For many years, a group of friends and I visited arts and craft shows together and came up with a simple mantra — “We can do that”– which we intoned after each show. After years of completing, collectively, dozens of craft projects, a recent experience challenged that mantra.
On a guided tour of Portugal, our group visited Ceramicas de Coimbra and saw demonstrations of the steps involved in creating glazed ceramic ware — vases, dishes, flower pots, trays, pitchers, tea pots, and more — also called majolica. Painting the completed pieces was the most intricate step in the production, and probably a fast road to slumped shoulders and poor eyesight. Yet the all-female painting team worked silently and efficiently, too busy to utter a discouraging word.
We saw about a thousand ceramic pieces waiting for someone to paint them. I imagined a painter completing one project, and shouting out, “Hooray! I’m done,” then looking up at the shelves filling the warehouse and crying. Sisyphus, who was only required to roll a boulder uphill for eternity, had it easy. Still, countless completed pieces were stacked on other shelves, proving these women weren’t quitters.
After the tour, our guide, Cristina, ushered us into the factory lunchroom. There she gave each of us a white tile. Our instructions? Simply turn out a beautifully decorated tile and finish before the employees needed the space for lunch, that is, in twenty or twenty-five minutes.
“I’m not doing it,” said my husband, who, unlike me, actually does have artistic talents. “I’ll watch you paint.”
Six of us sat around each table. Bowls of paint — primary colors, plus black and brown — filled the center.
We could choose a stencil or paint freehand. I went for a stencil of a pear, because it was the simplest design among the dozen available. The first step involved tamping black powder over the stencil. It was not a difficult task and lowered my stress level…for a second.
Now that I had my design, all I needed was to fill in the blank spaces, a sort of paint-by-numbers without the numbers. I reached into the container of brushes and pulled one out, only to find that each was a two-in-one. One half contained spindly bristles for fine work, and the other half broader bristles to make sweeping strokes.
It took only seconds to discover I could not make the spindly brush paint anything fine, and using the larger one I swept far outside the lines of my stencil. Enter my husband. His strategy was to add borders and extra lines to take the viewer’s eyes entirely off the pear. I glanced at other people’s tiles. Not too bad. Their brushes must have been better than mine.
Finally, Cristina announced that we needed to clear out. Before I could search out a waste basket, the owner of the factory had collected all the tiles.
Four days later in another city, Cristina invited us to a happy hour on the rooftop of our hotel. She had laid out every tile. “Quick. Find ours,” I said to my husband, “so we can hide it.” Regrettably, before we found it, twenty-six pairs of eyes had already viewed it.
We packed our tile and took it home with us. It lasted as long as the walk from the suitcase to the garbage can. Scrapping the evidence allows me to keep saying, “I can do that.”