Playing in the Dirt

Dorodango by Bruce Gardner, from a deposit of soil in Placitas, New Mexico

Dorodango by Bruce Gardner, from a deposit of soil in Placitas, New Mexico

I first encountered dorodango some five or six years ago, in an art gallery in Santa Fe. The perfectly round ceramic spheres had been glazed, or so I thought, in earth tones of deep rust, rich brown, inky black, ochre. Silent as buddhas, each nestled upon its own small silk pillow. And then I read the artist’s statement.

The dorodango were not ceramic or kiln-fired orbs at all, but mud balls! That’s right plain old dirt and water taken to amazing heights by Bruce Gardner, the artist. I was utterly enchanted. Making hikaru dorodango, I read, is a traditional pastime of Japanese schoolchildren.  Well if schoolchildren can make them, how hard could it be?

Not until last summer did I try my hand at it, and let me tell you, it’s not so easy. The mixture of dirt and water has to be perfect. Once you have shaped as perfect a sphere as you can, you can’t let it dry too quickly or condense from within too slowly.  The finer dirt that creates the outer shell can’t be applied too early, else the inner core will shrink and pull away. The most finely sifted particulates of dirt that are applied last can’t be applied too soon or polished too vigorously. It took me about a dozen tries before I had something that held together. But instead of a high gloss, it had a dull matte finish that eroded no matter how gently I rubbed.

Out in red rock country, surrounded by glorious red dirt, I thought I’d try again.  And again.  And again. My respect for Bruce Gardner grew each time I mushed my mud back into my bucket to begin again. Finally I quit trying so hard, recalling that dorodango began as a child’s endeavor.

And wouldn’t you know, that’s when a seedling of success began to sprout.  I waited for the dorodango to dry just enough to accept the sifted dirt that would form the outer shell. The technique on Gardner’s website was beyond me, but I found my own rhythm — sprinkling and rotating until a coating, smooth and suede-like, began to adhere and thicken. I was loathe to take the final step — applying the finest sifting of dust and then polishing. What if the shell began to disintegrate? What if I was left with dull and dry instead of glossy and gleaming? I recalled the cat-in-the-box experiment: the cat can be both dead and alive until one opens the box.  As long as I didn’t begin the final step, my dorodango wasn’t a failure.

Once I made peace with the idea that it might just fail again,  I began the last step. Bit by bit it began to gleam. In a couple of spots the outer shell eroded minutely. It’s not anywhere near as shiny as Bruce Gardner’s, nor as smooth. But it’s a bona fide dorodango. I can’t wait to make another one.  And little silk pillow, to boot, for my first success.

My first dorodango, from a deposit of soil in Sedona, AZ

My first dorodango, from a deposit of soil in Sedona, AZ

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2 thoughts on “Playing in the Dirt

  1. Linda Anger

    What a great lesson, Debra – and sometimes the “stories” of our lives fall apart, disintegrate, or don’t polish up the way we hoped. Great Job, great story!

    Linda

  2. Iris

    Amazing perfect circles of dirt made by two hands. And I thought my mud pies of childhood were something else.
    Thanks for the story, Debra.

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