a connected field of play & clay

Once again I find myself about to embark on a big journey. In two weeks time I’ll be flying to Mexico for three months of travel and research, enabled by a Crafting Futures grant from the British Council. This trip is both a returning and a beginning, as last year (on exactly the same date, 11th December, also my Mexican grandfather’s birthday) I flew out to Mexico for the first time in twelve years, embarking on a trip of rediscovery towards a heritage I had been deeply missing. This year sees me return not just to friends and family in Mexico City, but also to Guapamacátaro, an art and ecology centre in the Maravatío region of Michoacán. My project proposal was fairly simple: to visit and learn from traditional ceramicists working close to Guapamacátaro, and see how the act of sourcing, processing and playing with indigenous clay might be shaped into a very simple workshop – or series of workshops – to catalyse a reconnection between participants, earth and environment. 

I am not a ceramicist, neither have I worked with clay much before. I have never sourced the raw material from the earth and I have little-to-no knowledge of what that process might involve or how you then go about turning this into a finished product. What I do have is a fascination with the earth underneath our feet and a relentless curiosity as to how we have, in so many ways, become quite disconnected from it. I have spent the past seven years working with plants, animals and people, within the realm of social and therapeutic farming, asking how closer contact with other-than-human beings might bring us into closer contact with ourselves and our environment, and how creativity might facilitate this interplay. My time in Mexico will look at how craft, specifically the experience of feeling clay between one’s fingers and shaping it into form, might provide another way in. 

As the days before my departure gradually disappear, excitement and anxiety fluctuate through me – the physiological experience of each not dissimilar. Despite my connection with Mexico, I am aware of once again leaving behind the familiarity and safety of home to throw myself into another culture, another language, another discipline. Over the past ten years I have moved around a lot – changed homes, changed towns, changed countries and professions. It can be hard for friends and family to keep track. It can be hard for me to keep track. So as I stand in the transitional space between staying and leaving, the moment before I pull the rug out from underneath my feet and adapt to another new set of circumstances, I’m wondering if there is something in particular I keep seeking?

This morning I am pawing over the bookshelves of our family home, procrastinating from my to-do list of pre-departure preparations, when I come across my copy of Stephen K. Levine’s Poiesis. It is a beautiful book that explores the relationship between the expressive arts and psychotherapy, and calls on the disorienting experience of fragmentation and disintegration as the very core of the creative act. In an essay on imagination, reflecting on the work of British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott, Levine explains:

‘Winnicott makes a clear distinction between ‘fantasy’ and ‘imagination’. Fantasy is imagination manqué; it refers to the kind of day-dreaming that walls the person up in his or her internal world and leads to no form of doing, of efficacity. Imagination, on the other hand, is the means by which we reach out and connect with otherness. Play, then, is the operation of imagination not of fantasy. In a certain sense, we could say that the goal of therapy is to replace fantasy with imagination, to transform psychological space from an isolated, lifeless world of private obsessions into a connected, vital field of play. Therapy then can be understood to be a re-vitalisation of the imagination, a turning-back to an original connection between self and world.’

This idea of ‘a connected, vital field of play’ from which our imagination can grow, reach out of and connect us with otherness is what I am seeking to create in much of the work I do. It is from this place I believe we can begin to rebuild our relationship with the earth – this soil that we walk upon, build from, grow from. It is within this space I believe we can have the difficult conversations of looking truthfully at our past and our present, how we have come to be where we are, and how we might move towards a healthier future. Whether growing food, crafting materials or working the land, it is the magic relationship that working alongside each other creates that excites me, it is the ‘being with’ that can spark our sense of what is possible and support positive growth.

As I encounter the typical mind niggles that arise before opening myself up to new experiences, I remind myself of the importance of making space for all this in my own process too. To not take myself or my work too seriously, to approach my research imaginatively, to look for others to connect with through play, and to trust where the material itself takes me.

It’s exciting and intriguing to see where the material has taken others. In Robert Harrison’s book Sustainable Ceramics (bought in anticiption of this project thanks to a tip off from @hereandnowpottery), I find indirect references to Levine’s connected field of play, as different potters articulate the potential of clay to take us there:

‘I primarily use clay that I find and dig from where I am working at the time. I enjoy the process of discovery and engagement with the outdoor environment that finding clay offers me… For me, the practice of using local clays is larger than simply my own preferences; it is a way of being rooted in the earth, with larger potential for groups and communities.’ – Elizabeth Sparks

‘Clay is a tactile material; there is reality to its mass and weight that reflects the Earth’s composition. Its use is not always academic but appeals to the human body and spirit.’
– Janet Mansfield

My hope is that in making spaces for people to play with such a material at Guapamacátaro, we may also be making spaces for people to reconnect with their imagination and each other. And that this may have a small but precious ripple effect in bringing together people and places who may not otherwise have come together, and inviting all of us to experience each other in new ways.

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