Claywork and Nature as Agents of 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. Since taking a workshop a few years go with nature writer Fred Taylor, I’ve added a new dimension to this cycle of breathing in and breathing out, by exploring what writing adds to the process. As I put words to these wordless experiences of absorption in nature and clay-work, they begin to glow with a new energy and sense of meaning. Writing takes me beyond the physical, to the fundamental essence of the universe, deepening my sense of the unseen connections that lie beneath the surface. That awareness transforms m art work into an act of gratitude for the Earth’s gifts. I have discovered that happiness does not bring gratitude, but rather it is the other way around – that my work, offered as an act of gratitude, is the very agent that brings on my healing.

Alan Steinberg has been a clay artist and teacher for 40 years with work in many fine galleries. He leads workshops that integrate nature, poetry, mythology, ritual and writing with clayworking. Steinberg has taught workshops at the Omega Institute, Pendle Hill and Rowe Camp and Conference Center, Rowe, MA. Working with Fred Taylor he will be offering a workshop entitled “Calling to Loon, Embracing Your Inner Wildness” Sept 4-7 at Ricker Pond State Park He can be reached at or 802 387 4820



Like Beans and Rice by Alan Steinberg

I am not someone who writes.” That was a lie I told myself for more than twenty-five years, the visible scar of a wound inflicted by a fierce college poetry professor intent on defending the gates of academic professional excellence. My long history of weekly bicycle trips to and from the local library with baskets of books came to a crashing halt. In the ensuing decades I neither read nor wrote for pleasure, especially poetry. The pen was mighty enough merely to pay the bills.


Click to Read Article




Turtles, Stumps, and Lumps of Clay by Fred Taylor

In the garden behind my house is a slight rise in the ground, a reddishbrown mound where a mass of terracotta clay has slowly melted back into the earth. Once it was a sculpture of an “ancestor stump” that I brought home from the first Clay and Writing workshop that Alan Steinberg and I led together.

Click to Read Article





The workshop began with a brief round of introductions after which the participants donned blindoflds and lined up single-file. With right hands on the shoulder of the person in front of them, off they trudged on a silent, imaginary, yet viscerally felt, hourney though the darkening forest. Upon returning, they sat down still blindfolded, and listened to the Greek tale of Theseus, who desended into the Cretan La byrinth to meet the minotaur…

Click to Read Article




COMMENT Who Are You? by Alan Steinberg

Who are you?” the director asked. The way he’d said it, I knew he meant, “Who the hell are you? We only hire famous people.” Why did I think his organization should sponsor my clay workshop, and what made me think anyone would sign up?

It was clear what would convince him I was worthy of his time. He didn’t want to hear the story of the time just before a nine-day craft fair when I opened the kiln and found that 75% of the pots had melted into a barely recognizable mass, leaving me with inadequate stock for the show. The supplier had mistakenly thrown a bag of talc into my custom-mixed clay. The lesson learned was always to test a sample from each new batch of clay before committing myself to two months worth of production.

Click to Read Article