About 16 years ago I was hospitalized in a municipal mental hospital for acute depression. At that time, a part of me realized that the sparse environment provided by the hospital ward had a purpose – to not stimulate and to desensitize the mentally ill. All surfaces had to be unable to provide a means for us to hurt ourselves. There were no decorations upon which we could fix in a symbolic way and thus be stimulated to construct obsessive symbolic scenarios. Despite this, I am embarrassed to admit, when a lovely woman was presented to me as someone to provide pastoral care I fixated upon a necklace she wore ripe with symbolic content which frightened me and caused me to fancifully elaborate a completely implausible fabrication. It so happens that these many years later I find myself living in the same community as this pastor lady and that I hold great admiration and affection for her as an individual. Circumstances change, insight becomes possible with the passage of time and with submission to wise medication.
Thus, having regained a more or less normal functioning in society and being able to concentrate on my own goals and making them come to fruition, about 7 years ago I was determined to find a way to give back to other mentally ill people some of the support that was so freely given me. A good friend had just resumed her career as a mental health worker, having found herself to be in the circumstance of a divorce and needing to support her children alone. She found employment in the local mental health commnunity. She was one person with whom I had always found it easy to be candid about my circumstances and experiences, and I expressed to her that I would like to find a way to personally give support to other mentally ill people using my skills in the visual arts. She knew of a group home where an art and pottery program was required, and which was equipped with a kiln and wheels that the occupational therapists didn’t know how to operate. So began my experience in delivering an art program for a group of very heavily medicated individuals.
I was initially quite nervous and fearful that I would not be sensitive to the individual conditions that people taking the workshop had to operate under, or that my patter would tax them unnecessarily or that what we were about to undertake together may provide frustration rather than satisfaction for them. However, it was spring, and we were able to go out into the unheated workshop for us to begin to work with clay, that giving medium.
I unearthed my few modelling tools, gathered bits of wood, spools, junk and combs and string and rope, a 50 pound box of clay and carted them to our first session. There were 5 persons taking the workshop. We first met and had coffee in the dining area, chatted, talked about ourselves and then trooped out to the shed at the back of the building. All 5 people were heavily medicated; some had tremours that caused their hands and arms to tremble. No one wanted to make eye contact but were eager to feel and palpate the clay, to press and squeeze it, to spread it into a lumpy pancake and leave their hand and finger marks. We added a little water to make the clay slippery to handle, and to discover how quickly the moisture disappeared from it. Bob, a young man, very shy and quaky, admitted he really liked the feel of the clay and asked if he could make a small object. “Sure, go for it!” I said. He quietly formed three small figures that looked like chess men. They were remarkable for their freshness and direct form. He said he missed being able to play chess which he loved to do as a young boy, and which he no longer could due to not being able to concentrate enough. This was so heart-breaking an admission!
Ralph, a 30 something young man of very flat affect, said he would like to make a beautiful little bowl, and he struggled with pinching a little bowl and trying to control his grip on the clay to make little grasping thinning increments while turning a ball into which he plunged his thumb and which he squeezed between his thumb and forefinger. He experienced quite a lot of difficulty in applying gradual repetitious pressure and turning the little form in his hand. I suggested he do several to try to develop the “feel” and then determine which little bowl met his requirements the best. He concentrated so well on this task!
May, a chatty, disorganized woman in her 40s, very hearty and very pleasant, decided to make a doll’s head which she fussed over for a long time. She handled her clay for too long, and maybe her body temperature was high, for her clay kept drying quickly, so we had to apply light misture to the clay. Finally she became frustrated and dunked the doll’s head into water and then was really upset when the clay became too slick to handle. We dried off the clay with a cloth and I showed her how to hollow out the head to make it dry evenly without cracking. She was finally pleased.
Cyrus, an older man with severe tremours had great difficulty in handling the clay, but he was all right in molding the clay with blocks of wood a task which didn’t require fine motor control. So he built slabs of clay with interesting pressed textures using the block of wood and other mark-making materials. He was quite content and pleased with what he was doing.
Muriel, a swarthy woman of middle years, sat with her clay pressing and poking, unsure of what it could do for her. She didn’t look at the clay, but kept her focus on a middle distance and absently manipulated it. This was fine also and she kept repeating this activity and seemed relaxed.
An hour and a half sped by like mere few minutes. These individuals were engaged temporarily in an activity which broke the tedium of their day. They didn’t linger at the front doorway obsessively smoking their alotted cigarettes, or sit in a daze in the activity room fixated on a game show on the television set. We parted after a communal cup of coffee in the dining room where we planned to make a trip with the occupational therapist to go on a field trip to the major supplier of ceramic tools and clays the following week as a group. We were going to look at tools and materials and people could be part of the process.
Our good byes said we promised to reconvene the following week and embark on a journey of clay exploration all together.
We had a most fruitful summer and fall in the pottery studio, and I made some new friends!