Clay, due to its tactile and sensory qualities has been a common material to use in art therapy and psychotherapy. In such fields, the emphasis is on the body — the experience of working with the clay and the effects this has on individuals in terms of healing. For our own research, it is useful to understand the different ways in which clay is used as a supportive material. We have looked into examples from the art therapy fields, as these practices rely on working with the supportive qualities of the materials — a practice that is less common within creative ceramic fields.
In some research, clay has been shown to have greater effects in comparison to other common art-therapy methods for its unique qualities (Nan and Ho 2017). Besides the common use of clay as part of art therapy materials, there is also an established alternative treatment, Clay Art Therapy (CAT), and a trauma-informed art therapy approach: the Clay Field. Clay Field has been developed for children from the age of two to adulthood (Elbrecht and Antcliff 2015) taking into consideration the different stages of development and for different needs in terms of therapy.
In Clay Field, there is a clear emphasis on the body and sensorimotor development. Embedded within the body’s felt sense, such sensory experiences are understood as lasting, ‘known’ to the body. Taking such sensory knowledge as their focal point, as opposed to a specific problem understood by the client, Clay Field describes that sensorimotor achievements can “allow us to rewrite our biography towards a more authentic, alive sense of self” (Elbrecht 2019). In here, we are particularly interested in this ability that working with clay has in returning to the body — to the experience of the felt senses, embedded deeply within the body. In our perspective, the re-writing points to the malleability of clay, which supports the body's ability to transform through material experiences. Clay-work is an opportunity to create new, positive experiences through the felt senses, enabling individuals to access this “alive sense of self” (ibid.).
The use of clay as a material within therapy, especially its use with adult patients, is often described as ‘clay-work’ — meaning that the special usage of the material and interest in how to understand its potential lies within its handling, manipulating, and sculpting the clay (Sholt and Gavron 2006: 66). In this context, Sholt and Gavron find that “clay-work involves body expression through the physical work with clay, and mental processes through the act of modelling and through observing the product. Thus it allows integration of emotions, memories, and fantasies from different levels of consciousness” (ibid.: 71). In therapy, Sholt and Gavron also recognize clay’s quality as an elementary substance connecting it to our early stages in human history.
In the Clay Field, the clay is offered in a smooth non-gritty form within a rectangular wooden box together with a bowl of water (Elbrecht and Antcliff 2015: 210). The work at the Clay Field focuses on the haptic perception as opposed to producing physical outcomes: “At the end of a Clay Field session, only intense body memories will be taken home. The kinaesthetic motor action combined with sensory perception will have lasting therapeutic benefits, especially in cases of developmental delays in children and trauma healing” (Elbrecht 2019). The material is open and gives a safe place to be with it: “At the Clay Field, the clay is perceived as there somehow, it has a being-quality as the hands’ search for a contact, for a tangible supportive base on which they can rest. Hands here are dreamy, they are not doing anything” (Elbrecht and Antcliff 2015: 213).
In this research, we appreciate this being quality with clay and particularly the notion of ‘being with’ material in the context of practice and making. The haptic and tactile experiences of the subtle senses draw us into our being. We emphasize the idea that instead of pursuing end results in making (as understood from the traditional perspective), trying to stay with the material in the acts of making can support different kinds of learning that are more to do with the body-based discovery of the self that is also at the core of the Clay Field (Elbrecht and Antcliff 2015: 215). Instead of focusing on the healing body, however, we aim to discuss the potential of understanding the workings of the subtle body within creative practice.
While clay and clay-work have been recognized in the context of therapy for supporting the discovery and understanding of the self, ceramic practitioners have been valuing relationships to meditation practice, and within this, how the physical nature of the ceramics discipline can support us to ‘keep the mind in the body’. There is a long history of Eastern master-apprentice teaching and learning that supported the transference of bodily and tacit knowledge gained through an engaged practice over a long period of time. Potter and educator Kenneth R. Beittel published the book Zen and the Art of Pottery in 1989 describing his experiences of practising ceramics and exploring the links between pottery and Zen. Beittel was an apprentice in Japan and trained under the Arita tradition of porcelain pottery for one year. He describes the study of the craft, the development of knowledge and insight passed down within the context of a spiritual tradition, where all the activities, processes, and actions support the spiritual practice towards ever-increasing awareness through a form of meditation.
The study of pottery (traditionally speaking) is a long and perhaps arduous process, beginning with the ground. So much has to happen to the clay before it may be worked in the hands; somebody must dig the clay from the ground, and before even taking it from the ground, it takes millions of years to form. Such a practice can involve a deep appreciation of things as they are — dependent on that which has come before and is inherently interconnected. Working the material takes time, focused attention, and discipline, which can be found in the most basic acts, such as wedging a mass of clay. In describing the outcome of such a practice Beittel writes, “the bamboo branch sings through the brush, the spherical jar through the clay on the wheel, naturally and effortlessly” (ibid.: 7). He doesn’t describe something deliberately orchestrated by the artist — a deliberate expression is not sought. On the contrary, articulated in such a way, the artist is no longer present. He describes a natural, effortless togetherness, where the maker has become simply a part of the process.
Pottery making is a physical craft that engages the whole body in the process. It is body–mind training, which requires us to be mindful of how we handle the clay, moment by moment. Whilst we use the term ‘mindful’ — to be mindful, to be aware, in fact, requires us to keep the mind grounded ‘in the body’.
Nowadays commonly referred to as ‘mindfulness meditation’, Shamatha (Skt. śamatha; Tib. ཞི་གནས་, shyiné), means ‘calm abiding’ and works with the conceptual mind to calm disturbing emotions. In Shamatha meditation, the body is often used as the primary focus: ‘The most widespread and generally accepted form of Shamatha with focus involves placing attention on the movement of our breath or on an object, like a pebble, a stick, and image of the Buddha, or the like’ (Nyima 2004: 19). When beginning to practice meditation, the practitioner begins to notice when the mind is no longer ‘with’ the breath, or ‘with’ the object. The mind has wandered away on a pathway of thought and at this moment, whilst we are still breathing, we are not aware of our breath or the object that sits before us. But then comes a moment of noticing. We notice that we have ‘gone away’ and we are aware of a moment of ‘coming back’ — to the body, to the present moment. The practitioner trains the mind by simply noticing. In this small moment of noticing and returning to the body, we keep the mind in the body.
As our process has unfolded, we have found increasing resonance with such age-old methods. We have focused on those methods and clay processes that encourage the practitioner to stay within the ‘stripped back’ nature of processes — perhaps an early phase of a process, where we bring our attention to the body and feel a subtle sense of location.
In seeking to explore the human experience, Depraz, Varela, and Vermersch (2003) set out to understand how we might become aware of our own mental life. In their book On Becoming Aware: A Pragmatics of Experiencing they discuss the ‘unreflected’ level of our lives and point to an inward quality of consciousness that ‘is able to perceive its very self at work’ (ibid.: 2). Within this, they point to a quality of knowing: that ‘I am thinking’, ‘I am feeling’. Drawing on the practice of meditation in Buddhism, they note that ‘we will not understand anything important about the tradition of mindfulness/awareness if we remain in an intellectual apprehension of it’ (ibid.: 208). An intellectual understanding of meditation cannot lead to realization; realization can only be reached through experience, through practice.
Designer, Artist, and educator Nathalie Lautenbacher sums up her experiences from her career in ceramic practice: “Clay is a satisfying and addictive material to process. The process is slow, and the process slows one down. At the same time, one feels intensely alive. I have come to believe that is a small but important element for the preservation of diversity within design — and in life for that matter. This connection to materiality is what grounds us” (Lautenbacher 2020: 25).
Whilst we are focused on the embodied level of being or rather the embodied dimension in our being we also recognize the complexity of what it is to be a human, with all its human materiality which Jane Bennett discusses in her book Vibrant Matter (2010). Bennett writes “in a world of vibrant matter, it is thus not enough to say that we are ‘embodied’. We are, rather, an array of bodies, many different kinds of them in a nested set of microbiomes” (2010: 113). In highlighting this, Bennett begins to loosen the perception of ‘one fixed body’ or one fixed ‘material’, which softens our boundaries as we take in the idea that this body that we call our own, is also home to many others.
To be aware of the vibrant nature of matter requires a level of attention — a willingness to tune into the intricacies and complexities of the material and being within the body. As Bennett notes in Vibrant Matter, these intricacies are not to do with any singular entity, it is the vibrancy of interconnectedness, where each embodies another.
In discovering what it is about clay, we are simultaneously discovering the body. Rather more, we are recognizing that working with clay is a method by which we can come back to the body. To bring our attention back to our own body is not in any way to separate ourselves from the world around us — it is quite the opposite. In bringing our attention back to our bodies, we begin to delve into the qualities we embody with those beings and materials that surround us. This requires us to engage deeply with the felt experience — the subtle experiences found within the body.
As we have begun to familiarize ourselves with the clay, we have also begun to familiarize with our bodies. In doing so we have begun to shift our feeling towards this body and the subtlety of the senses. The subtle capacities of the body have been brought into view, or rather more have been ‘felt’. The experiences of the subtle body expand our perception and feeling towards the body as we discover the vitality within the clay. Through the process of familiarizing the Subtle Ground begins to develop.