Curious about clay? The judges of The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down have some excellent advice

Brendan Tang and Natalie Waddell talk about getting into pottery, working with Seth Rogen and their exciting new show.

Brendan Tang and Natalie Waddell talk about getting into pottery and working with Seth Rogen

L-R: Jennifer Robinson (host), Seth Rogen (executive producer), Brendan Tang and Natalie Waddell (judges).
L-R: Jennifer Robinson (host), Seth Rogen (executive producer), Brendan Tang and Natalie Waddell (judges). (Photo by Erich Saide)

Throughout the study of ancient civilizations, pottery and clay tools — including earthenware, stoneware and porcelain — have been integral to our understanding of these societies. The enduring fascination with pottery, a craft practiced for millennia, has found new life on social media, where enthusiasts can instantly share their creations and techniques, bridging centuries of tradition with the modern digital age. 

We first observed Seth Rogen — an award-winning actor, producer and director — sharing his initial ventures into pottery on his Instagram account. His journey and passion for the craft have since led him to co-found Houseplant and, most recently, to become an executive producer and guest judge on The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down, which is streaming now on CBC Gem, and debuts tonight on CBC TV at 8 p.m.

Now, ten potters from across Canada will take the wheel in the new competition series that showcases their creativity and resourcefulness. 

Brendan Tang, a Vancouver-based ceramics artist, and Natalie Waddell, a professional potter and educator based in Toronto, will judge each challenge, joined on occasion by Rogen, while sharing their own bits of pottery wisdom.

I sat down with Tang and Waddell to talk about their love for sculpting clay, how to overcome challenges as a beginner and what we can expect from The Great Canadian Pottery Throw Down.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

What are your thoughts on the growing interest in crafting and creating items by hand, such as pottery? 

Tang: I think it's wonderful! As a maker myself, I get joy from using my hands and not being in front of a screen. It's that opportunity to sort of zone in and get into that flow state. I love it. I'm just excited that a lot of people are getting into it.

Waddell: I appreciate people understanding and learning about the process of working with their hands, as well as the connection pottery can give us to our historic ancestry — how long we've been working with clay and that connection to our past.

Natalie Waddell
Natalie Waddell. (Photo by Erich Saide)

What attracted you to pottery in the first place? 

Waddell: I started really enjoying pottery at an early point of my life, when my parents were decorating with china in the '80s and I wasn't allowed to touch it. You know, tell me I can't do something and, sure enough, I'll do it for the rest of my life!

Tang: So it was a rebellious act that got you?

Waddell: I think rebellion for sure! My parents were so concerned about the toxicity of glazes that they were like, "Don't touch these things!" So, I was fixated. 

Tang: I was a kid who grew up with comic books and fantasy and all that sort of stuff. So, I'd be drawing these things and it was like being in an illusionary space. Then I got the opportunity to make something out of clay. I was just like, "Oh my god, I get to share the same space with an object or a sculpture that I've made." And that just blew my mind: the idea of making something three-dimensional that came from my imagination and came from my hands. I think the dopamine hit from that was just too big to not keep going. 

Brendan Tang
Brendan Tang. (Photo by Erich Saide)

What's a common challenge for beginner potters that you, as educators, see and what's your advice to overcome it?

Waddell: I'm teaching folks the importance of slowing down and being mindful when you work with this material. You have to very much be in the moment, pay attention to what's happening and be very conscious of your movement. And that can be the biggest hurdle for most people, because they're just so busy all the time. They don't know how to do that. 

Tang: It's so much about slowing down and creating space to learn. I think we've all been in that situation where we want to learn a new thing, and so we go to YouTube and play the video and then we're like, "This is too slow. I'm going to put it at 1.5x speed." But you can't do that with pottery. It's slow. It's methodical. And I think that in a lot of ways, the material weeds out a lot of folks that get frustrated with it. But at the same time, it is so infectious. People get bitten by the bug, like, hardcore.

What should the audience know about pottery before watching this show?

Waddell: No homework is needed beforehand. Just enjoy a really positive competition-based show, where you get to see people having fun and doing things in a small window of time.

Tang: There are so many similarities to The Great Canadian Baking Show, where I'm always learning in that space and also being entertained. I feel like this show has a very similar vibe to it. Also, seeing people be so generous with one another — it's just so cosy. 

Waddell: It's such a nice group of Canadian people being typically Canadian. 

What surprised you most about this first group of potters?

Tang: How good they were! They were really good! They had us at the edge of our seats. Every step of the way, I'd be like, "I don't have to decide who's going to be the frontrunner, the kiln will decide." And then everything would come out perfect. And then I'd be like, "I'll let the glaze decide." But everything would work out really well. So we were really splitting hairs every episode.

Waddell: The level of craftsmanship of all of the participants was so high. And it was so fabulous to see all of their personalities come out in each challenge and to get to know them a little bit through each one. 

In the first episode, the potters have to recreate Seth's first-ever pottery project, an  ashtray, in the "Throwdown" challenge. How would you rate Seth's own first attempt?

Tang: Hahaha, awesome! I think my parents still have the first bowl that I threw, and it looks almost exactly like that, without the notch. So I'd be like, "Yep, that's par for the course." 

Waddell: Seth's ashtray was actually really lovely and refined, and I loved that there was a connection to him and the first pot that he made that really clued him into his love of pottery. Letting all the artists sort of take their own spin on it and make something like it, but insert their own personality, was great. 

Tang: There are so many opportunities to fail [with ceramics] and as somebody who works in clay, you just get used to it. You just get used to those sorts of trials and tribulations right out of the gate. There are very few people that get to the wheel and are, like, a virtuoso right from the get-go. I think it's such a wonderfully challenging material to work in. 

Speaking of Seth, what was it like to work with him? Have any passion-for-pottery chats?

Tang: I think I was always really starstruck being around Seth — because he's Seth Rogen. But once we got into talking about ceramics and talking shop, my nerves calmed down. 

Waddell: Yeah, when we started talking about our favourite tools and our studio setups it just felt really sort of normal and less, "Oh my God, Mr. Hollywood!"

Brendan Tang and Natalie Waddell chat with Seth Rogen in front of a table with ceramics on it and they are surrounded by cameras.
L-R: Brendan Tang, Natalie Waddell and Seth Rogen. (Photo courtesy of CBC)

What are your thoughts on finding the balance between functionality and aesthetics in pottery?

Waddell: In the context of this show, the different challenges that we gave the contestants to work with were focused on expressiveness and getting them to reveal their personalities. Then we had other challenges that were very functional. So, I'd say you can't really compare those separate things to each other. There are functional pieces. There are more aesthetically creative, nonfunctional pieces. But you don't really compare them side by side.

Tang: Yeah, the wonderful thing about ceramics is that you can slide into functionality or make it an expressive piece or an artistic, conceptual piece. If [the potters] knew it was about being more conceptual or expressive, they just knocked it out of the park. But if they knew that they had to make a teapot that poured, they also would rise to that challenge. 

What advice would you give to someone who wants to pursue pottery professionally?

Waddell: I would [talk] about the importance of loving the process. 

Tang: One of the other wonderful things about ceramics is its community. And I think you see this in the show, how collegial the potters are with one another. I would suggest, for anybody wanting to get into it, to start working at a communal studio and getting to know people. Ceramics people love to hold potlucks and they love to share glaze recipes. They love to give each other tips and stuff like that. I think it's such a wonderful part of ceramics  — that we really do celebrate one another as many times as we can. So, getting into that will take you pretty far. 


Michelle Villagracia is a writer and producer for CBC Life and CBC Arts who loves to bake and uses movie quotes to express real human emotions. She also tries to insert D&D or her cat into every conversation. Follow her on Instagram @mivi3k.

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