This exposition introduces our research and the concepts that we have found to be relevant when tuning into the supportive qualities of clay within creative practice. Our aims have been to open the discussion around these concepts and inherent practice in such a way that there is a place for subjective considerations and development. The discussed outcomes of our research are at a point of emerging, as opposed to being fully defined.
In this exposition, we have gathered our work and experiences together to formulate a method, Subtle Ground, that emphasizes the idea of dwelling as an approach to making. The method uses exercises such as sensory walks, pebble making, and Being With (a 3-minute video exercise), but is not limited to these. The core elements that define the Subtle Ground are named here as being with, giving time, repetition, and becoming familiar.
When understanding making from the traditional perspective, the emphasis is on what is being produced. Subtle Ground shifts the focus towards a direction that often goes unnoticed. Subtle Ground encourages the practitioner to stay with a material process and delve into the material experience, looking into the individual connections and sense perception during practice. What is at the heart of the method, is the practitioner’s experiences. The locus of experience is understood as an organism-like event where the environment and the material world, that we are part of, are all naturally connected. Subtle Ground aims to reveal the personal connections and qualities that define the making.
In this research, our attention has been on the physical nature of ceramics practice and we have structured a method that supports practitioners’ engagement towards practice. The method has been informed by an understanding of the therapeutic qualities of clay in its raw and natural state. Also, we have drawn upon the connection between the material qualities and how we handle the clay, focusing on the aspects that can be viewed as relating to the practice of meditation. In both these examples, the emphasis is how the body reacts to the felt qualities of clay. These kinds of qualities provide support and insight into how we might work with the clay and our bodies. What this research opens is that by focusing on the experiential qualities in creative practice, a practitioner begins to discover new ground that supports her practice.
Subtle Ground is discovered through different exercises that each enhance the experiential aspects of making. For ourselves as practitioners, these words — Subtle and Ground — have created a new space, which is open, creative, and nourishing for practitioners. The poetic and imaginative nature of Subtle Ground is both reassuring and encouraging. It can be as limitless or as grounded as we might wish.
We have found the body to be at the heart of the Subtle Ground method. In truth, it is through the body that we have reached towards the Subtle Ground. Each exercise has encouraged the practitioner to ‘stay within’ the body and to bring attention to their personal felt experience. As a creative medium, we have found that working with the specific qualities of clay can be particularly supportive in terms of bringing focus to the body and the senses.
In order to access the Subtle Ground as a personal area of creative practice, we have focused on the subtler aspects of the experience felt within the body. We have come to talk about the subtle body, to place emphasis on this subtlety — to support the practitioner to feel, be with and notice these deeply subtle aspects of experience. It is through working with the subtle body that we find personal Subtle Ground.
In order to focus on the body, we have used the concepts of ‘dwelling’ and ‘indwelling’ here to emphasize the being aspect in making that allows one to explore senses, material qualities and the subtler realm of making with clay. In this context, the discussion connects to creative practice and defines the Subtle Ground as a method that is open for individual discovery. For us, dwelling has evoked deeper discussion around the directions towards making. We began to form our discussions along with the idea of dwelling already during the ‘Embodied Clay’ workshop and as we find more clarity into the essence we pursue through dwelling in this exposition, the concept remains open and inspire further research.
The practice and exercises discussed here were influenced and inspired by Goethe’s Poet–Scientist approach to understanding plant life. Goethe combined poetry and scientific sensibilities, building an understanding of how these practices complement one another in ways that one alone cannot achieve. One of our main directions towards discovering our near surroundings in a new and revealing manner was influenced by this idea that we discuss here as the Poet–Scientist approach. The attention to detail was emphasized again within a new edition of the book (2009) where Gordon L. Miller carefully with the respect for the original work, recreated some of the visuals supporting Goethe’s work by adding a current practice that speaks to the reader. Through this edition, we found inspiration and value in looking into the details and finding the perfect nuances that complete the whole. In practice, this encourages a heightened sensory perception and deeper engagement with the world around us. We spoke about inhaling and exhaling — breathing with this world — as we take time to attune to the subtleties of tactility, light, and sound.
The research has fully framed itself within the field of ceramics and creative practice; however, the method is not constrained to one material and can clearly be explored within other practices. As artists and practitioners, we have the sensitivity to understand and bring out the wider spectrum of subtle nuances that unfold in our perception. Through this research and formation of the Subtle Ground method, we have initiated a way to understand the embodied dimension as a capacity that can be supported in creative practice.