Research associate finds purpose through pottery

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Katherine Ziska spends a fair amount of time each week smashing pottery.

In a secluded back alley, they bring a hammer and pieces of pottery they created that proved defective — chipped mugs, bowls with incomplete glazes, plates with cracks — and hurl them to the ground, sending ceramic shards flying in all directions.

For Ziska, a research associate with the Marsal Family School of Education, smashing their defective pieces is just another part of the artistic learning process.

A visiting potter with the Ann Arbor Potters Guild, Ziska typically spends 10 to 15 hours each week at the studio creating mugs, bowls, vases and other objects. From throwing on a pottery wheel to creating colorful glazes, Ziska said pottery isn’t just a hobby.

It’s an integral component to their life.

A photo of Katherine Ziska with some of the pottery they are working on.
Katherine Ziska, a research associate with the Marsal Family School of Education, is a visiting potter with the Ann Arbor Potters Guild and spends hours each week creating mugs, bowls, vases and other objects. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

“I think having multiple things that you love — relationships, your work, your hobbies — is essential to having a balanced life,” Ziska said. “I think people — particularly people working at a university — can really benefit from getting back into their bodies and using their bodies to make things and be engaged in the physical world.”

As a teenager, their younger siblings took a pottery course that piqued Ziska’s interest. But it wasn’t until after they had graduated college that they had the time to pursue the hobby themself.

Ziska enrolled in a six-week course at the Clay Date, a pottery studio in New Haven, Connecticut, where they felt something immediately clicked.

“I’ve always been into art. I’ve done painting and silversmithing and weaving. I’ve done sewing and crafting. But the part that was always missing for me there was the functionality of it. And so, pottery is this beautiful mixing, or marriage, of function and art,” Ziska said.

A few months after the class ended, Ziska had acquired so many hours practicing at the studio in their free time that they were invited to join the team and teach intro classes themself. Upon moving to Ann Arbor last summer, they contacted the Potters Guild where, after an application and interview process, they were invited to be a visiting artist.

Throughout their first few months with the guild, Ziska has focused on honing their technique and exploring the new clay bodies and glazes. They are drawn to earth tones — browns, blues, greens — and creating functional but artistic objects like donut-shaped vases, tagines and 24-ounce mega mugs.

“I haven’t quite settled on my unique shape yet. A lot of people have very developed shapes and they throw that shape over and over again. I don’t have that yet. And so, I’m still in the process of enjoying kind of seeing where the clay goes and what feels right,” Ziska said.

Katherine Ziska said they enjoy exploring new clay bodies and glazes and are drawn to earth tones, such as browns, blues and greens, to create functional but artistic objects. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

Ziska enjoys each step of making ceramics — shaping on a pottery wheel, carving and trimming detail, glazing, firing in the kiln — and finds the process meditative in a way.

“It’s very intense, fine motor focus, which is really nice because in some ways focusing on something so intently gives your mind a break,” Ziska said.

“You’re doing something very physical; you’re doing something with your hands, and you’re doing something that creates precise work. And instead of being bombarded with all these other fast-paced sensations, you have to be very attuned to something happening in just between your fingertips, and that gives your mind kind of a break.”

Shaping a piece from start to finish is a satisfying and rewarding process, Ziska said. However, there are plenty of frustrations that come with working with fragile and sometimes finicky clay.

“The hardest thing about throwing clay is when you’re really excited about a piece, and something happens to it. Letting go can be hard. But the way that I’ve tried to compensate for that sadness of a piece not working out is smashing them. Smashing things is fun. So, I get to look forward to smashing it to compensate for the sadness I feel of it not turning out well,” Ziska joked.

Ziska also finds support among other members of the Ann Arbor Potters Guild. A positive and inspiring community, Ziska said, the guild operates as a cooperative. Members earn points for cleaning, making clay, creating glazes, unstacking the kilns and posting on the guild’s social media. Once a potter has accumulated enough points, they can fire their pieces in the kiln.

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The potters who unload the kiln shelve most of the pieces, but always display a few they dub Best in Kiln. “It’s always a fun opportunity to acknowledge other people’s work or have your own work acknowledged,” Ziska said.

Ziska displays their pottery on their Instagram page, potsandpaintings. With around 1,500 followers, their reels regularly garner thousands of views, with one topping 2 million views.

Ziska emphasized the ways pottery has enriched their life and given them a purpose outside of work. As a researcher studying human development, Ziska has analyzed how children fundamentally learn through play. They said those hoping to be lifelong learners should take note and do the same.

“Adults, unfortunately, don’t play nearly as much as I think that would benefit them. And so having hobbies — whether it be art or music or dance or sports — having something that you’re physically engaged in, using your body and mind cooperatively, towards something fun that you don’t have to worry about the consequences of is so important, I think, for just general mental health, well-being, life balance and purpose,” Ziska said.

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