Mindful Maker Interview: Kristen Kieffer
Developing proper studio ergonomics is crucial for the longevity of our careers as makers. In this interview, Kristen Kieffer talks about her experience with ergonomics as a Studio Potter and explains what it means to be “purposefully inefficient.”
Missy Graff Ballone: Please tell me about your background and your work.
Kristen Kieffer: I received my Associate's degree from Montgomery College in Rockville, MD, my BFA from the New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University, and my MFA from Ohio University. I started having back problems while I was still an undergraduate. In most ceramics programs the students mix the clay, which involves lifting multiple fifty pound bags. When I was in my early twenties I was very macho and didn’t ask for help, so I would mix five hundred pounds of clay at a time and load kilns with heavy shelves by myself. Cumulative lifting is what caused my back to “go out.” It was probably a pinched sciatic nerve, but I never saw a specialist about it. I went to the school doctor and remember spending the next week or two in bed heavily medicated. My back would continue to go out nearly once a year for about ten years after that, but I didn’t have health insurance to properly be diagnosed.
One of my professors from Alfred University, Val Cushing, encouraged me to do an internship at the Greenfield Village Pottery at the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit after I graduated. This was the first time I stood to throw, which was mainly for visitor visibility, but it made a big difference for my back. Being in Michigan coincidentally put me in proximity to studio potter John Glick. He is well-known for his work, but also because his back issues almost ended his career. He has written two articles about back health for The Studio Potter magazine, “To Sciatica and Back” (1987) and “Down the Spinal Canal” (2001). I worked with him for one year from 1996-97. Like him after his back issues, all of his assistants over the years stood to throw. The backrest design that I continue to use is from him.
So, I have been standing to throw since the fall of 1995. I think that standing to throw, loading a kiln that is smaller with less heavy shelves, buying clay instead of mixing my own (my studio is in my home, so mixing clay isn’t something that is very plausible since it’s a very dusty activity), and asking for help when there is a lot to lift are the things that have allowed me to carry on with my career.
MGB: Can you describe your studio setup and the backrest that you mentioned?
Kristen Kieffer: My backrest is designed after the one John Glick wrote about in his first article for The Studio Potter. He was always a big tinkerer and had a woodshop attached to his ceramics studio to make tools and anything else he needed, so it was very obvious for him to design something that could allow him to throw in a healthier way. The backrest provides support for both your back and bottom, allowing you to gain leverage by pushing against the wall, whereas someone who is sitting gets their leverage from leaning over with their forearms and elbows on their thighs.
Standing is very comfortable because your torso is fairly straight, and you’re working in front of your chest rather than doubled over with your nose to the clay. The type of potter’s wheel can affect the set up a little bit. My wheel (a Soldner) is configured such that there is extra leg room underneath it. I keep my foot pedal on the floor. However, if the same foot is on the pedal all the time and the other is on the floor, particularly without the backrest, your hips are torqued and this can also cause injury. John would change his foot pedal to the other side halfway through the day to stay balanced. I just have a piece of wood underneath my left foot to mimic the position of my right, so my hips are aligned. So, simply elevating the wheel isn’t necessarily the answer.
MGB: Do you teach this style of throwing to others?
Kristen Kieffer: I do. I teach around five workshops nationally per year, and at a craft center locally during the school year. In both situations, I stand to throw and talk about why it’s beneficial. Most ceramic studios don’t have the room to elevate all the wheels, so almost everyone learns to throw while sitting. Body health and safety are discussed much more now than they were twenty years ago, so it comes up readily when I teach. I always talk to my adult community students about being aware of their bodies and standing up often while they’re working. If they are not going to stand to throw, I encourage them to elevate the wheel so they are not completely bent over.
MGB: How has your studio practice been affected by standing? Did your work or technique change when you began throwing this way?
Kristen Kieffer: My first throwing instructor at Montgomery College had wrist surgery for ceramics-related issues, so I learned to throw in such a way that my wrists aren’t extended back. I keep my wrists aligned with my hands so I don’t put unnecessary pressure on my wrists when I throw. I teach this as much as I can and talk about it at workshops. Sitting to throw is bad enough, but some students learn to tuck their elbows into their hips and bend their wrists back to center. This technique can cause the wrists to hyperextend and lead to injury.
One of my graduate school professors also had wrist surgeries, mostly from wedging (the potter’s version of kneading). He would wedge a couple hundred pounds of clay in the mornings to prepare for throwing, instead of wedging as he worked. He had wrist surgery twice on one wrist and then once on the other. Despite surgery, he continues to have tingling issues in his hands, particularly at night.
So back to your question, I have learned what I need to do to take care of my body from being around people who have had injuries. I have not changed my work, but I have changed the pace and flow of how I work. During my year-long internship at Greenfield Village I made two hundred pots a month, so I know how to efficiently make a lot of work, but efficiency is taxing on the body. Repetitive activity is what causes injury. In my studio, I regularly change activities, and refer to it as being “purposefully inefficient.” For example, if I am working on a series of thirty cups, instead of wedging thirty one-pound balls of clay all at once, I wedge five or ten and then throw, and repeat. Changing activities regularly prevents injuries that can occur through repetition, like carpal tunnel syndrome.
MGB: Do you practice stretching in your studio?
Kristen Kieffer: I don’t really stretch, but I do exercise. My husband who is a woodworker and powerlifter reminds me that strength training is great way of taking care of myself. Strengthening stomach and back muscles supports your spine. Having stronger arms means that you don’t need to use your back as much when you are lifting heavy objects. We talk about exercise for being generally healthy, but it also gives us specific benefits in our work.
MGB: Do you have any advice for our readers on how to make their studios more ergonomically correct?
Kristen Kieffer: The main thing I would say is to be aware of your body. If it hurts, you need to figure out a different way of performing the activities that may be contributing to the pain. I always try to work so that I’m not hunched over. Table and work surface heights are important. I have a banding wheel (the potter’s lazy susan) on my work table that is elevated and can be adjusted to accommodate small or large work so I can stay comfortably straight-backed.
A potter can place a mirror in front of themselves while throwing so they can look at what they are working on in the mirror instead of leaning over to see it.
My studio is designed so that I can be fairly self-sufficient. One of my work tables and all of my glazes are on wheels so they can be moved readily without unnecessary lifting. Glazing is my next back hurdle though. I have to bend over more than I would like while dipping and pouring glaze. Ideally, I would have a permanent glaze space like John Glick such that the glaze buckets live on benches at a good ergonomic height, so I wouldn’t have to bend over, nor would they need to be lifted up and down during every glaze session. This setup requires more space than I currently have, however.
The important elements of a healthy studio are equipment (backrest, table heights, whatever accessories make your movements easier) and being purposefully inefficient by dividing your activities. It’s worth it to take breaks and work a little slower to maintain a pain-free, healthy body.