The other day, I needed to ship an order overseas. I went to my storage shelves to retrieve the ceramic piece in question – a little verdigris green bowl with sliptrailed decoration – and was dismayed to discover that I had inadvertently stacked it inside another bowl. It was stuck. I mean, completely wedged in there, with almost no wiggle room. I tried to wrench it out: nothing. I tried gently tapping it upside down: nada. I whacked it with a wooden spoon: it mocked me in its complete refusal to budge. Here is how the fused pair looked:
I initially tried to solve this problem by researching on the internet what other people in this situation had done. But do you know what? Other people have not been in this situation. Yes, a lot of potters’ jar lids get fused to the pot in the glaze firing, and there are oodles of techniques for addressing that situation. But I learned that no one else in the entire ceramic community is stupid enough to wedge a pot – one that has already been sold – inside another pot on a hot and humid day.
In addition to feeling isolated, having just been shown that I am considerably dimmer than all other potters in the world, I was also worried. Would I have to break the outer piece to get to the inner one? Was that even possible, without breaking the inner one as well?
Before it got to that dire a point, I decided to try various methods to coax it out. The first was hot water. I spoke to Darrell Finnegan, ceramic artist and pot whisperer, and we agreed I should try some hot water to get the outer piece to expand. I put some boiling water in the sink and placed the bowl, right side up, in it. Hot water did not seem to help. It did, however, burn my fingers.
Next on the agenda was freezing. Perhaps if I dried the piece thoroughly and put it in the freezer for a while, the inner one would contract. I put it in and waited for a couple of hours. Nothing. Didn’t move. I was getting frustrated.
My next brilliant idea was to slowly expand the outer pot with a very hot hairdryer on the outside, which was extremely effective at burning my hands, and not at all effective at getting the pot to move.
Subsequent idea was talcum powder. I know that sounds weird, but if the heat and humidity of the past days were contributing to the stuckness, perhaps drying talc would get in the crevices and free the bowl.
The poudre pour bébés did not do anything except get everything on and around me white and powdery. I did, however, smell very fresh, so that was a plus.
After more consultation with Mum and Dr Finnegan, and still unwilling to take a mallet and break the pot(s), we decided I should try WD-40. Now, the concern about trying anything oily was that the verdigris glaze of the stubborn piece has a fatty-waxy matte finish that is notorious for staining when it comes into contact with acidic substances, and some oils. It was risky to douse it in oil and get it free, only to have it look all stained and mottled. But at this point I was getting desperate, so I took it outside and drenched it (and myself) in WD-40. Incidentally, I now smelled less fresh, more like an auto mechanic. And tapping the oil-covered piece upside down on the dirt and grass added to the picture. The piece was getting dirty, I was getting oily, grassy mud all over me, and everything was nicely moisturized, for sure – but it was still stuck.
I am now whacking a grass-stained pot in the mud, and starting to lose patience. I am saying “ARGGH” and “WHY IS THIS HAPPENING” loudly in the back garden, giving our neighbor yet more evidence for his already airtight theory that “That Family Is Very Odd.” Not even the Cure-All of the Tool Cupboard, The King of All Solutions, WD-40, seems to be helping.
Dad comes home at this point, and gets into the spirit of the The Situation, suggesting that I take the offending item down to the basement and blast it with the air compressor. The theory is that this will jam it upwards, or at least force some of the WD-40 into the crevices. Normally, I tend to think my Dad’s “big guns” approach is too much for delicate little ceramics problems, but this time, I’m all for it. I feel a little angry with the pot at this stage.
I turn on the compressor, which is very loud, grab a drop cloth, and start blasting the thin gap between the walls of the pots with air. Nothing. Nada. Nada nada y pues nada. I fire it up again, blast it while it’s upside down this time, and it just looks back at me, glistening with WD-40, covered with mud and grass and talcum residue, STUCK.
I am now at the end of my interventive options. I can’t think of anything else besides what I’ve already tried – hot, cold, wet, dry, air, force. At one point earlier in this very long day, I had tried a palette knife, and also had wedged wooden toothpicks in the gap, getting them wet. I hoped they would expand. They just broke.
I stormed upstairs from the basement, and went to put on my shoes. I would have to go over to Darrell’s – in downtown Boston, rush hour traffic – and get him to free the pot. Free the pot! Free the pot! (Uh, that actually doesn’t come across as intended).
Anyway, I am angrily putting on my shoes and muttering “Sassafrassa sassafrassa grumble why me” and things of that nature when I spy this amongst the shoes:
My dad’s shoe horn. I seize it and use it to try to wiggle the inner pot. The pot makes a squeaking sound, and tilts. I then use the shoe horn as leverage, and the thing pops out.
Just like that.
No breakage, no stains, no scratches, no damage on either pot. They’re just a bit dirty.
This experience made me think of Bruce Lee.
Yes! That Bruce Lee. One of my idols.
Once, maybe in the 1960s, Bruce Lee was teaching martial arts to someone – maybe Elke Sommer’s husband? He was teaching him how to do a side-kick to the head. He kept saying, “Kick!” and the guy would throw up his leg towards Bruce Lee’s head and Bruce Lee would say, “No! Again!” So he’d throw up his leg with all his might and concentration again and Bruce Lee would say, “Wrong! Again!” 10 times, 20 times, 30 times, 50 times, and now Elke Sommer’s husband is getting mad. And tired. And frustrated. He thinks he’s doing it right, and the more he does it, the more Bruce Lee shouts at him that it’s wrong. Finally, anger welling up inside him, Elke Sommer’s husband says to himself, “Forget this! WhatEVER!” and gives up. He stops concentrating and thinking and just throws one last furious, angry kick to Bruce Lee’s head.
“That one,” said Bruce Lee with a smile, “Was perfect.”
So: Are you stuck? What methods are you using to try to get unstuck? Have you ever been so exasperated that you say, “Forget it” and then – unexpectedly, after you’ve stopped trying – something gives?
As a person who is grappling with several arenas of stuckness, ceramic and personal, I am interested to hear your thoughts on this.