An image which speaks of becoming familiar. Mexico. Image: Helen Felcey. 

The method Subtle Ground described here emphasizes the idea of dwelling. The way we wish to refer to dwelling in this work is not drawn from the common understanding of the word that would point first to the location or place where we dwell. Here, we are more concerned with the action: to dwell in. Our perspective also takes in the world we live in, the environment we co-exist with, within which we turn our attention towards within, indwelling. To dwell in also points to time, the time that we spend in that particular location or feeling. Within Subtle Ground, dwelling is understood as an approach to making. To dwell with the material in making is to allow the attention to move back and forwards from material qualities to our bodies’ ability to sense.


Designer, filmmaker and playwright Welby Ings discusses dwelling and indwelling through an example of embodied drawing (2014). In his article, Ings describes how he used drawing as an embodied method to “dwell inside a world and through this indwelling that world gravitates towards the tangible” (ibid.: 2.8). His approach to the idea of dwelling is similar to what is discussed here, to generate thinking through processing elements of design that cannot be verbalized (ibid.: 2.1). Although the aim of his tool is to be creative and come to a conclusion for his narrative design practice, there is a similar investigation of reaching towards the nuanced shades that evade grasping. In addition to discussing dwelling, Ings also connects the idea of indwelling in his approach to drawing, saying that “using a process of indwelling I slowly drew into existence the nature and story of another being”. For him, the dwelling within the embodied self was a means to draw a character into being. This was done by tapping into the sensory elements that define “the interior mind of a man” (ibid.: 2.5). From the perspective of this current discussion, this example of using embodied drawing as a tool can be done only through a highly sensitized practitioner that is able to dwell within a broad spectrum of shades and hues of material experiences that can direct the thinking in an almost unrecognisable way. This kind of understanding of the subtle nuances in creative practice is the focus of our work in the Subtle Ground.


In his book The Perception of the Environment, Ingold (2011) offers a perspective on the dwelling that describes the human relationship to the world to be that of ‘in the world’ rather than a view of the self-contained individual confronting a world ‘out there’ (ibid.: 173). While it is clear that Ingold discusses the human relationship to building or to the built environment as dwellings, it is interesting that the use of the word dwelling points out that we humans are dwellers and that is the reason why we make dwellings. It is to understand that we humans live and dwell in this world and that is the reason for making the things we do and not the other way around.


Our understanding of the dwelling as an approach to making is a similar notion of getting to the bottom of things, unpicking our sense of being in the world, seeing the foundations upon which we act and do what we do. In this research, dwelling can be read as a metaphorical concept, connecting to the idea of being at home, habituating our bodies, familiarizing ourselves with the sense perception, and discovering the ground that we stand upon. As an approach to making, as the dwelling is referred to in this research, the metaphor of being at home points to taking different perspectives on making, becoming familiar with the material, exploring, feeling and connecting to it.

In the context of mental health care, dwelling has been used as a method. Researcher Julia Zielke (2019) explored how dwelling can be used as a mindful unfolding of thinking and being as a research method for mental health and wellbeing (ibid.: 1). In Zielke’s research, dwelling takes into consideration how complex and layered our lived experiences are, and she describes it as a whole mode of being (ibid.: 2). In Zielke’s research, as with this research, the dwelling is tightly connected to the lived experiences. In our case, however, we are not trying to understand the workshop participants’ experiences, but rather offering a method for supporting individuals in their creative practices. In Zielke’s research, the dwelling was a multi-modal research method that also consisted of different exercises in a workshop environment. Zielke combined poem writing, working with materials, and interviews, emphasizing the idea of dwelling at the moment, abstracting time and space, unfolding memories, and thinking through metaphors (ibid.: 1).


To dwell can have a negative connotation, suggesting that we might linger too long in one place, or in a particular feeling. Here, the time spent has a positive understanding, acknowledging that it takes time to tune in, to be open and active in our perception. While concentrating on our individual experiences it is also an understanding of connectedness — what it means to be in the world. The method Subtle Ground focuses on our personal experiences and understanding how our bodies, our sense perception, performs during our practice. 

Amacker (2019) writes about surrendering to the now, pointing to a state of being where one can dissolve her boundaries and objective conditions in experiencing and begin understanding how we are connected in our actions. Amacker also directs the attention towards a sense of being instead of pursuing towards a conclusion: “At some point all experience passes into a cognitive process of distinguishing and analysis, but the qualitative begins with connection. When we allow ourselves to be taken up with the materials and energies of our environment we stop becoming an object of our awareness. Our experience can stop satisfying objective conditions and we can be taken up directly in sense-perception” (Amacker 2019: 1846).


Giving attention to our bodies during practice and exploring our sense perception is truly directing the attention towards within. In the Subtle Ground method, the purpose is to be open to connectedness, how we are part of the world instead of shutting down and closing the world around. Architect Juhani Pallasmaa writes: “ ...visual perceptions are fused and integrated into the haptic continuum of the self; my body is truly the navel of my world, not in the sense of the viewing point of the central perspective, but as the very locus of reference, memory, imagination, and integration” (2007: 11).


The method Subtle Ground can be seen as unfolding a process from dwelling towards indwelling. As discussed in the section ‘Sensorial Ground’, the weekly process described as inhaling and exhaling draws upon a wider context, turning the attention gradually within, where aesthetic experiences can be understood. The term ‘indwelling’, we feel aptly points to the area of understanding, of capacity, where our interest lies. Indwelling is described as “being an inner activating or guiding force” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). In here, the indwelling further defines dwelling, giving direction to let the attention move within making and in connection with the material qualities.


What is also evident in the idea of dwelling as an approach to making is that there is no need to express oneself through an outcome. It is about staying with the experience of being with the material in making and directing the attention to haptic experiences. The making as such can be anything that supports practitioners to indwell. The given example of ceramic pebble making is a good exemplary exercise that supports the dwelling approach because of its mute nature. Muteness in making implies a process that is about feeling the clay in palms and turning the focus on the embodied dimension (Falin and Oksanen 2021).


In this context, dwelling means giving time to a process and spending time with the feelings and sensations that belong to that particular process. To dwell in is to be able to focus, to stay with the practice or the process in an open active way, to continue, and to return with growing familiarity. The Subtle Ground emphasizes the idea of dwelling and the process towards indwelling. It is about connectedness, it is an organism–environment interaction, it is about the aesthetics in making.

In the ‘Sensorial Ground’ workshop part, we have unfolded the structure and the exercises that were introduced for the workshop participants, and here we have drawn out the main elements that are situated in the core of the method Subtle Ground.

Subtle Ground and the idea of dwelling

Visualization of the Subtle Ground method. The core elements and the main aspects of the method are visualized here to form a breathing process between inhaling and exhaling, from dwelling to indwelling.

Subtle Ground as a method is not fixed on any specific exercises, even the ones that we have shown in this research. The method is tightly connected to the personal qualities in practitioners' experiences and thus can use different paths to reach its goal. In this exposition, we are formulating the understanding of the Subtle Ground with examples of exercises that have been seen to support practitioners’ in their creative practices. The exercises should support practitioners to understand the aesthetics that are tightly connected to the personal.

Being With


Becoming familiar

Giving time

Embedded within the character of clay are qualities that encourage the idea of being with. 

As with everything around us, on a particle level, clay physically changes moment by moment. With clay, however, this process becomes visible to us. A clay pebble in the palm of your hand will begin to dry and stick to your skin and within moments we feel the change in our hands. Before firing the clay, we must allow the material to dry slowly, so it doesn’t crack as the once fluid particles become rigid. To work with clay requires a certain level of being with the material.


In this sense, Being With can also refer to a level of focused attention on something that you wish to familiarize yourself with, or perhaps that you already have familiarity with. Being with the material is to notice the smallest of qualities — the wetness or coolness of a surface — to be in touch and stay with the nuanced movements of the material world. 


Being With can also bring enjoyment. There can be a feeling of wanting to stay with a process, a rhythm or texture, which we have a feeling that we could settle into. At first, it is only a small ‘pull’ from the body, a small doorway, but if we can go with the pull, we find there is, in fact, a lot of room to settle — in a positive way — and to appreciate the company that we are in. To genuinely be with another, we must give our full attention to the other. 

Core elements of the Subtle Ground method

Repetition was present in this workshop on a number of levels. It was present in the structure — a repetition of exercises and methods week by week; it was present within the exercises too — the repetitive actions of the body, in making or walking. Repetition makes it easier for us to continue a process, we know what’s coming next so there is less to work out in the ordinary sense of mind.


The repetition of exercises created a rhythm, a pattern, which participants could follow and get to know. The activities and insights were intended to weave their way through participants' existing patterns of life.


In an exercise such as pebble making, the body itself becomes a part of the rhythm. Like walking, pebble making is an exercise that doesn’t require our usual thought activity, yet provides a movement, a tactile rhythm to rest our attention within. We begin to settle within the rhythm of the process, moving inwards with each rotation. The simplicity of the action we are repeating enables a sense of observing the experience, noticing the sensations. In the case of the pebble, we can see the evidence of this in the marks, the movement of the material following the rhythm of our palms, and vice versa. 


In a repetitive action, each movement will gently reinforce the last; we are training ourselves, creating a habit. Embedded within repetition is a notion of ‘coming back’, to something we know, moments of remembering, reconnecting to something that holds a meaning, which sits within the subtle qualities of our experience.


To stay with repetition, to dwell in repetition is to reach towards continuity — an uninterrupted connection — which is perhaps where we begin to catch sight of indwelling. We might think of repetition as a series of notes, and as we begin to move towards continuity, those notes become a single tone, faint at first, but gradually finding strength and resonance.

Through time, it is possible to discover connections, to reconnect, and understand the underpinnings that work within. From the early stages of ‘Embodied Clay’, we recognize that dedicating time to the processes we were outlining was necessary and we have been equally concerned with the quality of that time. 


We have had to consider how we approach time. Our ordinary appreciation of time is generally tied up with goals and outcomes — the need to be somewhere for a certain time, the need to complete a project by a date, and so on. In the case of this work, we have needed to extrapolate our processes from these usual ‘time frames’ and encourage the long view. Because this is work that sits behind all of those things.


To dwell is to linger, it is to work with a slow rhythm and not to rush. When we dwell, we might feel ourselves to be in the ‘meantime’ — the time before something happens or before a specified time period ends.


In this work, we are giving time to the inner practitioner. In one sense the work could be seen as a kind of ‘maintenance’, which goes beneath the surface bodywork into the workings of the practitioner, reigniting connections, checking pace, and flow. The work is slow and careful because it is dealing with subtler qualities that we don’t often give time to.

Dwelling is about movement, turning around, shifting the focus. The space in this case is the practice or making. Becoming familiar with something through making, one needs to move, shift your approaches, take another perspective, try different approaches, move within the area of exploration. Through time and movement, you reach a point in which you feel that you have become acquainted with the subject. A sense of familiarity.


To dwell refers to different practices within one area of work if understood through another metaphor, describing how we can dwell in our homes by sitting on the sofa, relaxing on the balcony, reading a book in bed, etc. We can dwell in all the corners of our living spaces, and this is also what the dwelling implies in making: the making can take many aspects, trying different approaches to better understand the material and the experience of it. 


In the Tibetan language, the word for meditation is ‘gom’ and this means ‘becoming familiar with’ or ‘getting used to’ (Phakchok, Solomon), a process of becoming familiar with the mind. Becoming familiar requires a state of mind of being at home. In dwelling, the location doesn’t need to be home, but the process that it seeks through dwelling is to be at home, to be comfortable with something, and to feel at rest. Becoming familiar is also a way of knowing someone, like the way you would know family members. You might not always agree on things, but you know how it is.

Rebecca Harvey

Sarah Christie

Notes and participant reflections on the experience of dwelling during the workshop

Sarah points to the value in returning to a familiar process or place, with the purpose of finding new depth.

‘Sometimes I get caught up looking for new ways to work, when it can be more productive and rewarding to return to previous research and methods with new depth. I allowed myself to repeat through making in ways I have made before, or walking in a usual spot, or using what I know of the light in my existing space, for example. Rather than looking for something new, I found ways back to older work, but with a refreshed mindset and a realization of more depth by having spent more time thinking over those ideas’.

Images and words (left to right), Sarah Christie 2020

We had a one-on-one conversation with Rebecca as we approached the final week of the workshop focused on Dwelling. In this conversation, she described how the workshop has been connected to her daily activities/life — directly affecting her practice. She talked about the mugs (a batch production item in her studio) and the feeling of having lost the joy with the mugs, but now finding new ways to appreciate the process through the workshop. She spoke about the discoveries she has made — the close and nuanced experiences of the material, the senses — the need for the pebbles to become certain forms, and how these are reminiscent of some clay/rock forms she has kept on her shelf for some time. She spoke about the flow of the weeks — how this has really worked for her — and now feeling ready for ‘dwelling’. For this, she instinctively returned to the willow tree from the first walk; to spend time with it. When Rebecca returns to the willow tree in the garden, it is as if she is returning to an old friend. The rocks too, on the shelf, have been there for some time. Whilst they have been present in her environment for some time, this is a moment where she returns to them, ‘gives time’, brings attention to the rocks and the willow tree.

Images and words (left to right), Rebecca Harvey 2020

To dwell, dwelling:

Starting, staying, continuing

Aligning, listening, responding

Opening, receiving, accepting

Creating the conditions for interesting things to emerge

Notes from being with the tree:

Scale macro-micro

Sounds macro-micro

Returned to the breath from my body


Vulnerability — height off the ground

Safety of hugging trunk

Interesting perspective

Feeling of a deeper connection

Emotional connection and relationship with a tree

Warmth and energy

Reminded of Baron in the Trees by Calvino


To dwell / dwelling:

To sit in non-judgment

To create space for movements 

To remain in the process

To do without preempting

To work with uncertainty, 

repetition and constraints 

To mark time

To wait before evaluating

To decide later

To not decide at all

Notes from being with the material process:

Upscale – more physical

Movement, spontaneous

Curves, twisting, swaying

Hollows from fingers


Thinking of a willow tree

Density, edges, surface tearing

Combination of material process and experience of dwelling with the tree



To dwell / dwelling:

To return

To allow repeated investigation

To recognise and accept common and persistent threads in the work

To trust

To dwell / dwelling

To become familiar with the hidden, the internal

To see what is hiding in plain sight

To arrange and rearrange

To coexist