by Kate Shand
“Follow your hands! Your hands know the way; in your head you will just stay in the known; in order to explore the unknown and find new ground, you need to trust your hands and follow the impulses in them”
(Elbrecht, 2012, p. 24-25).
Clay has been an important part of my journey towards studying to become an art therapist.
Clay slows me down. It calms me. I touch the clay and the clay touches me. I started finding my way with clay a decade ago. Initially I made tentative pinch pots on my own at home. Forming the clay amazed me — I was like a child again creating mud pies – and I felt as satisfied with my clumsy creations as I had when I was young. Clay has revealed to me much about myself — my resilience, my creativity, my ability to explore and play — but also my impatience. I make imperfect vessels and I like my creations to expose the story of the making. Clay was a lifeline during a time of immense trauma and grief in my life. Through clay, being in touch with the earth, with a most elemental and primal process of transforming the earth into a ceramic material — touching the clay, forming the clay, having the clay touch me back — I was able to find my way back to life. I now have a ceramic studio at home and teach classes.
“It is the pots we are forming, yes. And it is ourselves as well.
It is not the pots we are forming, but ourselves”
(Richards, 1989, p. 13).
Clay takes us on a journey. We have to be patient with it. It starts off as a lump of malleable material in our hands — a bit of wet earth. We have to prepare it, wedge it, cut it, remove the air and combine the particles. We then can pinch it, coil it, roll out slabs, cut it, join it, stroke it and cajole it into a vessel of some sort or a sculptural form. While working the clay, we have to be mindful of how wet or dry the clay is. If it gets too dry we can’t mould it. If it’s too wet, our vessels will collapse. We have to learn how to join the clay — score and slip, make a firm connection, and add a small sausage as an extra insurance policy. Once ‘leatherhard’ we can refine our pots, compress the clay, carve or incise the clay, grate away parts we don’t like with a surform. We can paint our objects with slip or underglaze when they are dry. When completely dry, our vessels get bisque fired. This first firing transforms the clay to ceramic and ensures a surface that can hold the glaze. After the bisque firing, pots can be glazed in order to make them safe for food, as well as for aesthetic reasons. The vessels get glaze fired at a much higher temperature to melt the glaze. It is alchemical and transformational.
So much can and does go wrong along the way. Potters do well with grief — they are used to losing work that has been lovingly made. Greenware (clay that is bone dry) is fragile, overlooked air bubbles can explode vessels in the kiln, vessels with thick walls can retain invisible water and also explode in the kiln, colours and glazes after firing often don’t look the way we imagined they would, kiln firings can go wrong, and of course we can drop and chip our final ware.
So much can and does go wrong along the way. Potters do well with grief…
I also work at Lefika La Phodiso — an arts therapy and community art counselling centre on the edge of Johannesburg’s inner city. The centre offers an arts-based after-school programme to children from the inner city. One of these programmes is an arts skills session on Friday afternoons for the teenagers. When Rozanne Myburgh, the managing director of Lefika, asked me if I wanted to help with the Friday group, I jumped at the chance and said “Yes. Clay!”.
The clay group with the teenagers started at the beginning of the first term and it has been a remarkable journey so far. It started off as an art skills group but there is something about clay that lends itself to autonomy and agency. Once you’ve mastered that first pinch pot —once you have felt that feeling of the clay responding to your fingers and a three-dimensional object springs forth from your hands — it’s like you remember where you come from and what it is you are here on earth to do.
Each Friday, these teens remember that they are creative and that they can use their hands to shape, make and transform. There is a sense of calm in the room for one and a half hours. Their vessels are nurtured week after week. I didn’t know that the humble pinch pot could receive so much care. It is week seven and one boy is still painting his pot, having transformed it many times, from round to square, incised Chinese letters have been sanded away, and in the last two sessions the pot has been repainted twice — finally it’s bold colours that fade to a delicate sunset ombre. He gently places it in the kiln.
Once you’ve mastered that first pinch pot —once you have felt that feeling of the clay responding to your fingers and a three-dimensional object springs forth from your hands — it’s like you remember where you come from and what it is you are here on earth to do
Another young man who has never worked with clay before is creating a large-coiled pot, carving and exaggerating each coil. Last week he was disappointed that his coils are different widths when he wants them to be the same and so he’s fixing and mending each one by adding smaller coils of clay. I look across the room, and one of the girls is stroking / compressing her coil pot into a very pleasing shape. I let her know that I’ve noticed the compressing with the kidney — something I showed them weeks ago and thought no-one was listening — and she looked up at me and smiled with pleasure. Another boy really struggles with the clay and yet two coiled pots emerge, imperfect, but standing and he’s even made a spoon for one. Another boy holds his version of a Zulu beer pot in his hands and brings it to his lips miming drinking and places it back on a smaller pinch pot he made in a previous session — it’s a stand for “a Sangoma’s pot” he says.
Each week, a new teenager or two joins the group. As if word is getting out. I teach them how to pinch and add a foot. They work quietly and expertly making pinch pots as if it’s something they’ve always known how to do. This term has been a challenge — balancing ‘teaching art skills’ with holding a space where they can make what they need to make with the clay. I’ve developed a hybrid approach. I demonstrate a new hand-building or decorating technique each week and then support them in doing what it is they want to do. Some of the group follow my instructions quite carefully but mostly they are making their own unique versions using the skills I am sharing, and at times they make something totally from their imaginations. The space we are working in was once a fully-equipped and functioning ceramic studio but now it is a sad version of what it was. But you need very little really to get going with clay. The clay itself, some boards, a few canvas squares, kebab sticks, some knives and a few rolling pins.
I wonder about these teenagers’ lives and how what happens to them is so often out of their control and how the clay perhaps is something that they can control and make decisions about. They are so patient with the clay — as if it doesn’t matter if it never gets into the kiln. It really does seem to be about the process and not the outcome. Though having said that — we are lucky to have a functioning kiln and the teenagers can’t quite believe that their pots are going to end up shiny like the ‘plates they eat off at home’. But there is no instant gratification in the studio and each week they are surprised by the material and what has happened to their pots. Each week is about remembering, attaching, detaching, breaking, joining, fixing, rebuilding, making something new, playing, controlling, letting go, transforming the clay and in so doing, transforming themselves.
Each week is about remembering, attaching, detaching, breaking, joining, fixing, rebuilding, making something new, playing, controlling, letting go, transforming the clay and in so doing, transforming themselves.
Kate is the manager of communications, fundraising and special projects at Lefika La Phodiso. She’s currently studying towards her MA in Art Therapy at the University of Johannesburg. Kate is also a community art counsellor and has a private ceramic teaching studio, The Melville Mud Room.
Elbrecht, C. (2013). Trauma healing at the clay field: A sensorimotor art therapy approach. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Richards, M. C. (1989). Centering in pottery, poetry, and the person. Wesleyan University Press.