PSA: Standing to Throw & Potter Ergonomics

Below are excerpts and additions to an interview I did with Wellness for Makers in early 2016. Because standing to throw and potter ergonomics are among the most frequently asked questions I receive, I wanted to have my answers in one place for easy reference and sharing. Please leave your questions and own suggestions in the comments section to add to the dialogue.
Happy, Healthy Potting!

Please tell me about your background, and your first encounter with back pain.
I got my Associate’s degree from Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, my BFA from Alfred University, and MFA from Ohio University. I started having back problems while I was still an undergraduate. In most ceramics programs the students mix the clay, which involves lifting multiple fifty pound bags. At twenty-two, it never occurred to me to ask for help, nor that my body couldn’t handle mixing five hundred pounds of clay at a time and loading kilns with heavy shelves by myself. Cumulative lifting is what caused my back to “go out,” which is the worst pain I’ve ever experienced in my life. It was probably a pinched sciatic nerve, but I never saw a specialist to confirm or treat it. I went to the school doctor and remember spending the next week or two in bed heavily medicated. My back continued to go out nearly once a year for the next ten, but I didn’t have health insurance to properly be diagnosed.

One of my professors from Alfred, Val Cushing, encouraged me to do an internship at the Greenfield Village pottery at the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit after I graduated. This was the first time I stood to throw (1995), which was mainly for visitor visibility, but it made a big difference for my back. Being in Michigan coincidentally put me in proximity to studio potter John Glick. He is well-known for his work, but also because his back issues almost ended his career. I worked with him for one year from 1996-97, and know if I hadn’t learned a healthy way to throw and other safe studio practices from John, I’d probably be doing something other than clay.

“To Sciatica and Back” (1987), which includes a seven point Checklist for Longevity, should be required reading for anyone working in clay. Period. This was the first of two articles John wrote about back health for The Studio Potter journal, followed by “Down the Spinal Canal” (2001) which I also recommend.

Can you talk more about standing to throw and your backrest?
My backrest is designed after the one John Glick pictured and wrote about in “To Sciatica and Back” (linked above, which I can’t emphasize enough to read. My comments here are simply further additions to his observations and experiences.). He had a woodshop attached to his ceramics studio to make tools and anything he needed, so it was very obvious for him to design something that could assist his throwing in a healthier way. The backrest provides support for both your back and backside allowing for leverage by pushing back against the wall, versus someone who is seated getting leverage from leaning over with their forearms and elbows on their thighs.

Standing is very comfortable on the back because your torso is fairly straight, and you’re working in front of your sternum rather than doubled over with your nose over the clay. (The wheel head should be about belly button height. Mine is an inch higher. Too low and you’re back to the similar bent over position as being seated.) The type of potter’s wheel can affect the set up a little bit. Mine (a Soldner) has more leg room underneath than others. Because I like to change speed mid-throw if necessary and prefer to keep both hands on what I’m throwing, I keep my foot pedal on the floor. (Some potters prefer their pedal next to the wheel head and change speed by hand.) However, if the same foot is on the pedal all the time and the other on the floor —and particularly without the backrest— your hips are torqued, which can also cause eventual pain to the hip and sciatic nerve. John would change his foot pedal to the other side halfway through the day to stay balanced. (I refer to him as being “ambifooted.”) I just have a triangular piece of wood underneath my left foot to mimic the position of my right, so my hips are even and aligned. So simply elevating the wheel isn’t necessarily the answer to good back health.

And there isn’t one answer for everyone either. If you have feet or leg issues, altering the backrest design to allow a more seated or ‘perched’ position for your body might be a better solution. Everyone has different body issues and work needs, so make sure you find what is best for your situation. (Btw, John addresses throwing taller in his article.)

Do you teach this style of throwing to others?
I teach around five workshops nationally per year, and at a craft center locally during the school year and have added ‘conversations about ergonomics’ to my teaching. In both situations, I stand to throw and talk about why it’s beneficial. Most ceramic studios don’t have the room to elevate all the wheels, so almost everyone learns to throw sitting. Body health and safety are discussed much more now than they were twenty years ago, so it comes up readily when I teach. I always talk to my adult community students about being aware of their bodies and standing up often while they’re working. If they are not going to stand to throw, I encourage them to elevate the wheel so they are not completely bent over.

Can you talk about other precautions you’ve taken to keep your body healthy in the studio, and how standing to throw and other modifications have changed your work?
Wrist pain is second to back issues for a lot of potters. My first throwing instructor at Montgomery College had wrist surgery for ceramics related issues, so I learned to throw such that my wrists aren’t extended back. I keep them in line with my hands so I am not putting unnecessary, backwards pressure on my wrists when I throw. (See illustrations left.) Sitting to throw is bad enough, but some students also learn to tuck their elbows into their hips and bend their wrists back to center. This technique can cause the wrists to hyperextend and lead to injury, especially with larger amounts of clay.

One of my grad school professors also had wrist surgeries, mostly from wedging (the potter’s version of kneading). He would wedge a couple hundred pounds of clay in the mornings to prepare for throwing, instead of wedging as he worked. He had wrist surgery twice on one wrist and then once on the other. Despite surgery, he continues to have tingling issues in his hands, particularly at night.

Other than throwing, wedging –while necessary to align particles– is the worst activity for a thrower. Repetitive activity is what causes injury. In my studio, I regularly change what I’m doing, and refer to it as being “purposefully inefficient.” For example, if I am working on a series of thirty cups, rather than wedging thirty one-pound balls of clay all at once and then standing to throw thirty cups in one go, I wedge five or ten and then throw, and repeat. I also never slip-trail multiple cups in a row because that would put unnecessary strain on my thumb. Changing activities regularly prevents injury that can occur through repetition, like carpal tunnel syndrome and tennis elbow. Pottery is all about repeating, but we can break up the repetition.

So back to the question, a lot of what I do to take care of my body I learned from being around people who have had injuries or as a result of my own discomfort. I have not changed my work, but I have changed the pace and flow of how I work. During my year-long internship at Greenfield Village I made two hundred pots a month, so I know how to efficiently make a lot work, but the efficiency that’s good for work flow is taxing on the body.

Do you practice stretching in your studio?
I don’t really stretch, but I do exercise. My husband who is a woodworker and powerlifter reminds me that strength training is great way of taking care of myself. Strengthening stomach and back muscles support your spine. Having stronger arms means that you don’t need to use your back as much when you are lifting heavy objects. We talk about exercise for being generally healthy, but it also gives us specific benefits in our work.

Do you have advice on how to make a studio more ergonomically correct?
The main thing I would say is to be aware of your body. If it hurts, you need to figure out a different way of performing the activities that may be contributing to the pain. I always try to work so that I’m not hunched over. (I have friends with neck problems –even neck surgery– because they decorate in their lap or on a work surface that’s too low causing them to be curled over for long periods of time.) Table and work surface heights* are important. I have a banding wheel (the potter’s lazy susan) on my work table that is elevated and can be added to in height, so that no matter what size I’m working on, I can stay comfortably upright.

* My work table is the height of my hip bone, and my wedging table, which I also use to roll out slabs and rest work in progress is mid thigh height.

My studio is designed so that I can be fairly self-sufficient. One of my work tables and all of my glazes are on wheels so can be moved readily without unnecessary lifting. Glazing is my next back hurdle though. I have to bend over more than I would like while dipping and pouring glaze. Ideally, I would have a permanent glaze space like John Glick such that the glaze buckets live on benches at a good ergonomic height (pictured), so I wouldn’t have to bend over, nor would they need to be lifted up and down during every glaze session. This setup requires more space than I currently have however.

The important elements of a healthy studio are being purposefully inefficient by regularly changing up your activities, and your equipment (backrest, table heights, an assistant, whatever accessories make your movements easier). It’s worth working a little more slowly to maintain a pain-free, healthy body.

In Summary & Other thoughts on working healthy:

Read “To Sciatica and Back” in full. Share it, post it, print it out, and share it some more, online and in person. “If I could give a lasting gift to all potters it would not be a wonderful glaze formula or a new tool. Instead I would give the gift of awareness about the wise use of our bodies.” ~ John Glick, 1938-2017

  • Stop thinking about changing how you work, and actually change it.
  • If you groan after doing any activity (e.g. standing after sitting to throw), you need a change.
  • Make a back rest, or hire someone to do it, if you’ve decided standing to throw would work for you. The specs are in John’s article as you know b/c you read it in full. While better than sitting to throw, leaning against a wall and ‘free standing’ are not truly ergonomic or the same as using the backrest.
  • Check your hips. Standing or seated, it’s better if your hips are naturally facing forward and even (one side shouldn’t be higher or projected forward from the other). For both seated and standing throwing, you can place an object under the non-pedal foot to achieve this, or alternate the pedal from one foot to the other.
  • Potters can place a mirror in front of themselves while throwing so they can look in the mirror rather than leaning over to see a pot’s silhouette.
  • Using softer (vs. stiff) clay is better on your wrists for both wedging and throwing. If you’re fighting the clay, your body pays.
  • It’s difficult to change learned hand positioning (specific to throwing, but relevant to any part of the process), but if you’re experiencing discomfort and pain, try to change it. Think about your thumbs and wrists in particular. Years of doing “the claw” to throw has started taking a toll on my left thumb, so I’m following my own advice and re-training myself.
  • Allow yourself to be Purposefully Inefficient. Don’t do the same activity for long periods.
  • Keep your heart in mind. Whatever you’re working on should be around the height of your heart. That will keep you from curling over like a question mark saving your back and neck. If you can’t raise your work surface, try a shorter chair. As pictured above, I have bats that are 1″ thick I place on my banding wheel to change my work height. Sometimes I use no bats, and other times there are as many as 8-10 stacked on there.
  • Exercise outside of the studio benefits you in the studio.
  • Try not to hold things you’re working on if possible. If you can place the object on a banding wheel, that’s preferable. Holding your work –even at heart height– while decorating for example, strains your thumb, wrist, and neck.

  • Ceramic artist Kathy King, who does a lot of sgraffito decoration, has found sitting with her legs elevated in an Ikea POÄNG armchair with ottoman while decorating “takes the pressure off [her] lower back and neck (she has 2 herniated disks). It is basically like being in a space capsule.
  • Studio potter Matt Repsher created a rig that allows him to work ergonomically smarter, not harder! A Giffin grip attached to his Shimpo banding wheel atop a backstopped ‘T’ of wood tilts and elevated his work so he’s not hunched over.

 

  • I tell students they should have dirty hands and clean jeans. Wiping wet clay on clothing creates dust when it dries. Breathing that on a daily basis is not healthy. I rinse my hands in my water bucket and use huck towels to wipe my hands, which I rinse out at the end of the day. Don’t be Pig-Pen. Additionally and in part because my studio is in my home, I don’t let drips of clay or glaze dry on the floor to become dust I trek everywhere.
  • Wear a respirator and put cartridges in it that are suitable for the particle size of your activity. One should be worn whenever working with dust (glaze-mixing, sanding, spraying…) Paper masks are not good enough.
  • Don’t sand if you don’t have to. If you’re sanding greenware or bisqueware because the surface is rough for example, instead address burrs and inconsistencies on the leatherhard surface. Don’t create dust if you don’t need to.
  • Wear eye protection for kiln peeping. I can’t believe how many Instagram pix I see of people staring into red hot kilns with bare eyeballs. You can greatly harm your retinas by looking into a hot kiln (gas, electric, or atmospheric). Welders glasses. Get ’em.
  • Wear eye protection for grinding. Even if you use a dremel tool to grind one lil’ blemish, protect your eyes. Whatever you’re taking off is going to fly somewhere, and you don’t want it to be in your eye.
  • All of ceramics is practice so you might as well practice being safe and healthy too.
  • “Self-care isn’t a nice-to-have, it’s a need-to-have.”

Again, I’d love for you to leave a comment with your suggestions and questions to add to the dialogue. Best wishes for healthy making now and into the distant future!

Remembering A Mentor: John Glick


It was two weeks ago that I learned of the unexpected passing of one of the biggest mentors of my career, John Glick. I had just spent time with him, his wife Susie Symons, and several other of his past assistants last June for his retrospective in Michigan, and was planning on visiting John and Susie at their new community in California. Though retired from his 50 year career in clay in which he made an estimated 300,000 pieces, John was excited about a next phase of life and redirecting his abstract expressionist pottery decoration style onto furniture, which he’d already begun to make and sell before they left Michigan.

I have so much to say, and yet am also at a loss for words. It seems impossible to sum up a year of studio potter education reaffirmed almost daily over the last twenty. As I always remark when I teach workshops, there’s a little bit of John in every part of my studio practice.

In addition to the myriad of practical to poignant tidbits I learned from John over my year as an artist-in-residence and assistant in his studio (1996-97), there are two key notions that resonate continually for me and possibly sum up what he gave to me: Play & Health.

I should actually begin with Health as I would likely not still be working in ceramics if not for John. I began having back problems my senior year in undergrad (a year and half prior to working with him), so his thoughtfulness about ergonomics and back care became crucial to my time with him. Indeed my back “went out” that year, so he connected me with his doctor who helped me with maneuvers for pain management and showed me strengthening exercises. If I hadn’t learned a healthy way to throw and other safe studio practices from John, I’d probably be doing something other than clay.

In all the lovely articles paying tribute to John over the last couple weeks, none of them mention that his career almost ended because of back problems stemming from typical potter activities. To my mind, he originated the necessary discussion on ergonomics in the ceramics studio and standing to throw for good back health. I try to post an annual PSA sharing John’s backrest design and his two must-read articles: To Sciatica and Back” (1987) and “Down the Spinal Canal” (2001). In the former he states, “If I could give a lasting gift to all potters it would not be a wonderful glaze formula or a new tool. Instead I would give the gift of awareness about the wise use of our bodies.”

  

John (with his backrest and Soldner wheel in his MI studio in 1987), and me
(with my backrest and Soldner wheel in my MA studio in 2015).

The other important lesson I learned from John is Play. Even though making pots is a creative pursuit, it is still a job that can feel serious because making a living is the goal. Plus, clay and its processes can be quite temperamental, which can stifle exploration and experimentation. Play was a part of the daily routine that made John’s a positive studio practice, which in turn made a big impression on me. He was always lively,  infectiously so. I remember him dancing around fifty buckets of glaze while he deftly decorated his bisqueware, making eye-rolling puns, and smiling like a kid through his big moustache. I continue to make time to play in my studio, and attribute my overcoming every potter’s eternal fear of glazing to him.

My sketchbook entry, October 23, 1996:
Listened to John speak to some Center for Creative Studies students today.

One thing that he spoke of that stood out was regarding ‘repeating.’ He doesn’t see the need to recreate interesting ideas —beyond a grouping of initial number around +/- 20— because there are so many more good ideas to investigate. He might take an idea further, especially on a very different tangent or with different thoughts, but he won’t remake a specific form or group of forms. They are all truly one-of-a-kind.

He also said he doesn’t buy into the “But I need to make a living.” He’s proven that an artist/potter can make a living without recreating the same pot in the same glaze over and over to be successful. It does take time to come up with new ideas, but John simply works in an always-experimenting mode. He doesn’t take “time off” to investigate new things. He doesn’t do a couple of sample experiments. He is simply always playing with new ideas, or expanding the old.

Many potters may not feel that there is time. For him, that is his time.

“If work cycles are the maps that guide me along the path to finished work, then surely the studio is the place where I make my way using the myriad of methods and work rituals I so enjoy. Work begins here as idea, and then finds voice with technique and experience, trial and error, and . . . playfulness.”  ~ John Glick

I consider working with John to be the paramount experience of my ceramics education. Graduate school was crucial to my evolution as a maker, but working with John is what gave me the foundation for being a studio potter. I chose to work with a studio potter because that’s what I wanted to be. I learned everything from how to pack pots for shipping to gallery dealings, from photography skills to studio basics. There are particular decoration techniques I learned from John that are still a part of my repertoire and shared at every workshop I teach.

I was one of thirty-three studio assistants —later referred to as artists-in-residence— who worked with John. I assisted him not by performing part of his process or routine, but by working side-by-side with him on whatever needed to be done to make it easier for us both. When we needed clay, we mixed it together. When glaze kilns were ready to be loaded, we each took an end of the shelf. We shared the weight, literally. It made it more fun, and was the healthy way to work. When he was throwing his pots, I was at my wheel throwing mine. We worked together, and shared together. I greatly admire that John took on so many assistants/residents over his career; indeed, sharing his creative and emotional space on a daily basis for decades.

John is always with me in my studio. It’s not an exaggeration to say that every day I use a technique, skill, strength, or mindset I learned from John Glick.

My first day working at John Glick’s Plum Tree Pottery in Farmington Hills, MI
was August 5th, 1996, and Magdalene Odundo dropped by!


Out of the blue in 2014, John sent me this image of an extruder die he made for a tray design that coincided with my first month working with him, so he labeled it “Kristen tray.”

“It is not enough to merely throw a particular form, I must make that certain throwing rib that adds a special, unique touch, or develop an entire “world” of extrusion dies, all of which are lovingly used over time, only to discover that I have physically outgrown my manual extruders and must design and build not one, but two hydraulic extruders which then greatly expand my working potential. This is love of process!” ~ John Glick


I happened to be there in 1996 when Farmington Hills, MI designated
John’s Plum Tree Pottery a historic landmark.


If I was having a bad day and took a break, I’d return to a mini thrown pot, hand-built cat, or smiley flower made by John. This is one of those delightful tokens, which he later glazed for me.

 
Ginormous 24″ platter we own by John from his special Upper Gallery, which hangs
above our stove like the sun, casting its warm rays and bidding us a greeting and
goodnight everyday. This was a gift and secret plan between John and my Dad
as a wedding gift for Trevor and me in 2006.


The constant state of my throwing tools, which reside in a tea bowl I made
while working with John so encrusted with slip and clay, no glaze is visible.


John and me at his retrospective at Cranbrook in Michigan, June 2016.

“When we are alone with our innermost thoughts about why it is we need to make things from clay we will hopefully come to know a private truth that tells each of us a very personal answer, woven of the same threads of mystery that has captured the spirits of artists through times past.”

John Parker Glick
July 1, 1938 – April 6, 2017