In this part we discuss the ‘Sensorial Ground’ workshop, unfolding the process and exercises that helped to define the Subtle Ground method. We also draw upon our first collaborative workshop, ‘Embodied Clay’, where the initial ideas began to form.

´Sensorial Ground´ and ´Embodied Clay´: Workshops

Our first significant collaboration was the workshop ‘Embodied Clay’, organised as part of the British Ceramic Biennial’s Summer School in 2018 and held at the Spode Factory Site in Stoke-on-Trent. During the workshop we focused on how we can support individuals to discover an increased self-awareness through making with clay. Based on the insights of ‘Embodied Clay’, we continued to explore the subtle senses and how making can be directed towards the body. This became the premise for the workshop ‘Sensorial Ground’ where we aimed to unfold a personal path that would support practitioners in their ongoing practice. The insights of both workshops have encouraged us to shape the Subtle Ground method, to draw together our research and practice in order to recognize where and how our approaches might further support creative practitioners. In this exposition, however, the main focus is on the ‘Sensorial Ground’ workshop, recognizing this as the place where much of our understanding was formed.


The two workshops were commissioned by the British Ceramic Biennial (BCB) for their National Summer School Programme. As artists, we had autonomy in shaping, designing, and delivering the workshops. ‘Sensorial Ground’ was a 4-week long workshop offered entirely online due to the global pandemic of Covid-19. This was the first time that we had planned and held an online workshop and it was also the first time for the BCB to offer such as part of their Summer School. We needed to adjust to the online environment and consider carefully how we would ‘hold’ the virtual space. 


In our earlier workshop, ‘Embodied Clay’, the physical space was a significant part of the workshop makeup, providing a safe, creative environment. In our discussions, we carefully considered how to bring the sense of space to the online working environment and decided to adapt our plans to Google Classroom, a free service offering a platform that brings the participants together and offers a possibility to discuss and share. At the moment, the platform is still open for the participants for getting in touch with the group.


Adopting the words ‘from home to the wilderness’ in the early stages of planning, we recognized a need to bridge worlds — between the physical and the digital, the experience of being together whilst being in isolation, quite literally. Given the nature of our work and research, we felt well placed to do this. At a time of uncertainty, ‘Sensorial Ground’ was an opportunity to bring people together — a place where connection and meaning might be found. 


The overarching aim of the workshop was to enable participants to uncover personal connections and meaning within their practice, through bringing attention (back) to the body and to the embodied nature of the practice. Working with our subtle sense perception was at the root of our methods, encouraging participants to notice and turn towards the personal nature of their aesthetic experiences. Over the course of the workshop, we gradually moved from a sense of ‘encountering’ to a sense of ‘dwelling’ in the sensorial ground — reaching towards the subtle experiences of the body and a place where we believe that lasting meaning can be found.

Inhaling and exhaling: Weeks, themes, and exercises

The workshop was structured around four weekly themes of tactility, light, sound, and dwelling. Each theme was designed to engage our subtle senses through an appreciation of our nuanced experiences of daily activities and our surrounding environment. Themes, methods and exercises were introduced on Monday morning and we re-grouped on Friday afternoon to share our experiences. 


We gave a suggestive duration for each exercise — manageable amounts of time to encourage participants to carve out a distinct time within their daily activities. In addition to these exercises, a short daily practice of pebble making was offered to introduce our approach to making. We maintained a repetition of the daily exercises each week — a steady pattern of sharing materials, applying methods, and reflecting on practice together.


The first independent activity of the week was to access the provided reading material, which was the first step in bringing our attention to the theme, for example, Embodied Tactility. Along with our own introductions and talks, the reading material seemed essential in capturing attention and encouraging an open mind towards the theme. Our process was carefully planned in a way that supported the individual path and directed attention towards within. Just like returning to the rhythm of the breath, the weekly activities were seen as a slow process of inhaling and exhaling, focusing on sensory perception, and recognizing the intrinsic qualities discovered or rediscovered in one’s experience. 


Directing the practitioner’s focus in such aspects as personal connections to material and environment began as a slow, gradual process. As the workshop was conducted online and the participants were in their homes and studios, we could start building these connections within familiar surroundings and the rhythms of daily life. Being in a familiar environment also made it safe for participants, supporting a process of turning the focus toward within without any social pressure of performing before others or the distractions that this naturally brings. 


One of the main efforts was to encourage participants to ‘stay within the process’. Often the decisions when planning the workshop were made from this point of view: how do we keep the focus on the embodied experience, rather than following the urge of the creative mind that seeks outcomes, forms, and conclusions. Simply encouraging slowness and a sense of ‘just staying where you are’ (focusing on the body), without the need to ‘progress’ in the usual senses were important aspects throughout. Slowing down to appreciate a new level of detail would enable us to reveal connections or tap into one’s memory of past experiences: What was it in that made me want to touch, feel, mould, and make?


In the metaphor of the breath, we drew attention to the steadiness and continuity of this bodily process, as well as the ‘inward’ and ‘outward’ directions that it implied. On the inward, we recognized a process of reaching in — of slowly taking in one aspect at a time, a process of discovery where we brought attention to the experience within our body; on the outward, we recognized a process of reaching out — of connecting and reconnecting to our surroundings and the value in sharing our personal insights with others. 

Reflections on the workshop experience

During ‘Sensorial Ground’, whilst working remotely with participants, our online meetings enabled a dialogue that found increasing depth over the course of the month. The coming together at the end of each week to discuss and share the weekly experiences was meaningful for the participants and for their processes. During the workshop, it was clear that the sense of belonging to a group and having a comfortable and safe feeling in the group was important. Although this wasn’t part of the actual aims of the workshop, the idea of creating a space that allowed the individual and personal processes to open and develop was an important consideration during the planning phase. In addition to the group sessions, we also had one-on-one tutorials with participants.


Another aspect that surfaced during the workshop was the positive effect of working remotely from our homes. The ‘Sensorial Ground’ workshop accessed the participants' daily lives and routines, which was in contrast to the ‘Embodied Clay’ workshop that was organized on the Spode Factory site. In the ‘Embodied Clay’ workshop the participants had the opportunity to live and breathe the intensive workshop, and of being in a tight group throughout the five days. In ‘Sensorial Ground’ participants carried out the exercises and practices from their homes, studios, and work, over a much longer period. Becoming a part of their everyday lives, the workshop gave them the possibility to access routines and habits, or even establish new ones, directly within their normal life. The duration of four full weeks also supported this as participants repeatedly went out for walks, continued their weekly processes and became familiar with the aims of the workshop.


Following the workshop, the BCB conducted an outsourced evaluation for their own purposes. Particularly relevant to this research was the question: How, if at all, have these workshops impacted in your creative development? Out of the 12 participants who were able to fully engage with the workshop over 80% found the workshop very relevant or relevant. Participants described feeling ‘more rooted in my connection with the material’ […] ‘taking the time to notice and to sit with things and view them from different sense perspectives’ and how the workshop ‘acted as a bridge between previous practice and starting afresh after several months away from my studio’. Similar results can also be drawn from the evaluation of ‘Embodied Clay’, where nearly all of the participants stated that they found the workshop to be highly useful for their creative practices, and all participants stated they felt more connected to the embodied nature of clay after the workshop.

Making pebbles out of the natural clay. These pebbles were used as ´sensorial tools´in the Sensorial Ground boxes. Image: Priska Falin, 2020

Processing natural clay. Image: Priska Falin, 2020

Sensorial Ground boxes were posted to each participant containing: Practice Intentions, General weekly overview, Sensorial tools (pebbles and stick), Etruscan Red clay and Porcelain. Image: Helen Felcey, 2020

Pebble making

Clay pebbles set the tone for making, providing an immediate, gentle way to stay within a process and to simply explore the experience. A pebble is a familiar, uncomplicated natural object. As we hold a pebble in our hand, we might feel in awe of this small thing, formed over thousands of years or more. It won’t break if we drop it, in fact, we might take joy in throwing it back to the ocean, or perhaps we will take it home in our pocket to hold our memories, feeling its surface as we walk. Making a pebble, rolling a ball of clay in the palm of your hand is an action that could be described as second nature — something which we will do spontaneously, without much thought.


Held between our palms, we don’t watch the pebble as it’s formed, it’s only ‘seen’ by the centre of our palms, the circular movements, the feeling of the clay moving round and round, pressed, held in hands. The feeling of roundness grows, a snugness with the palm. When we open our hands and glance down, we might be pleasantly surprised at the spherical form and notice the gentle spirals moving inwards towards the centre, which wasn’t created on our usual watch. Instead, it's the palms that ‘watch’ the pebble and feel the clay.


The pebble does not require skills or ideas in the usual sense. In fact, it’s quite difficult to attach much to it — to form an expectation of a ‘good pebble’ or a ‘bad pebble’ — although, even with the humble pebble, we will still try! It only requires attention to form the pebble, an attention that comes through the centre of the palms.


When making clay pebbles, the making becomes feeling the material in the hands. In the hands, it is the centre of the palms that hold the feeling function; it is in touch with the heart and lungs (Elbrecht and Antcliff 2015: 212). The ‘seeing’ through the tactile perception is through the use of fingertips, where most of the touch sensors are found. In pebble making, the clay is rolled in the centre of the palms; the fingers or fingertips are not in use. From this perspective, the making is directed towards feeling, towards the experiential body.

Sensory walks

In ‘Sensorial Ground’, we encouraged participants to bring their attention to the everyday process of walking, to return to the breath and the stride. Walking is something that our bodies are built to do. It is largely a muscular act that goes unnoticed. Having learned how to walk, we no longer consider it to be a skill. The movement of walking flows seamlessly with the inclination ‘to walk’; little or no thought activity is required to undertake the process. 


Within our knowledge production processes, there is much that goes unnoticed. As we develop, many processes of the mind and body become second nature. These subtle inclinations can be both healthy and unhealthy. For example, the lack of attention we bring to the daily activity of walking can sometimes affect the body in an unhealthy way; our repeatedly poor walking posture results in the deterioration of supportive muscles and ligaments. Through physiotherapy, we relearn how to use our body during walking, bringing our attention to our posture and the use of specific muscles.


We can bring our attention to the rhythm of our steps with relative ease. Like the breath, it provides an ‘uncomplicated role’ for the mind, and in this way can be a support for bringing our attention to the body, although our aim is not only to support the practitioner’s physical ability, but to begin to unfold the embodied being as a capacity that can be supported through practice.


Our guidance for the walks encouraged an open, attentive approach — encouraging participants to focus on one sense initially and allowing this sense to lead, to take them deeper into the ‘wilderness’ and deeper into the subtle world of their embodied awareness. The sensory walk encourages us to observe the world around us in more detail and tap into our ‘child-like wonder’ — a state of being where you feel present and with the qualities that you have encountered.

The ‘Being With’ 3-minute video exercise

The ‘Being With’ exercise introduced during the ‘Sensorial Ground’ workshop sought to gather all sense perceptions together. Video, as such, was already encouraged as a capturing method at the beginning of the workshop, but with the use of this more focused use of video, the aim was to give time to unfold a more complex idea of an experience that is layered with several connections with time, location, personal aspects, and timely issues.

This method is rooted in the work done by Falin in the Egernsund brick factories in Denmark. Falin began exploring and developing these 3-minute videos to capture the aesthetic qualities of factory processes. While working with the videos, they also became recordings of her own experiences and a method where one can explore the process of ‘being with’. Thus, the ‘Being With’ exercise offers a way of capturing an experience and unfolding its connectedness of it when looking at it as a documentation of aesthetics within an experience.

Video as a medium is immersive by nature. In the ‘Being With’ video examples, also shown during the workshop, the stillness of the different views coupled with the rhythm of the factory processes gives access to exploring the moment — the captured experience — while our attention can move around inside the frame, noticing subtle movements and happenings inside the land space (landscape).

Directions for the ‘Being With’ exercise:

Seek out a location that you find you have connections with. It can be a location that you have come to cross during your walks, or you might look for a new place. It's important that you enjoy spending time in this place and feel that there is some kind of connection to it, perhaps just a feeling. Once you have found your location, set up your camera next to you and take a video from that view or landscape where you wish to be looking. The time to sit and be with the recording is 3 minutes. This recording will capture the experience that you will be having while sitting in that location. Don't talk or do anything; try to experience that time just by being there.

Afterwards, coming back to your home or studio, spend a little time looking into the video and reflecting on that experience; what made you choose that particular location, and how did you connect to it? It would be lovely to see that video, but instead of downloading the whole video to the shared slides document, you can add a link to it and share screenshots or images together with your reflections on it.

Core exercises offered as part of the ´Sensorial Ground´ workshop

Here we describe three core exercises that were offered during ‘Sensorial Ground’: Sensory Walks, Pebble Making and Being With. Only one of the exercises worked directly with clay, namely pebble making, which was encouraged as a daily exercise. Participants were also encouraged to explore their personal experiences through working with clay in the latter part of the week.

Being With the factory processes: View from the factory.

All factory videos: Priska Falin, Egernsund, Denmark, 2013

Amy Davies describes her experience of an urban garden:

I pass this garden on my usual walk, and often sit here when I need a pause during my day. This small haven faces a building that is covered in reflective glass and echoes the pursuit of a break in time. I am drawn to these windows; their qualities and what they represent, they offer a familiarity, the glossy surfaces like glazed clay, the transient images that flow within them remind me of the notion of ‘dwelling’ and residing in place being temporary.


As I sit, I engage my senses, the most prominent this week is the fragrance from the herbs. Sweet, savoury and sour, I can’t taste them, but the aromatic, fragrant air is soothing, not jarring. I collect samples to study once home, in my fingertips they feel soft, waxy, downy, sharp and delicate. Already, now picked, they are beginning to dry out, their properties changing and I am again reminded of the clay.


The breeze moves the leaves and flowers like a breath, the chirrup of birds in the trees infuse the sound of the hum of the ring road while butterflies flicker past. The light rebounding from the mirrored windows dances in the shadows, and this restorative place seems to offer a fitting culmination to my journey exploring the tactile. 

Rolling pebbles during the Embodied Clay workshop.

Image: Jenny Harper, 2018.

Being With the factory processes: Processing clay.

Feeling the clay in my hands: making pebbles.

Image: Priska Falin, 2018

Being With the factory processes: Dropping clay into brick molds.

Being With the factory processes: Dark corners.

Being With the factory processes: Deserted parts.