Photos courtesy of Dax Newman

This 18-year-old California kid makes pottery on TikTok

Dax Newman has racked up millions of followers by posting videos of his mug-making endeavours online.

by Douglas Greenwood
03 April 2020, 3:45pm

Photos courtesy of Dax Newman

Dax Newman knows who Patrick Swayze is. The 18-year-old pottery maker gets compared to him a lot. “Constantly” he grins. “I feel like I get the same few jokes! Everybody who makes pots does.” He’s referring, of course, to that iconic scene in the 1990 supernatural romance Ghost, in which a ghostly heartthrob gently cradles his former partner as she sits upon a pottery wheel, moulding a vase. “I've never actually seen the whole movie!” he adds, bashfully. “Only that one scene.”

It’s morning in San Diego when Dax picks up the phone, the start of another day of self isolation. Around the world, teens like him will be waking up and opening TikTok on their phones. Dax does that too, only there’s an audience of 3 million people waiting for him to post a video making magic from clay.

TikTok, as you’ll know, has become the go-to platform for Generation Z seeking a tonic for their boredom. It has spawned more memes than we can count, a never-ending slew of dance trends, inadvertently propelled musicians to the top of the charts and, for some, catalysed lucrative careers as internet personalities. Some of the elite have been invited to sit front row for Prada, like Charli D’Amelio, or star in Celine campaigns, like Noen Eubanks.

Dax, it turns out, wasn’t seeking anything like that kind of recognition when he first signed up last summer, nor was he all that interested in using the platform as some sort of hyperactive calling card for a future spot as a kid’s TV host. What he decided to do was far more low-key, making ceramics from scratch on camera from the safety of the shed in his backyard. “I was never really into Vine or when they came around, but my friend kept showing me all of these viral videos that were super funny,” he says of his first foray into TikTok last summer. “So I downloaded it and started doing a bunch of dance videos – silly stuff like that.” At the time, he was making use of it the same way everybody else on there tends to: making lots of light-hearted clips with friends. Back then, he got hyped at the idea of one of his videos racking up 1000 likes. At the time of writing, he’s accumulated 52.6 million of them in total.

Dax, in conversation, is how one imagines a typical Californian: laid back, taking his time to answer questions. It’s no surprise he’s taking the internet fame thing in his stride: being breezy, it seems, is built into his DNA; when he’s not making videos of his pottery endeavours, he takes advantage of living so close to the ocean, spearfishing, free diving and surfing. “I was making surfboards for a little bit in my shed before I started pottery,” he says.

Most days, he jumps onto the platform to post a video. Sometimes, sure, it’s one of those loose-limbed interpretations of a dance trend everybody’s doing, but he mostly specialises in clips of him sitting behind his potting wheel, crafting heart-shaped mugs, vases and chip-and-dip plates for an audience of 3 million people. That, it turns out, was his dad’s idea. “He was like, ‘Dax! You don't wanna be known for doing these silly dance videos… [because] if you get popular, you're not being popular for a good reason.” So the pottery became his focus instead.

If you watch his videos you’ll get a strong idea of exactly why his following has exploded so quickly. They are, in some ways, like visual ASMR fronted by a teen heartthrob. He usually kicks each one off sitting behind the potting wheel in his shed, wearing an apron and jeans (Often with no shirt; “It gets hot inside that shed,” Dax insists), and fruitlessly flopping his fringe out of his face. What ensues is the antithesis of TikTok culture: silence and concentration, just the whirr of the wheel, as he uses water and his hands to mould crockery at his followers’ request. You stay glued to each one to witness the fruits of his labour.

Most young people pick up their hobbies in their own recreational time, but his affinity with pottery started in school. “I was in eighth grade and I was picking myself classes for freshman year,” he reminisces. “I was like, what do I want to take? And then spotted 3D design. [I thought I would] learn computer stuff, but it turned out to be a sculpture class in high school.” He took to it instantly. “We had a two week period where we got to use the pottery wheel. Everybody was like, not getting it,” he laughs, “But I, for some reason, kind of figured it out really fast. It felt good to be good at something.” He got his first pottery wheel for his 17th birthday, and the hobby, to this day, still sticks.

It’s helped him steer clear of pandering to the TikTok success blueprint, flipping it the bird and doing something different. When we ask if he considers himself a “TikToker”, he shakes his head: “Not at all, it’s just for fun!” Does he find it strange that this became the pastime that got him noticed? Something most kids his age might turn their nose up at? He corrects us: “I know a lot of really good kids who were doing it for a really long time in school, and they make fantastic things,” he says. “But I think I got popular [on TikTok] because, when you see a potter, you think of an old man, you know? I threw people off, because seeing a young kid do it isn’t the norm.”

The TikTok fame is just a bit of fun for Dax Newman, a good “marketing tool” for his business selling his wares online, so it’s a little surreal when it spills out into the real world. That’s been happening a lot recently. “Every once in a while I get noticed, yeah, by like one or two people, but I've never been mobbed! Some of these kids are getting that right now,” he says, hypothesising why that might be the case: “I think the people that follow me, the younger girls in particular… a lot of them are more interested in the pots,” he says, flashing that knowing Swayze smile and bidding us goodbye.

Dax Newman