By Liilia Morrison
"Cara, what are you trying to do?" Dr. Cranda almost screamed as she walked toward and then stopped by a young student's work area. The ceramics professor glared at Cara, who was busily working on a large ceramic plate propped upside down on a long, wooden worktable. "Don't you know you have to wipe the glaze from the bottom of the platter?"
Cara was only fourteen, but due to her talent and her very assertive parents, she was allowed to take an adult class in this well known art school in the mountains of New England.
"I'm sorry," Cara replied. She had poured some glaze into the bisque plate and some of the liquid had seeped down past the bottom edge. During the high fire process, any glaze would meld onto the kiln shelf and nothing could pry loose the molten glass that glaze turned into under heat from the shelf. One might as well forget the clay piece and that particular shelf. They were ready for the scrap heap. Cara knew this. Hadn't Dr. Cranda drilled it into everyone's heads until they heard it in their dreams, or rather, nightmares? Cara had full well planned to wipe the bottom of the plate. But this was no time to explain things. The professor was not the type to listen to explanations.
Dr. Cranda was never addressed by her first name, which some students had found out was 'Priska." There might have been a time when she was a nice, young girl, but nobody could possibly imagine a time like that, since Dr. Cranda was rigid, angry and exacting in her way of teaching ceramics. She had been an authority in the old country and often threw up to her students how everything was better there and sloppy and careless here. The students could do nothing right. But the school retained her because of her impressive background and most students put up with her difficult manner. Nobody took the advanced class. This introduction to ceramics was it. They would go on to things like illustration or drafting or oil painting, but they avoided the 'Shack,' which is what the large ceramic building was called.
Dr. Cranda had worked in a famous city in central Europe where some of the finest porcelain this side of Japan had been created. Her reputation was monumental. Although frail in health, she had a drive and determination that was legendary. She was feared for her temper and her short, harsh commands as a teacher. These were minor considerations, which students endured without complaint. After all, the craft, the making of a fine piece of ware and then decorating it with stains whose formulas were secret, was well worth the suffering. Besides, the student would give the finished piece to his or her parents, as proof that all the money spent on their education was worth something. Then the student would quickly decide to change their major or leave school altogether.
"Here," Dr. Cranda yanked Cara's arm. "Take this sponge and carefully, I said CAREFULLY, wipe the glaze from the bottom."
Cara felt the sting of the old woman's bony fingers against her delicate flesh. She wondered if there would be black and blue marks later.
The other students looked down on their ceramic bowls and cups, pretending not to notice this particular crisis.
Cara took a golden yellow natural sponge and moved to a large vat of cloudy water. Then, squeezing it almost dry, she went to work carefully wiping the bottom of the bowl, over and over again.
"Do you people understand?" the professor said, looking up from her wire rimmed glasses. Steel gray hair in tight waves framed her tan, wrinkled face.
"Everyone, stop what you are doing," she continued. The students looked up. Only Cara busied herself sponging.
"Cara, that means you, too," Dr. Cranda said, annoyed at this young student's ineptness.
"Ceramics is a very fine science," Priska said. She sat down on a high, wooden stool and began. It would be another lecture. The students had heard these lectures many times and braced themselves for what would probably be ten minutes of hearing the same thing they had heard so often and knew so well. It had to do with the porcelain factory she had worked in, how clever and wonderful it all was there and how the craft had descended into sloppy and careless efforts of today.
The students knew these interruptions would dry out their work and they would have to start many a project all over again. But none dared continue shaping and carving their particular pieces. The wrath of 'Prissy,' as they secretly called her, was too terrible to deal with.
"She really socked it to you," one of the women students said to Cara when later they sat in the coffee lounge of the art school. "Looks like this is your day to be 'it.'"
"My parents are paying a lot of money for this," Cara replied, softly. "That is the only reason I don't just walk out of this class."
"Oh, come on," the student said, "She's just an old frustrated witch. Don't take it too hard." She then looked at Cara, trying to make eye contact. "Besides, you have more talent than all the rest of us put together."
Cara had been painting her idea of a Native American woman as her semester project. It required much fine detail and knowledge of face muscles. The most difficult part, and what Cara seemed to have a natural talent for, was shading. The other students would watch her and ask her to help with this crucial ability.
"Thanks," Cara said. "I just hope I can finish my project without messing it up. My hand is beginning to shake from nerves."
"You'll do just fine," the other student said. "Are you going to work late again tonight?"
Cara had been trying to work on the painting of the Native American woman's hair and decorations after hours. It turned out to be more time consuming than she realized. Each strand of hair, each little turquoise bead had to be carefully brushed onto the bisque surface. There was no room for mistakes.
"I'm afraid so," Cara replied. Tonight she would tackle the hardest part of the project – the eyes. She loved to paint eyes and left them to the last, like a fine dessert after a good meal.
Cara, a lone figure, stayed in the ceramic workroom until close to nine that night. She threw a woolen shawl over her shoulders to shield against the evening chill. Exhausted, but relieved that she had finally completed the face and the eyes. The eyes in particular expressed an intensity that Cara, as a fourteen year old student, couldn’t express in any other way.
The face of the painting was too western, she thought. It did not really capture the look of a Native American. The expression was too sharp, too aware of details. A true Native American had that indefinable look of acceptance, not looking at something, just looking. But working with paints and brushes and being a westerner herself, she had too many obstacles to overcome to capture that indefinable something. Besides, nobody else here would notice this.
She knew the eyes, though they were much more her own than those of an imaginary Indian princess, were exactly as she, a a neurotic teenager, had hoped they would be. The brushes had done their work. Her hands had only guided them. When one more stroke would have meant the ruin of the painting, something told her to stop. She immediately looked up. Quickly rinsing off the brushes, she placed the heavy platter onto a high shelf and left the building.
The next morning several students gathered around the 'Shack.' There was a yellow police ribbon around the front entrance.
"What's going on?" one of the students asked a policeman standing nearby.
"You can't go in," the policeman said firmly.
"But I've got a class at nine," the student replied.
"Not today you don't," the policeman answered. "Looks like your teacher checked out."
Several other students had gathered nearby and an ambulance siren was blaring louder and louder.
A campus policeman now walked up to the students.
"Dr. Cranda's class has been cancelled," he said.
"We found her this morning, lying on the floor of the ceramics classroom. A large platter had fallen off the shelf, right on top of her head."
"Which platter?" A student asked. He dared not mention his platter, the one with a horse on it. Maybe he would get sued or worse, charged with murder.
"I don't know what platter. They all look the same to me," the campus policeman said brusquely.
"Come to think of it," he continued, "on the broken pieces I saw two big, dark eyes, like an Indian or something."
Cara was standing in the crowd that had now gathered around the ‘Shack.’ She knew she had painted the eyes really well, but didn't realize she had painted them that well.