arrived well-stocked with my own books.

What sort of place is Maho Bay Camp with its guests and "Help Yourself" shelf? This "eco-camp" was established by an entrepreneur named Stanley Selengut in the mid-seventies as an alternative tourist destination. Conservation is the central idea, so the entire development is constructed on walkways and platforms raised off the ground in order to have minimal impact on the natural environment. Built on a hillside overlooking Little and Big Maho Bays, the camp is all up and down. From my cabin to the beach was 132 steps down and then 132 back up again.

My cabin was one of 114 tent-cottages constructed on 16 foot square platforms. Each cabin is made of a wood frame screened with high-quality plastic sheeting and mosquito netting, the whole construction comprising of a bedroom and living area, with a Coleman stove for basic cooking and an ice chest to keep perishables cool. I shared my cottage with a couple of resident lizards who earned their keep eating insects. There is electricity but no running water, so I toted a water jug to a nearby faucet for drinking water, and used a communal bathroom, a fifty-yard walk. The emphasis on conservation means I showered in cold water using a faucet that operates on a pulley to encourage alternate soaping and rinsing.

The steps, the communal bathrooms, the basic living conditions, and the lack of hot water mean this place does not suit everyone. Yet every year, during the season which runs from mid-November to mid-May, Maho is fully booked, with guests paying $110 and up per night to stay in one of the cabins. The camp provides a small shop selling the basic necessities a visitor might want, from sun screen lotion to canned soup, cold beer to sliced cheese. Thereís also a restaurant serving breakfast and dinner daily, and an art gallery selling locally made crafts.

During the off-season, when hurricanes threaten and itís warm enough at home that the Caribbean seems less alluring, the number of guests drops off dramatically. This is a time, from mid-May to mid-November, when some of the permanent workers take a month off to go "stateside" and many of the cabins become vacant. Selengut came up with the "Four Hour Worker Program" as a way to fill cabins and at the same time ensure maintenance and repair work were done during that slow period. In exchange for lodging, volunteers work four hours a day, 28 hours a week. About 1,000 people apply each year, and from those, 100 are selected, 25 per month, during the summer season. The volunteers tend to be either college graduates who havenít figured out what to do next, or retirees with extra time on their hands.

Some volunteers work in housekeeping where they keep the cabins clean, preparing them for any incoming visitors; others work in maintenance which could involve anything from emptying trash cans to rebuilding cabins; and some of us are placed in the newly developed clay studio which is part of a creative "trash to treasure" program, which includes a glass studio that converts beer and wine bottles into vases and glasses, a recycled paper program, and a textile project. I applied to work in the kitchen, but was placed in the clay studio, even though I had no previous experience of making pottery. Why there? "Because of your profession," I was told. The camp managers assumed that teachers make good learners, and indeed, I learned a lot in that month.

I spent my days doing slab work, making shell boxes and wind chimes for sale in the gift shop, learning along the way the rudiments of pottery making. While my work consisted of making shell shaped boxes from raku clay, decorated with sea scenes, I was so fascinated by the potterís wheel, I bought studio time in order to spend my off-hours learning how to learn that skill. Gail, the professional potter who directs the studio, gave me and my co-workers a demonstration before setting off on a two week vacation, making the process look simple as she coaxed a shapely bowl out of a lump of clay. When I tried it, I splattered clay sludge over me, the flooróeven my neighboróas the wobbly ball of clay resolutely refused to turn into anything. I spent hours, evenings, weeks practicing; and after a month, I produced thick little wonky bowls that only I could love. It was hard and humiliating because I kept failing.

I had more success learning the vocabulary of pot-making than I did creating the actual pots: wedging, leather-hard, greenware, trimming, bisqueing, glazing, wood-fire kilning. That list of luscious words takes us through the whole process, from clay to finished pot. If I were a poet like my friend Sally, Iíd form those clay words into an elegant poem, but instead I just practiced saying the words, hoping that by learning the language of pottery I would begin to see the world as a potter.

I also read about the making of pottery, an activity that wonít make me any better at the craft, unfortunately, but which gives meaning to an activity that has played an essential role in human culture for thousands of years. Making pottery, it turns out, connects with my own discipline of English. I doubt she had this in mind when she wrote it, but potter and writer Kathy Triplettís description of pottery in her book Handbuilt Ceramics sounds similar to what I do as an English teacher: "Working with clay is fun, difficult and good, all at the same time. Weíre changedóand so is the worldóby the objects we make. Through them, we communicate ideas on a gut level, in the same way that myths communicate."

Pottery, I found, embraced a good number of disciplines beyond my own. You canít throw a pot without literally feeling the physics of centrifugal force as the clay turns on the wheel, or glaze it without wondering about chemistry. The very clay itself, made from earth, begs questions of geology and geography. Above all, making a pot requires human hands. The two hands, always working together, represent the potterís most vital tool. Chris Stanley, one of the potters I read about in Michelle Coakesí book Creative Pottery, says, "For me, the essence of making pots is about being human. Itís about strength and fragility." It turns out that our different subjects, which seem so independent of one another, intertwine like a grove of aspen trees. Above ground, each tree looks as if itís separate from all the others, but beneath the soil, the roots are connected into a single organism so that the well-being of one tree is directly effected by the health of all those around it. Our common goal, whether in English or pottery, geology or chemistry, is to reach our full potential by understanding the world a little better.

As well as learning about pottery, I had to adjust to a different way of working. On the first day in the pottery studio, the general manager, Dan, explained the time-card and clock system that would keep account of our hours. I hadnít used a time-card since I worked in outside clean-up at the local lumber mill while in my twenties, and Iíd forgotten how to slide the card in and punch down so the time would be recorded in the right slot as I started and ended my shift. Every Sunday, Dan posted a spreadsheet of hours done for that week, a total for the month, and the number of hours still due for our month-long tenure. At four hours for every night spent at Maho, I owed what seemed like an overwhelming 124 hours of work for the month I stayed there. Week by week, I chipped away at that number, six hours a day so I could take two days off a week, squirreling away extra hours when we did a kiln firing. I kept a personal log of my hours, and checked it carefully against Danís numbers each week, calculating how many more hours I needed to earn an extra day off, adding and subtracting hours to figure out when exactly I would complete my monthís contract. A week beforehand, I knew that my hours would be complete at 12:30 two days before I left. As I sat making shell boxes or wind chimes with Linda and Reba, my two co-workers, weíd compare hours, figure out days off, and talk about the pluses and minuses of the hourly system. We were obsessed with those hours.

The time-clock system clearly marked work from not-work: work was after Iíd punched in my time-card and I was in the clay studio. Not-work was the moment after Iíd punched out, as I made my way back to my cabin to gather up my snorkeling gear for a trip to the beach. At home, the line between work and leisure is much less clear: Is it work to be thinking through a lesson plan as Iím swimming laps, or is that recreation? Is my off-campus volunteer commitment work or play? Does it count as work to watch Looking for Richard in preparation for teaching Shakespeare? What if Iím at home, a cat curled up on my lap, and really enjoying the movieóis it still work? I almost never think about the hours I spend working because most of what I do is task-oriented rather than time-driven. I grade a set of essays, attend a committee meeting, write a letter of recommendation, work on a conference paper, and each task takes as long as it takes, or as long as Iíve got the energy and concentration for it.

I found the time versus task approach to work changed the way I thought about the work itself. In the time model, what mattered was that we filled the hours. The work was secondary to completing the six hours a day. As long as we showed up and kept active, it didnít much matter if we swept floors, made shell boxes, ran errands or piled up wood for the next wood-fire kilning. In theory, we were working in a creative environment, making things from clay, but in practice we rarely chose what jobs we did, so everything was flattened out as a time-filler.

In the more familiar task-oriented approach, all those same things have to be doneógrunt work along with the creative work. I still have to sweep the kitchen floor, wash dishes, and grade papers, but I also create new classes, and grapple with The Wasteland in class discussion. I do each task because the job in and of itself matters, not because it fills up time; and, within reason, I choose when to do each thing. It means that stacking the dishwasher becomes a calming way to create order in the kitchen, ironing gives me time to think through what Iíll wear the following week, and grading turns into a way to serve my students. In other words, the task becomes important for its own sake, and that gives meaning and shape to my daily life. "Far and away the best prize that life offers," Theodore Roosevelt once said, "is the chance to work hard at work worth doing." Iím grateful for the kind of work that I find worthwhile in and of itself; work I can choose to organize in ways that suit me; work I rarely count in terms of the time it takes.

But before I dismiss it, the time-card model of work has a number of benefits. From a management point of view, itís the most efficient way to ensure we temporary workers honor our side of the contract. In personal terms, I found the time-card approach to work invited me to slow down and pay more attention to the process. Fortunately, we werenít working to a quota, unlike many people in the time-card system, so we could take as long as we needed for each task. A friend describes me as task-oriented, which is a kind way to say I tend to focus on seeing things completed. I make a list each day, and take satisfaction striking off the items one by one as I finish them. The time-card approach allowed me to work more patiently on each shell box, smoothing the sides, trimming edges, and fitting the lid with great care. I swept the floor conscientiously, taking as long as I needed, not doing the task as one more thing on a list of jobs for that day. Ideally, we seek a balance between process and product: we want to complete the task, but we also want to do it well. The time-clock system gave me an opportunity to practice the "getting there" part of the task instead of always focusing on the "done that" part. Perhaps most important, the experience helped me look again at the way I normally think about my time, and to realize how many ways we can construct meaning out of the work we do each day.

At Maho I didnít work all the time. On my days off, I swam, paddled a kayak, snorkeled and hiked. St. John is a small island, only 4 miles wide and 8 miles across, but thereís plenty to see and do. Much of the island is protected from development through the generosity of millionaire Laurance Rockefeller. He spent time sailing in the area, built a home at Caneel Bay, and was so enamored of the island he bought large portions of land which he donated to the United States in 1956, creating a national park that covers almost two thirds of the island. Apart from water sports on the beaches, there are plenty of hiking trailsóa good way to see the diversity of plant habitats. I could walk past the soggy undergrowth of mangrove swamps at the shore line, or wend my way uphill on an inland trail that took me through lush cactus woodland.

One of the most interesting of those inland trails was the ranger-led Reef Bay hike, starting at a high point along the central spine of the island, and snaking down to the sea, past the remains of nineteenth century sugar mills, a vertical distance of some one thousand feet. Although itís a beautiful place that we now associate with vacationing, the ranger talked us through the darker side of St. Johnís history as we walked past and through the abandoned sugar mills. Inhabited by Carib and Arawak Indians for many centuries, the island was claimed first by the Danes and then the British in the early eighteenth century until it was deeded back to the Danes in 1762. They built sugar plantations, mostly on the backs of the slaves who lived in appalling conditions and were often treated with great brutality. When the slaves were emancipated in 1848, the sugar industry went into decline, and these days, tourism "keeps the Caribbean green," as one shopkeeper reminded me when I hesitated to make a purchase in town.

After a couple of days off exploring the island, it was back to work. Once again we cleaned the studio from top to bottom, went through the repetitive motions of making shell boxes and wind chimes, spent a whole day stoking the wood-fire kiln. I often thought about Natalieís decision to leave. Of course she was right, but then I also wanted to tell her that grunt work forms a major part of any profession. In teaching, itís the endless grading of student papers. Ironically, the writing of those papers and the feedback I then give my students lie at the very heart of teaching and learning. Without the grunt work, there would be no class. The same is true for pottery. Learning the skill means hours of repetition and practice, pot after pot, some that work, many that donít.

And very little to do the rest of the day. Yep, I agreed there, too. No television, not even a radio, and the local town was an expensive bus ride away. But there was snorkeling and reading, open studio time and hiking, floating in the warm water, watching the clouds and kayaking out to Whistling Cay, talking to people I might never have met otherwise and watching my resident lizard watch me. Most important, my month at Maho, in that entirely different environment, gave me the space and time to think about, to redefine, and to appreciate again the work I do every day at home.


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