By Jasmine Huang
Kicking the bottom of the wheel with his foot while using his hands to shape the piece, Wesley Smith (C’21) pinched the center of the clay lump before watching it expand beautifully into a pot. The summer sun beat down on him as he wiped sweat with the back of his hand, dipping his fingers every now and then into a bowl of muddy water to wet a sponge and carefully smooth his creation.
Eyes furrowed in concentration as he kept his hands steady, Smith commented, “I love functional craft and handmade things because when you see where something comes from, you appreciate it more.”
Smith specializes in wheel-thrown pottery, a technique where the artist shapes clay utilizing the speed of the spinning wheel and the pressure of his hands. After walking into a ceramics art class on a whim as a student at St. Andrew’s Sewanee School, he fell in love with the process, thus beginning his career as a local potter.
Since then, Smith has worked with Hallelujah Pottery, taught classes, and he holds a booth every year at the Sewanee Arts n’ Crafts Fair.
For him, pottery and the principles it carries have become much more than a mere skill. Rather, Smith views his artistry as a lifestyle. Quoting American author Aldo Leopold from his book A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There, Smith remarked, “There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.”
He continued, “I think our society is forgetting how to make things, and I want to fight to preserve this knowledge. Buying things locally and non-manufacturing is a part of my environmental ethic. I like to think of what I do as ‘reviving the real’–– my craft is real. You can see the marks where my fingers went, where there are defects in the mud, and when it just worked perfectly.”
Living at the Green House this year has provided Smith free rein to continue his craft. Situated in the corner of the white building’s back porch sits a kick wheel, most likely carried in by a former resident and left behind as a sliver of their legacy.
Available for anyone to use, the wheel itself is quite different from the kind typically found in everyday art classrooms. Rather than being electronically powered, the contraption requires human stamina and a kicking motion of the foot.
Smith’s famous mugs––perfect for drinking Stirling’s tea or coffee––frequent campus in the hands of students and professors alike and are also distributed across local shops and restaurants such as Mountain Goat Market.
Smith takes commissions for a variety of objects, ranging from flower pots to plates and bowls. Altogether, pottery doubles as both a lifelong practice he hopes to maintain and an outlet for creativity. As Smith says, “Making things by hand, directly from the earth, should have value in our culture. Food tastes better in a bowl you made yourself!”