Untrained student tackled a specialist’s challenge

Nine women enrolled in my beginners’ clay class.

I told of the extra one who arrived blaring out, "What’s terra cotta?" I told the group that those two Latin words meant "earth" and "cooked" and that the terms applied to pottery. I went on with the class, distributing lumps of clay for all to handle as I talked.

Jann worked with her fingertips and didn’t get dirty! She had read about terra cotta but hadn’t seen any clay. I learned many things from Jann when I rode with her to southern Missouri to get a potter’s wheel and tools for Missouri Military Academy - MMA - where she taught art.

A week later I drove over to Mexico, Mo., to introduce the wheel to Jann and her students in a pottery-making class in midafternoon rain that changed to sleet, and my husband, Chub, called to say: "It’s really slippery here. Columbia schools are closing. Stay with the Higginses tonight, and call before you start home tomorrow."

At supper, Jann said, as if she were talking to herself: "Stoney’s out in rugged country, sitting on a big rock, holding a broken spur in his hands. How will he ever get home with only one spur?" I thought she was telling a story about some friend, but she was telling about the imaginary, life-size cowboy she wanted to make with clay!

She had no training, no tools or workspace and no helpers. Her husband traveled, and the girls were in grade school. Of course, no one would help her make a huge cowboy with clay - and no experience. Chub and I laughed together about her really great talent in art and her stupidity about human beings.

Who would tolerate that combination for several weeks? Who would be her "slave" for heavy lifting, operating the pug mill, the endless reclaiming of scrap clay and washing tools and equipment?

Chub knew the answer when he asked me, "Will you make her cowboy at MMA or in your own workshop here?"

I knew that Jann could shape a life-size cowboy - if someone else did the heavy lifting and firings of the kiln. I thought I would learn valuable lessons by working beside her - but Jann as a teacher was not for me! For weeks, I had clay from head to foot.

I cleaned up to prepare lunch for the three of us and refused orders for my own pottery and folk art. Chub aptly referred to this project as "another one of Sue’s crazy ideas." However, Chub made a windlass for heavy lifting, rewired the kiln so it could accept the tall cowboy and occasionally fixed lunch for the three of us.

Finally, when firing the body portion a second time, to correct color differences, I realized this was the final kiln load.

Stoney’s legs were fired, and the entire sculpture needed a final finishing treatment.

I called Jann. She said they would come right over. Chub and I wanted to photograph the final processes, but Jann was backing her big truck up to the workshop door!

A warm Stoney and his legs were being lifted and secured into her truck.

The Higginses just happened to be on their way to the West that very night.

Disbelieving and gathering my wits together, I shouted over the roar of the truck’s engine, "Where do I fit into this story?"

Jann answered with a question: "Oh?" And she left Chub and me standing there.

We, who had been thoroughly used and abused for many weeks, watched the truck’s taillight disappear.

Arm in arm, we headed to our home, knowing it was "good riddance!"

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