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Archive for Sunday, September 3, 2000

Without sight or hands, artist creates pottery

Handicapped veteran surmounts limitations

September 3, 2000

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— Bill Wedekind removes a large mass of clay from a plastic bag, slowly and meticulously pulling the plastic off the corners of the square hunk of material before cutting off a usable piece.

Kneading and pounding, Wedekind begins to soften the clay, readying it for the wheel.

Next, he wets the material and begins to spin the wheel, slowly taking the edges off the clay, shaping and molding what eventually would become a large bowl.

Where another potter would use the heel of the hand to smooth out the bottom of the bowl, Wedekind uses his elbow. Where another potter would feel details with his fingertips, Wedekind touches with his lips.

The fluidity of his movements, the ease with which he moves around his work room, his slow determination yet total confidence when encountering problems are impressive -- and surprising.

After all, few potters work using neither sight nor hands.

Wedekind lost his eyes and both hands just above the wrist during combat May 25, 1968, when he was a Marine fighting in the Vietnam War. It happened about two weeks before his 19th birthday.

In the years since, he has become an artist, creating vases, bowls, plates and mugs in the shop at his home in rural Westmoreland in Riley County. Lining the shelves along the walls of his shop are pieces he will sell at craft shows and exhibitions across the state. An American flag hangs on one wall.

"It's neat to take a shapeless lump and turn it into something pretty," he said while smoking his pipe, which almost seemed as much a part of his body as the plastic eyes that help give him a more normal, though unblinking, appearance.

Wedekind said that after losing his hands, he realized the prosthetic hands he had simply wouldn't do. They had no sense of touch, and without sight, he didn't know what they were doing or touching.

So, he had a special operation. The bones of his forearms became two large "fingers," working in a pincer-like fashion to grasp and manipulate objects. His forearm muscles provide the substantial strength of these new hands, which Wedekind has become adept at using. The 51-year-old said he has never heard of another potter with a disability like his.

Injury changed his life

Born and reared in Manhattan, Wedekind came from a military family. His grandfather served in World War I. His father, Arthur Wedekind, of Manhattan, fought in World War II and Korea and served in China. All three Marines received Purple Hearts.

The oldest of five brothers, Bill Wedekind found himself well-prepared for boot camp and the mentality that goes with military life. He joined the Marines in September 1967, and by March he was in Vietnam.

Wedekind soon found himself deep in combat. One day, risk overtook him. He doesn't remember exactly what happened, but the official reports were that he had encountered a North Vietnamese booby trap.

In addition to his hands and eyes, he lost his front upper teeth and received massive damage to his head; a steel plate was inserted.

Wedekind discovered that prosthetic hands didn't work for a blind man. Without sight, he couldn't tell what his new "hands" were doing or touching.

He remedied that situation with two special operations, which gave him the two-fingered "hands" he has today.

Grandmother suggests new beginning

In 1968, Wedekind visited his grandmother during his first trip home to Manhattan since being injured. She was a skilled potter and suggested that he take up the art. Wedekind didn't seriously consider it.

"I told her I had trouble getting dressed in the mornings," he said, "so how the hell was I going to make pots?"

As he was preparing to leave the VA hospital and the Marines forever, he met with military job counselors who told him he should be an accountant because he was good with numbers. However, Wedekind couldn't read Braille fast enough. Without fingers, he had learned to read using his lips, but was reading slowly.

For almost four years his grandmother tutored him, and he took pottery classes at Kansas State University.

Now, he's a skilled potter, selling his work at craft shows and fairs for anywhere from $12 to $200 per piece. In 1976, Wedekind exhibited his work in Washington, D.C., at an art show sponsored by the President's Committee for Employment of the Handicapped.

Limitations are overcome

Learning to make pottery wasn't easy, he said. He had to design his own techniques.

For example, if he wants to create a very detailed object, he doesn't have sensitive fingers to relay the information to him.

"When I want to know what something really looks like, I'll use my lips," said Wedekind, who on some days spends as much as eight to 12 hours creating pottery.

Wedekind thinks that people's limitations can be overcome.

"If you're willing to work hard enough, do things a little different, and put up with a few failures, you can do it," he said.

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