When Melissa Older first sat down at a pottery wheel, she knew she'd finally found the right fit.
She had tried her hand at other ventures, from making Barbie clothes on a sewing machine as a child to writing stories as a stringer for the Pottstown Mercury News. There was something about putting herself out there, she said, whether with her crafts or with a byline, that she enjoyed.
So she continued to dabble, until she had a baby.
"Then I had to look around for other ways of being creative and getting my work out there," said Older, now 40. She needed something that would allow her more flexibility, without having to meet deadlines or find a baby-sitter while out on a reporting assignment, she said.
Getting clay instruction was a last-minute idea. Older thought the adult education class was one of those paint-your-own-ceramics kind of things. Instead, her instructor sat her down at the wheel and gave her a clump of mud. And then, it clicked.
"You get in there and you stop thinking about anything else," she said. "I don't need music to distract me. I work in silence."
Now going on 12 years as a potter, Older feels she has hit her stride. Mostly she works in "functional" wares - coffee mugs, plates, teapots.
Until three years ago, she shared space at a studio with other potters. When the studio closed, she decided to install her own kiln in her home. That created a whole new learning curve, she said.
"Before, I could make anything I wanted, and I had a huge palette of glazes and worked out of someone else's shop," she said. "Now I have to find glazes that work for me and my firing method, and that can be a huge, huge challenge."
Success can depend on anything from the type of glaze or the level of heat to the vessel itself or the clay's origins, she said.
She's started branching out into different textures and processes, inspired by other potters and new classes.
One of her specialties is the basket-weave technique, in which she starts with a circle and rectangle cutout and a textured object - almost like a large stamp - to create a surface with muted colors that looks fibrous.
Right now though, the teapots present the biggest challenge. They have to look good, but they also must pour smoothly and lift comfortably. She also takes part in challenges hosted by the indie craft sale site etsy.com in which she competes against fellow potters. She recently won a casserole-pan-making contest.
And what did she choose as her prize? A mug, of course.
"I am a mug collector myself - I know I have a certain style and colors, but it's fun to collect something from different potters who have different color palettes or styles," she said.
Now with three children, ages 12, 8 and 4, Older tackles most of her work in the mornings, and sometimes her husband, a software engineer who crafts hand-built clay on the side, adds intricate designs to bowls or candle votives.
Most of her work is sold on etsy, but she also brings her wares to craft shows and ships to stores in western Pennsylvania and California. It's not a full-time gig, but it's enough to keep her hands and her crafty needs satisfied.
"To throw something on the wheel and create something from a piece of mud," she says, "it's the most incredible feeling."