Tucked in the corner of the art studio at Opportunity Resource Inc., a brown lump of clay sits atop a pottery wheel, waiting for the hands of a three handed pottery artist to give it life.
In some studios, two hands would greet this amorphous mass of fine-grained earth, but this is not a garden-variety studio.
Working in concert with Tom Lind, artists Chris Olson and Sarah Murray lend a wholly unique, the three handed pottery ceramic process, and the pottery that stems from this collaboration is a tangible expression of the human spirit.
As the art director at ORI, Lind works daily with customers living with a wide range of cognitive and people with disabilities, which can make verbal communication difficult, if not impossible.
“Because their need to communicate is so great, their art is more at the raw truth of existence than anything I have ever seen,” says Lind.
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Before joining ORI in 2009, Lind, a graduate of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., found his calling in and around the mainstream art world as a teacher, associate museum director and freelance sculptor.
His predecessor at ORI, a talented two-dimensional sculptor, had attempted throwing pots with Olson, but was a novice potter herself, just beginning to learn her way around the wheel, and these early efforts were unsuccessful.
Yet, despite this initial lack of success, Olson’s desire to work with clay did not wane.
Enter Lind, with a career of professional pottery and sculpture experience, and in 2009, Three Handed Pottery evolved from a vision into an artistic reality.
At the outset of the program, Lind recalls thinking, “We should theoretically be able to make a better pot with three hands.”
The advantage of a third hand, Lind speculated, would be twofold. First and foremost, the extra hand would act as a brace, providing support to help the pot to take form, as its walls rose from the initial mass
Secondly, once the basic form had taken shape, Olson and Murray would be able to spot water the clay drip by drip with a sponge, allowing Lind to focus his attention, and both hands, on the walls of the pot.
Before the team could even begin to think about throwing a pot, though, there were logistical challenges to overcome.
Among these was Olson’s line of sight to the wheel. Her neck is frozen at an angle that limits her range of motion, making it hard for her to see the clay. They pondered using mirrors to fabricate a line of sight, but the pair ultimately decided Olson would rely on her sense of touch.
Clay, due to its malleable nature, demands a delicate approach, and quality pots develop slowly, with finesse rather than force. Furthermore, smooth clay spinning against fingers stimulates the sense of
touch, and this tactile sensation is both a blessing and a curse among potters.
“The biggest challenge in working with clay,” explains Lind, “is the desire to do too much, which is problematic because it cannot adjust to quick movement.”
Murray and Olson have brought down pots in their day, but falling walls don’t stop the spinning wheel, and that momentary frustration pales in comparison to the satisfaction that comes with a finished pot.
A pot is not finished, however, until its opening has an upper edge, often called a lip. “The critical part of the pot is the lip, it is like the closing chapter of a book,” says Lind.
Benefits of three handed pottery
At this point in the process Olson goes it alone. She controls the outcome of the lip.
“She knows she contributes, its not me just telling her a bunch of fluff,” Lind says.
In addition to the sense of contribution, Lind says, “self-esteem goes right off the wall.”
Smiles, laughter and, occasionally, tears of joy abound, for they have created a tangible expression of their spirit.
“Their art sells, not because they are disabled potters, but because they have something to say,” says Lind. “If you understand the language of art, their work grabs you.”
And based on their success, it seems as though plenty of people in and around Missoula understand that language.
Interested buyers should contact Tom Lind at 406/721-2930 or swing by the Palace Gallery at Ryman and Broadway in Missoula, open 1-5 p.m. on weekdays.