On Display

story about conformity

‘Leather hard! It’s not what you think!’ Evan said, looking pleased with himself. He stood in front of the class as we sat around the well-used tables that filled the small studio space. I didn’t get it. I knew nothing about ceramics and had no clue what ‘leather hard’ meant. I didn’t understand any of the other terms Evan threw at us that first hour either. Some of the younger women in the class giggled at ‘leather hard’, but an older woman sitting beside me just rolled her eyes.

‘Don’t worry,’ Evan said, smiling broadly, ‘I’ll show you everything you need to know.’ The woman beside me, whose name was Marg, made an impatient noise. Evan looked over at her and ever so slightly narrowed his eyes. I hadn’t a clue what was going on; I was just so happy to be there. I didn’t get out much.

I studied Evan and thought he was desperately trying to look as if he was in his twenties, but was more likely early forties or older. His stylishly haphazard beard had quite a bit of grey in it. He was on the slim side but there was a belly hiding under his slightly oversized jumper. I could sympathise a bit, though I’d given up worrying about getting older a long while back. He seemed to be holding on a little longer than some.

When class was over, we walked to the dark and rainy car park as a group. We chatted and laughed and I felt so happy at just being there that I didn’t mind the chill of the autumn night or the slight and familiar Scottish drizzle that began to fall.


‘Do I have to come?’ my husband asked. I looked at him in that way I have and he silently went to get his coat. I was almost buzzing with excitement – I could hardly wait to get to the exhibition. It was close to the same feeling I had going to class each week and seeing what treasures came out of the kiln. It was like Christmas. Not everything came out as I expected or even as I hoped. Some weeks nothing of mine appeared on the shelf reserved for our class. I wasn’t sure why that was; Evan said it might mean it didn’t survive the glaze firing and was just thrown in the bin.

‘Or it could mean someone has sticky fingers,’ Marg said quietly to me after it happened a few times. I was shocked at the thought someone would do that, but Marg was sure it happened. She’d taken evening classes at the school for years. She’d seen it all, she said.

‘There’s no honour among artists,’ she said, glancing around the room. ‘Especially if you’re better than they are.’ A lot of Dodd’s work had also gone missing. He was the only man in our class. He and Evan had had a pretty heated argument in the last class that Dodd came to. I’d missed most of it, but I came into the studio as Dodd was packing up his toolkit.

‘You’re not fooling anyone,’ he said to Evan as he walked past on his way to the door.

Evan had looked very hurt and dramatically stunned by this encounter. A few of the younger women in the class had rushed to his side and had been very consoling. I think that was the night a bunch of them started going out for drinks after class. Linda, one of the young and earnest female students, said it would do Evan some good to relax. ‘You work so hard,’ she told him as a few others grabbed their coats to leave. Marg and I weren’t included and stood watching their retreating figures head off down the hall and into the night.

‘Well, I’m done I think,’ Marg said as she packed up her tools and brushes.

‘See you next week,’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m done with this class. I can’t be arsed to come back. I’ll just write this one off.’

‘Oh, right,’ I said, taken aback by how upset I felt. She had been the only other student I had got to know. There had been a bunch of people drop out, actually. Of the original sixteen the class was down to nine. ‘That happens,’ Evan said in the next class as he smiled at ‘his’ girls. ‘The cream always rises to the top, and anyway, I like smaller classes. Much more intimate.’ The eight other women in the class, the younger ones who had gone for drinks the week before, laughed uproariously at this.


It was so small it could fit in the palm of my hand, and perfect, I thought. I had been so excited about this little bowl that I’d come in early to see if it had survived, going straight into the kiln room to check the class shelf. The soft pink and coral glazes had swirled together into a colourful, pretty cascade. It glowed as if it were a small and beautiful flower unfolding its petals. I had bought a few expensive little bottles of glaze from a place in England. We weren’t allowed into the glaze room without Evan there to make sure we didn’t contaminate any of the school’s glazes, but he never seemed to have time during class to help me find what I wanted. He would always point out the four standard glazes he put out each class.

‘I myself only use those four glazes. It’s all anyone could want, really,’ he said, once again too busy with someone else to help me find the mythically bright-coloured glazes I was desperate to try. His work consisted of black, white and two shades of grey.

‘Yeah,’ said Linda. ‘Those four glazes are all we need.’ She came over to stand by Evan. The other students seemed happy to produce simple, monotone forms that were so much like the work Evan proudly showed us each and every class. One night he had even brought in a slide projector and spent an hour going through his career as the misunderstood and underrated artist he was happy to call himself.

It was the same with the clay we were provided with in class. It was a buff speckled clay that was Evan’s choice. There were other clays in the storage room, but he never bothered to bring any into the studio.

‘Trust me,’ he said, smiling indulgently at me, ‘it’s what you need.’ Linda and the others looked at me with something like disbelief when I didn’t react to Evan’s smile as they would have. I’d just thought it would be nice to try something different.

He didn’t comment on my perfect little bowl when he came in a few minutes after me, though he did glance at it. Angela, one of Linda’s friends, walked in behind him and exclaimed, ‘That’s quite nice,’ smiling at me. Then she looked at Evan and her smile faded.

‘It’s quite… decorative,’ Evan said and walked towards his office. Angela followed. I ordered a few more bright glazes and also a few samples of different clays to try. The shipping was a lot, but I didn’t care.


As usual, they were all in the room with the wheels trying to throw the simple shapes that Evan liked so much. I could hear the sound of the wheels turning and whirling in unison.

We had been given a throwing demonstration the second week of class when we were still sixteen students. Evan easily and gracefully threw cylinder after cylinder as we all watched.

‘See,’ he said, ‘nothing to it.’

I tried, as the whole class did after the demonstration, but I couldn’t even centre the clay properly. I tried again and again but I could not pull anything resembling a cylinder. I had a mound of wet and useless clay at the end of the class. The few students Evan had spent the class helping had managed to pull semblances of cylinders and Evan proudly held them up for all the rest of us to see. ‘Yeah, nothing to it,’ Marg had said sarcastically, sitting beside me looking at her own mound of slumped wet clay.

After that, I settled on hand building forms, though I was the only one. It meant I was in the studio on my own most of the time as everyone else spent the class at the wheels. I was happy to have the extra space and it didn’t really bother me as I sat and listened to them laughing and going over the events of all their nights out together with Evan. I would just get lost in the clay and the making, thinking of the shapes and forms I would try and the glazes I would use. It was more than enough to keep me happy.

A week before our last class Evan had gone over the end-of-year exhibition that took place every spring. All the school’s evening classes took part in the show as a fun celebration of creativity.

‘There’s limited space for us, but usually you will get one piece into the exhibition,’ Evan told us. ‘And if you’re really lucky and extra special, you might get two pieces in.’ They all laughed at this. ‘So, maybe put two or three of your best pieces up on our shelf next week and I’ll pick out the ones for the show and arrange them. Trust me, I’ve done this a few times before,’ he said, winking over towards Linda and Angela, who giggled.

I was so lost in my head, thinking about what pieces I would choose for Evan to consider, that I didn’t pay much attention to the plans being made for the night out after the last class.

‘Why don’t we all go back to mine?’ Evan said. ‘It’ll be a tight squeeze but I think we’ll manage!’ Again, they all laughed at Evan’s cheeky comment. He made a lot of them. Angela was sitting next to me and she looked over at me as we all started packing up our stuff, an uncomfortable expression on her face.

‘I guess you could come too – you know, if you wanted to,’ she said to me.

‘Hmm?’ I asked, looking at her in surprise.

‘Well, you could, I guess,’ she said, not unkindly, but Linda came over and stood beside her, looking at me with a sweetish smile on her face. I noticed they were wearing pretty much the same thing. Black jeans and long-sleeved black jumpers. Looking around I realised all the other students were wearing the same ensemble. Of course, that was what Evan had worn to every class we had had over the months – the same black skinny jeans that would be covered in clay and dust and an equally messy oversized black jumper. It was his uniform of sorts. As I headed towards my car, I wondered how long all the other students had been dressing the same.


Our last class was a chaotic few hours that I didn’t really enjoy. I had arrived late with my precious three bowls covered up safely in bubble wrap and newspaper. Everyone else had put their pieces out on the workbenches in an impromptu display. I noticed they all had paper cups and were drinking beer or wine, the bottles discreetly sitting on Evan’s desk in the office.

There wasn’t much space on the workbenches; most people had brought in more than three pieces and many of them were quite tall and wide. I squeezed into a space beside Angela and quietly unwrapped my little pots.

‘You know, your stuff is kind of pretty,’ she said quietly as I put my three little bowls on the communal work surface. She was right that they were different to everyone else’s work. Everything on display was black, white or two different shades of grey on the buff speckled clay. All the work had been thrown on the wheel and was uniform and cylindrical. There were slight variations here and there, but the uniformity of the work was striking, as if it were all done by the same artist.

My three wee bowls were bright and organic in shape, and made from a porcelain white stoneware. I had embellished the forms with textures and various glazes that blended and moved across the surfaces. I thought they were lovely. Each was about three inches high and appeared delicate. I had picked three that were all in shades of pinks. They glowed in the high overhead fluorescent lights of the studio, looking odd and out of place amongst all the large, monochrome works.

Everyone had stopped talking. Evan was holding his cup and looking over at Angela and me. I couldn’t read his expression – it was one I had not seen before. He wasn’t happy, I thought. Linda, standing close beside Evan, put her hand on his arm and pointed to one of her cylinders, laughing about how it was the biggest in the room. Evan drank his wine down all in one, grabbed the bottle from his desk and filled up his cup and everyone else’s. He came round to where I was sitting and actually offered me some, but I refused. I didn’t really drink a lot and it was a Monday night. I would have to drive home in a few hours.

He looked down at my dwarfed little pots and didn’t say anything. Everyone was looking over at us. I was acutely aware I had on an old purple corduroy shirt and blue jeans in a room of black.

Then the drinking and loud laughter began again and I felt better. I stayed for about half an hour before I slipped into the kiln room where our shelf was and put my pots safely up on it. I got my coat and made my way towards the door.

‘See you at the exhibition,’ I said as I left.

‘Yeah, sure,’ Evan said, not looking at me. I heard their laughter start up again as I was halfway down the hall.


My husband was sulking in the car as we drove. There was some match on that he wanted to watch – but then, since we had begun paying for Sky Sports I noticed there was always a match on.

He hadn’t paid much attention to my adventures in ceramics these past eight months, but that was OK. We were at an age where our expectations of each other were fairly low. Our kids were gone and we had done a fair job in getting them up and away on their own. We were good. And that should have been enough, but I had wanted just a bit more, just a bit of something new. I’m not sure he noticed I was gone for three hours every Monday night. I was no better: we could have both paid more attention.

He had no idea how excited I was. I was almost beside myself at the thought of one of my little bowls on display in an actual exhibition. I did my best to hide this eagerness from my husband – it wasn’t hard – since I was a bit embarrassed at how much it all had come to mean to me.

The car park was full. The evening classes included eight different subjects, with several classes for each subject. We found a space and I dragged him in, promising we would only have to stay a few minutes if he was that unhappy.

There was a mass of people, everyone chatting and excitedly wandering the halls and open spaces of the school. During the day it was a proper art school with proper art students, but in the evenings – and this evening in particular – it was owned by the often older and eager amateur art students. I pushed my way to the area near the atrium where the display for the three ceramics classes was located. All the classes were taught by Evan, as he liked to tell us. Marg had asked, when she had still been in the class, if he taught any of the degree courses during the day, and he had generously said that he preferred the evening classes as he found the students much more earnest. She had rolled her eyes at this. I’d missed Marg’s eye-rolls after she left.

I found the display cases, my husband close behind me. I had to push my way gently forward to be able to see into them. I saw the many and various cylinders in shades of grey, black and white. Each had the student’s name printed on a label and placed close to their work. I eagerly searched the cabinets for mine. Then I went back and searched them again.

None of my bowls were there.

I recognised several of the pieces by women in my class. Linda had three of her very large pots in one of the display cases and Angela had four of her smaller ones close by, but not a single one of mine was anywhere.

I didn’t understand.

I told my husband to help himself to the free food and wine, and once again I slowly searched everywhere they could possibly be. Still I couldn’t find any of them.

The overwhelming excitement I had felt was quickly turning into something else, something very different. All I could think was that I had put my bowls in the wrong place, that I had made a mistake and Evan hadn’t known where they were. That was the only answer. It was my fault my bowl wasn’t there.

I looked over and saw my husband happily munching away on some crisps. It was safe to leave him for a few minutes, so I walked to the other side of the building where the ceramics area was. Maybe the door would be open; maybe I could find my wee bowls.

The hallways were empty in this part of the school. I could see as I rounded a corner that the door to the studio was open.

My heart suddenly pounding, I walked into the studio space and went straight to the kiln room where the shelves for student work were. I had done this on so many evenings with such anticipation. That was all gone as I looked up and saw, on the almost empty shelf, my three bright and shining bowls.

I felt as if I couldn’t quite breathe. They were all alone except for a couple of grey cylinders, one of which was broken. I hadn’t put them on the wrong shelf. Evan could not have missed them.

I heard the laughter from deep within my mental fog. Unknowingly, I had reached up and taken down the smallest of the bowls and was holding it in my hand. I turned, walked out of the kiln room and looked towards where the laughter had come from.

Linda came unsteadily round the corner from Evan’s office, followed first by Angela and then Evan. They were obviously drunk – they each had a paper cup in their hands and Evan was holding a bottle of vodka in his other hand. They stopped when they saw me. We stood looking at each other.

Linda glanced down at my hands holding what I thought was something with value, something special, and then she burst out laughing. She laughed so hard that she doubled over and dropped her cup on the floor and then stumbled about trying to retrieve it, still laughing. Evan tried to keep his face serious and straight, but then he too was laughing almost uncontrollably. He pointed at me and said something I couldn’t quite understand; my head suddenly seemed full and dull. Angela didn’t laugh – she just looked at me in embarrassment. It felt as if everything had suddenly slowed down, as if I was underwater. I felt trapped. Endlessly trapped in that moment.

Somehow, without thought, I turned and left. I fled down the empty hall, but before going to find my husband I looked down at my hands and the bowl they held. It had been the most beautiful thing in the world to me only moments before. Now I saw what they saw: the tawdry, garish pinks, the awkward construction, a sad, small bowl. I was grateful I was alone.

As we walked to the car in the chill of the spring evening, I stopped suddenly. The other two bowls were on the shelf in the kiln room, abandoned. I wanted to run back and save them, to protect them from that laughter I could still hear, from their own horrible imperfections and foolish hopes, but I knew I couldn’t. I could never walk into that studio again.

I reached for the car door but my husband’s reach was quicker. I looked up at him in surprise as he pulled it open. Even in the dim grey light I could see a confused concern in his eyes.

‘Lass?’ he asked softly. He’d not called me that in years. I looked up at him for a moment and moved a bit closer.

‘You’ve crumbs all over you,’ I said, gently brushing them away before I got into the car and waited for the long, silent drive home.



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