Clay, Art Therapy, NDIS, and Covid Isolation

Clay and culture go hand in hand, literally and in every other way.

Clay sculptures date back over 10,000 years. In relative terms, even the Bible is young when it comes to the subterranean origins of the name Adam, meaning of the earth or made of clay.

Clay works both express and facilitate culture and meaning-making which are the two legs of spirituality-as-a-process of self-discovery. Anthropology long reflects upon the religious, cultural, environmental, and familial meanings of symbolic and everyday forms in clay. Both the concrete and symbolic come to play and together weave the stories-as-medicine and dreaming that contribute to our contemporary understandings of pottery.

Drawings on stone, cave walls, under-croppings, and the use of pigments and colours are central to the early, middle, and late developments in clay-work. Australian Aboriginal cultural forms are part of the more regional geo-pottery legacy that we share on planet earth. Notions of dimensions are difficult to nail down, as these arise in associative memory, dreaming-practices, and creativity-manifest in symbolism and story-as-medicine.

Often the western bias defines a cognitive mapping from flat-surfaces to three-dimensional forms to more “advanced” expressions of art and sculpture. But these linear pathways are more than often counterproductive if not also expressive of colonialism-in-attitudes.

On one hand, colonial bias may be unconscious and well-wishes to help understand phenomena.

On the other hand, colonial biases and unacknowledged prejudices sadly often continue to diminish rather than to create genuine dialogue.

Taking three steps back is usually effective to find a new perspective.

Photo by ritesh arya from Pexels

Art therapy is the use of clay and all its associated forms, processes, and products, towards the purposeful support of personal and relational healing, growth, and capacity building. Under the NDIS we work with participants across Australia to gain new insights, skills, and capacities in everyday living and social relationship skills.

We also work extensively over the years in the areas of trauma recovery, healing, and growth and clay work and art therapy are among the elements that assist toward these solution-focused outcomes. What tools are used really depends on a wide range of factors.

What is your context? What existing resources do you have? What would you really like to do and to accomplish?

How might clay work help you and your goals? What layers of art therapy make the most practical sense today, and then next week? Today using pictures and stories may help. You might not have clay at home. You may also have sensory issues and you do not want to use clay. But you are very interested in clay forms.

Many clients with Autism collect objects in different mediums. Some love wood. Others clay. Some like metal or plastic or fabric. The different sensory experiences of textures and forms create fascinating and awakening moments that bring insight. Using these gifts-of-perception in a therapy-as-skill-building way can often take things from simply unconscious moment into an awareness of creativity, personal power, and inner resilience to cope with the sensory world and with society.

Clay therapy is a process defined by personal preferences, needs, and context. Most people think of getting your hands wet and dirty in mud, and forming clay on an electric wheel. This is not really what we do – at least not as often as you might think.

Here are a few of the ways that clay and pottery and art therapy are used to help our lives.

  • Clay work helps to express emotions. Sometimes raw emotion. Other times emotion-in-stories and symbolic meanings. Emotion is simply what it is and yet, emotional energy can be nurtured toward insight and a very real or practical experience of healing and personal development.
  • Working with clay, pottery, and art-forms nurtures or facilitates engagement, insight, and change.
  • Discovery of symbols and meaning awakens inner awareness and this moves forward toward actions based in a deeper realisation of resilience and capacity to act in the real world of family, relationships, and society.
  • These therapy works help to support non-verbal and verbal expressions. For people without verbal capacity, art therapy in its many forms helps in very many ways to build intensive-interactional moments, social sharing, and also helps family and staff to build relationships with non-verbal members of the family or community.
  • Satisfaction comes from doing something real and practical with your hands, eyes, and senses, and these personal experiences engage deep connective neuro-psychological and social-environmental processes. These integrative and ecological methods provide vital skills as well as helps to maintain existing or emerging skills.
  • Personal empowerment often comes from art-working. We know this is true as youth when we took up music that led to performances and compositions that were later shared with hundreds and thousands of people over many years. Music like clay and pottery is a medium of creative expression within a relationship with the world around us.
  • Many changes are brought about by this “third element” that we use in daily life and in therapy. Whether this element is clay, sand, art forms, images, pictures, sounds, music, or symbols and play therapy and stories, learning and growth often happen and these experiences build over time to create new capacities in the person. This happens at every age of life.
Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

Finally, our last word is about covid-19 as the most current context. However, we must say that social isolation is part of our lives for decades. The health crisis is but the most recent manifestation of socially isolating forces that has spilled out into the mainstream culture.

Other factors that promote social isolation include bias and attitudes towards disability. One national study showed that not that long ago, about half of the Australian population held deep seated bias toward disabilities. These attitudes we hope are changing, but in reality we see common barriers remaining and many mainstream systems acting in similar ways over time.

Many factors like gender bias, sexuality attitudes, beliefs around gay couples and marriage, attitudes towards age and elderly people, and approaches to children can all factor into many socially isolating forces. Many unintentional, as our prior doctoral research discovered, as the very nature of bias and prejudice tends to be hidden from awareness and from view. This is in fact its primary mechanism as a social force to be reckoned with.

This being said, covid-19 presents major challenges and opportunities that engage Telehealth on one hand but needs to address deeper experiences of isolating depression, anxiety, and fears arising in our present crisis. Mental health is of huge concern right across society and especially in the social helping fields like disability services. We see this both in diminishing referrals and in the referrals that come forward at this time. On one hand people withdraw to cope. On the other hand, when they can, they reach out for help.

Using Telehealth we encourage clients to collect the resources they already have at home. We work with them with what they have on hand. At our end, we demonstrate and share and discuss as we go along.

If the person wants to use clay and art therapy methods, and they can’t afford clay from an art supply store at the moment, they might be able to get air dry clay from a hardware store.

We’ve even seen clients use mud from the back yard and other common elements of their daily lives. Where this is effective, hygienic and safe for the individual this is their choice, and often leads to a sense of direct empowerment and change. Later people might invest in clay, basic tool sets, a banding wheel, or pottery wheel, or other equipment.

Often people find the process of collecting and getting resources at home really beneficial, even more so than visiting a therapy studio in person. To our surprise, Telehealth during covid-19 has proven to be even more effective in most cases where people wish to engage and to move forward with their goals and dreams.

The cases were we see Telehealth not working are in health and medical contexts and in group homes where staff are unwilling to engage or where policies still are biased against the access needs of modern technologies. We also see that where people’s disabilities are so profound they cannot benefit from Telehealth directly. In these cases, family and staff could gain much help and therefore the individual participant could gain much needed assistance. But we often see, once again, that bias and lack of knowledge prevents useful engagement. The other major factor we see is the continued lack of rural and remote connectivity via telecommunications. Of course, the other big issue is the lack of personal finances to have a smart phone or other devices including modem and other hardware. We can see that almost all of these issues are social, political, economic, and contextual or cultural within the family, workplace, or society. This suggests that these issues will one day change, with any hope.

To contact us to discuss a service, go the contact page and send us a line. We wish you and yours all the best.

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

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