By Lynn J. Richardson
While many of us have heard the phrase “God is the potter and we are the clay,” those words are far more than a casual metaphor for 17-year-old Selena Hayes of Johnson City.
No words could more perfectly describe Selena, who is not only a talented potter but also a survivor.
Born at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Selena came into the world with a rare congenital heart defect, Hypoplastic Left Heart Syndrome – a two chamber heart – necessitating three open-heart surgeries: the first when she was three days old, the second at eight months and the third at age four.
“We had two doctors tell us not to have her,” said her father, Harold Hayes. “It’s obvious that God had a plan for her life, so we’re just letting God take her life the way He wants it to go.
“You know, God molds people’s lives every day, just like she molds that clay. When God molds your life, you don’t know what you’re going to get, but God does.”
And “mold that clay,” she does. Now, 13 years after her last surgery, it is fun to watch Selena at work at her potter’s wheel in her home studio. Bent intently over her project, her small hands are strong and steady as she deftly transforms a lump of clay into a small bowl.
She makes it look so easy.
Her mother, Sheila Hayes, calls Selena’s talent for making pottery “a God thing.”
“We were told she wouldn’t run, be active or do all these things,” Sheila said. “So we started trying to think of things she might be interested in. One day we just thought ‘pottery.’ I called the McKinney Center in Jonesborough to see if we could get her into a class; they had one spot left.”
It seemed a perfect fit. Selena, who was 13 at the time, was a quick study. When she started at the McKinney’s summer program, her teacher asked if she had done pottery before, Sheila said.
“She just had a knack for it,” she added. “She loved it and she’s done fabulous.”
Since then, Selena has spent endless hours in her studio, creating beautiful pieces — yarn bowls, chopstick bowls, coffee mugs, platters, pitchers and more.
You can see the satisfaction on her face as she creates each item, and she is glad to explain the process.
“You center the clay on the wheel, then open it and form it into whatever you’re going to have, a cup, a bowl, whatever,” Selena said. “If you want a pitcher or a mug, you attach the handle the next day. Then you cover the pieces up for the next couple of days.”
Watching as she starts with a lump of clay, she flattens it on the “bat,” or base of the pottery wheel, pounding it with her hands. As it spins, she manipulates it, pulling it open, pressing in with her thumbs and pulling out on the wet clay.
On this day, she worked with a piece that had dried a week or two. Adding pieces of clay and using a potter’s tool, she explained she was “trimming it.” One hand on top of the other, she handles her clay — only the speckled brown variety will do — in a way that shows her years of experience.
Selena continues to study and learn, and has taken numerous pottery classes at the McKinney Center which offers several ceramics and pottery courses in addition to its Earthen Art and Wheel Series classes. She has studied with world-renowned potter, Bill van Gilder, a professional potter for more than 45 years, who began his clay work at age 15 and leads workshops nationally and internationally.
She has also worked with local pottery experts Ed Lockett, as well as Jess Parks, a teacher at the McKinney Center who now gives Selena private lessons at her home. Selena says she wants to teach pottery making one day. Homeschooled, she will graduate from high school next year, and she has already talked to the director of McKinney Center, Theresa Hammons, about working there.
She will get a jump on that work, as she plans to assist with classes at the Center this summer. Selena has also formed her own small business, Sweetpots, and has already done two shows, one in Blountville and one at Community Bank for Boones Creek Historical Society.
Her parents cheer her on, encouraging her to try new techniques and not to worry when things don’t go exactly as planned.
“Everybody wants something different,” her dad said. “ I tell her to just go ahead and glaze even the pieces with small flaws.
“Most people could care less if a piece is perfect or not,” he added. “The greatest beauty sometimes is in the imperfections.”