First Person Singular: Renee Altman, 64, Alexandria, potter


Potter Renee Altman says: “I do love sitting back, listening to [students] form friendships. The camaraderie created is the special thing.” (Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST)

My first job at the Smithsonian was in ceramics and glass, so I’ve always been an object person. I like the stories they tell.

I started taking pottery classes in 1972, and by 1975, I had decided to quit my job to become a potter. You can imagine having parents who are antique dealers and you’re working at the Smithsonian in American History — you have their ideal job, and you quit it. They were really upset. Eventually, they became proud of my work, but it took years, years. For me, it wasn’t so much about selling one big piece or hearing praise to realize it was the right choice. It was when I was able to pay the bills by selling the stuff that I made. And I’ve been doing that for almost 40 years, supporting myself with my hands, on my terms.

I teach to feed my habit. I think of myself as a potter, not a teacher, but I like the social aspect of it. I enjoy my solitude, but it’s nice when the students come in at the end of the day when it’s been just me and the clay. I’m not good at chatty. You’ll never hear me say, “Have a good day” or “What did you do this weekend?” This is communal, in a natural way. In my old studio, the wheels faced the wall. When I moved here, I wanted a space where students could see one another’s work and talk to the whole group, not just the person next to them. My sister says I’m more of a voyeur; I do love sitting back, listening to them form friendships. The camaraderie created is the special thing.

One of my students has been through hell the last couple of years trying to adopt. She just got word this week that she has a baby in Ethiopia. We are all just ecstatic. Through it all, she knew she could come in here, get sympathy or ideas — “Call [Congressman] Jim Moran!” — or connections — “I know someone who works at the State Department.” Or she could just focus on making a bowl.

Almost everyone [here] works in their head; nobody works with their hands. There’s economists, lawyers and lobbyists, so this is really a satisfying thing for them to do. It is much harder than it looks. I see them frustrated; these are people who are good at what they do most of the time. I had a woman who is an anesthesiologist; she cannot make a mistake in her job. It is a matter of life or death. She came to the realization that is okay to make a mistake here. The people who are more quickly successful are those that lose their fear of the clay. What can you do to the clay, really? It’s just clay. You can reshape it, recycle it. It doesn’t go away. Nothing bad will happen. It’s still in your hands.

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