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Orphan, Mother, Sculptor :: by Kelly Theil

Here is a story about a mom. My mom. My best friend in the whole wide world. When I was a kid, she did the normal mom things, like cooking dinner and making us brush our teeth, but she also did other things. She taught me to grow vegetables in the garden, and how to cut the asparagus when it was ready. I still see her squatting down with that old steak knife, surveying the asparagus stalks. She taught me that in order to eat a healthy meal, there needed to be a lot of color on your plate. She also taught me to have a lot of color in my life! She showed me how to live openly, be yourself, and that home was your safe place. She also taught me to break the rules sometimes, and just have fun. I remember one day in middle school, she checked me out of school, and told me we were taking a road trip to the beach. We stopped for a dozen glazed doughnuts and then headed for a distant beach in our old ratty convertible car. It was one of the best days of my life.

Fast forward a few years. I'm out of college and my mom and I are still very close. We speak on the phone every day, even though she lives in a different city. My then-boyfriend (soon to be husband) and I decided to move to Charleston, SC, and 6 months later, my mom also moved to Charleston. While I was worried about the close proximity, it turned out to be one of the best things that had ever happened.

My mother had done a lot of oil painting when I was younger, but it had been so long since she had picked up a brush. I had the thought to get her a gift for Christmas - real painting lessons. When I told her about it, she paused, and said, "you know, I think I'd rather take a pottery class". And then I paused, and said, "Wow, that sounds cool, can I take it with you???" And that it was it!! We never looked back. Our pottery class turned out to be not so great, on the teaching side of things, but it was enough to get us hooked on clay. It wasn't long before we purchased a wheel, then two wheels, and then a kiln and a slab-roller. Oh man, we were in business!!! It didn't matter how cold or how hot it was, or how many mosquitos bit us while we were throwing (since our "studio" was in an unheated building outside) we made pots. And we made more pots. We made pots until we were overflowing with pottery, and then it was time to sell. We started doing retail shows together all the time. We traveled to different states, stayed in a variety of hotels, doing lots of good and bad shows. Each one is a precious, precious memory.

Then, all of a sudden, things changed. We were driving to a show in Florida in early 2008, and my mom got confused on the road. She didn't know how to drive, or how to handle the fork in the road. I knew then, that something was very, very wrong. Not long after that, she was diagnosed with cancer. Stage 4, in the lungs and in the brain. The tumors, all 40+ of them, are what caused her to forget how to drive that day. I was 5 months pregnant with my first daughter.

10 months later, my mom passed away. I had a 5 month old baby, and I struggled each day. I went through the blackest time in my life. When I should have been celebrating life, I was struggling with death and depression. I stopped doing anything creative whatsoever, and just tried to make it through each day.

When I ever so slowly began to come out of my fog, I knew that I was almost ready to go back to the studio. I also knew that my pottery work was going to change dramatically. Hugely. Finally, the day came when I was ready to try it. I sat down at my work table and let my hands just sort of play. And birds came out! This was good; it felt right. I kept making birds, and then I realized how I could manipulate them to show emotion and concept, and I could use birds to express everything that had happened in my heart. I never went back to my wheel. I still have my wheel though, and I will use it when friends want to play, or if my daughters want to try it. But I am done throwing. It doesn't suit my patience anymore. It feels better to slap, squeeze, and squish the clay into forms that I want. I work intuitively sometimes, other times I have a sketch I use.

I started making bird sculptures, and I felt a tiny release each time. Sometimes I cried while I worked, and other times it made my heart happy, but it was what I needed. All of it. So I started focusing on my sculpture. Letting go of all the functional pottery I had made in the past. It was done.

That was 4 years ago. I'm still loving my sculpture process, and my birds. I am excited each time I get to go to my studio and be with them. So now, looking back on that time in my life, it's no exaggeration to say that it was THE life-changer of my life. All at once, I became an orphan, a mother, and a sculptor.


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