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Claywork, Nature & healing

by Alan Steinberg

I couldn’t wait for class to end. Teaching a weekly mid-winter ceramics class for my local Community College, I started, as usual, with a demo or two, perhaps including a pinch-pot meditation. Every time I looked at my watch thinking a half hour had gone by it turned out only five minutes had passed. Suffering from intense body aches, a cough that would scare off a grizzly bear and a fever that measured over 102, it felt like the longest class I had ever taught.

My usual experience is nothing like that. I start class off, with my usual rituals, and then the next thing I know I’m looking at my watch, it’s three hours later, and I should have given the clean-up signal fifteen minutes earlier.
I don’t know where the time goes, but it’s gone. My students routinely report the same sensation: that their evenings simply evaporate. Now as much as I would love to take credit as a teacher for this phenomenon I have to begrudgingly recognize that time evaporation is the rule in clay classes everywhere. In every city and most rural areas there is a place where stressed out people in all age brackets can set aside their burdens and press their opposable thumbs into this miraculous material that Mother Earth has offered to us. Something inherent about working with clay disrupts our usual experience of time. For three hours we do not think about the bills that need to be paid and where the money to pay them will come from. We do not think about the argument we had last week with so-and-so, and how we wish we had only had the wits to say blah-blah –blah. Most of the thoughts that we are incessantly think – think – thinking, and that we struggle to let go of in meditation and yoga classes, simply evaporate as the clay kidnaps our attention.

A long walk outdoors has the same effect on me. As I set out I may be that crazy man, mumbling to some unseen companion as I amble along aimlessly – you know – the one with whom you try not to make eye contact as you pass on the street. But soon this crazy man’s eye is caught by a regiment of red tipped British Soldiers bivouacked on the summit of a flat-topped rotted red oak stump. Before I know it I find myself no longer engaged in rehearsals and rehashings, but instead in conversation with a large brown duck quacking away to his unseen sweetie from a tuft of grass safely out of my reach. For ten minutes or so Heron and I size each other up, she ceasing her Tai Chi session to crane her neck from side to side, determining my threat level, while I turn my body to the side in an attempt to look thoroughly disinterested. I creep cautiously out through the mists onto the melting ice, for one last winter’s sojourn across the frozen backwater overgrown with delicately etched Meadowsweet. Looking down at the shallow puddles on the surface of the ice and out at the network of cracks all around I am swept away with laughter as I recognize the metaphoric significance of having crawled out onto this rapidly thinning ice.

Working in clay and going for a walk, are each absorptive activities that sweep away my stress leaving me feeling calm and whole. But it is their juxtaposition that catalyses their individual healing powers by some immeasurable factor. They are complements – like breathing in and breathing out.

Whenever I spend time in nature I feel I receive a number of gifts. I am surrounded with beauty, shown the complexity of life, and reminded that all the problems I find so hard to bear are all small stuff in the greater scheme of things. In fact everywhere I turn it feels the universe is offering me some “teaching” in the varied languages of the myriad species I encounter. It is like taking a deep in-breath, starting from the belly and inhaling all the way up underneath my clavicle.

Then I return to the studio. As I begin to work with the clay, the energy I have taken in outdoors, that has infused every Chakra of my body, travels down the length of my arm and expresses itself through the clay. The clay form that emerges might be a feathered wing of crane, a network of cracks in a slab of ice, or legions of those red-uniformed soldiers defending their Masada-like fortress - or it may be the potters’ ultimate archetype - a simple bowl. Whatever the form, whatever the metaphor I need to express, the creating of a work of art is the long out-breath, longer than the in-breath that forges my sense of connection to the world.

The work I do in clay as a response to nature has healing benefits beyond the ones I experience personally. Martine Prechtel, a Tzutuhil Mayan Shaman, has pointed out that in Western culture the Artist is the closest thing we have to a Shaman, who serves the world of the Spirits. These Spirits, having no opposable thumbs, need our gifts. In Prechtel’s view the artist’s creation feeds the world of Spirit underlying the visible natural world. These days I approach my work in clay as an act of gratitude that completes the loop.

By returning nature’s gifts I help to provide the Spirit world the energy it needs to birth the lushness that in turn brings healing peace and happiness to my heart.

Alan Steinberg has been a ceramic artist and teacher for over 40 years. His personal explorations have included studies with Ram Dass, Stanley Krippner, Peter London, Pema Chodron, and Martin Prechtel among many others. Currently training as a Psychosynthesis Guide at The Synthesis Center, his workshops combine the work of the hands with rituals, stories, poems and myths that evoke the sacred in our lives. He has taught at Rowe Conference Center, Omega at the Crossings, Pendle Hill
and Truro Center for the Arts. A founder of the Brattleboro Clayworks, you can learn more about Alan by clicking on his member page at

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