Life Writings from HOW TO BE STRONG: Searching for Safe Places in an Age of Austerity
Two years ago, I was in trouble. I was having writing blocks and feeling hopeless about whether I would ever finish my novel. To calm myself I had been attending pottery classes on Monday mornings. And then the classes closed because of austerity cuts! It was a calamity.
Then a friend told me about a free art therapy group being run at a community centre near where I live in south London. I decided to go. At the first session, I grabbed a large lump of modelling clay and immediately began, carefully and slowly, hollowing it out. I wanted to make a bowl as thin as an eggshell. I saw myself as clumsy and heavy-handed, and I wanted to express delicacy, something fragile hidden within the lumpy clay. Using kitchen knives and spoons, I thinned and scraped, until it cracked and broke through in places, and needed to be mended.
From then on, week after week, I made one bowl after another—experimenting with mending and not mending. I went on to spoons, cups, plates, knives. I made a fully laid-up table for a family of four. All the time I wrote—fast and hard—in twenty-three individually-titled handmade notebooks about feelings, sensations and associations; touching on my inner world, the world of the group, and the social and political context we were living through. I am in the process now of collecting and editing these writings. I plan to bring them together in a book, with a critical and analytical introduction relating the personal meaning of the bowls to sociological and political theories about ‘empty vessels’.
Below is an extract from the HOW TO BE STRONG writings made in the art therapy sessions, together with photos of the bowls and the notebooks. I want share with readers the experience of this process, of feeling the clay, moulding, pinching, scraping, wearing down the surfaces, and reflecting on my life and the life around me. I would very much welcome feedback on both the content and the idea of the book.
IT HURTS LIKE HELL
21st April 2011
In last night’s dream there were hints of being mended. I was at a loss in a purposeful crowd, and I had nothing to contribute. Everyone else was already in place, erupting and living. My sister nearly comes towards me. The longing wells up.
Physiotherapist: How does this feel?
Me: It is painful.
Physiotherapist: It is painful. This?
Me: It is stiff and painful
Physiotherapist: It is stiff and painful. This?
Me: It hurts a lot
Physiotherapist: It hurts a lot. And this?
Me: It is extremely painful.
Physiotherapist: Extremely painful.
Me: I like the way you repeat everything I say.
Me: It fucking hurts.
A strong feeling of love for my eggshell bowls floods up.
This is the best bowl yet made.
What is Group work?
What are Consequences?
What is Drawing blind?
May 6th 2011
I mixed white paint and PVA in paint tray.
Like baby food.
Like Ready Brek.
The brushes have been used and abused and lost.
We are missing quite a lot of brushes.
May 12th 2011
A bus driver we met at Peckham Bus Garage said the Unite union rep had been ‘medically dismissed’.
I’m thinking about my dad, exploring ‘techniques’.
I am making a taller/longer, tunnel-like container.
Robbie is tapping with a felt-tip. It sounds like a cry for help from inside a collapsed mine.
May 25th 2011
This new bowl is so thin and broken it is more like a shell that something broke out of, got born out of. Spit new.
I do not have a best friend.
Oh suddenly as I put my scrapings into a paper cone - no not cone, parcel - I receive the trembling remembering of a dream concerning being the youngest struggling to manage. I accidentally press the scrapings together then remember I want them to be a loose collection so I unfold the parcel and write this and then go to make the cone.
I am starting to like the breakages and the cracks, seeing how they break, open up. Fault lines appear. I don’t try to mend them but let them happen. This latest pinch-pot will have no scrapings.
2nd June 2011
I accidentally mended the break in the bowl. I try to reveal the crack but it has been filled in. I poke at it with a bristly brush as though I am cleaning the teeth of a skeleton. Gradually, gaps appear and the crack is partially re-opened.
Now bits are breaking off.
By some miracle they stay attached.
BOWLS AND BEING EATEN UP
26TH September 2011
I feel under pressure to produce something for Gilo, a gift. What is giving? Gifts are not objects but energy moving.
Giving. Giving way. Giving up. Giving out.
Thomas has made folds of clay seemingly ‘held’ by a nail stuck through.
This makes me wonder about making a hinge.
About how to make things stick and not stick. So the bowls and spoons I am making now are free of destinations.
Spoon into the mouth.
Think how it is to be shown.
Make work to fit a specific space.
Or make work and create/find space to show it.
This is my challenge. Focus. Be convinced it’s worthwhile.
3rd October 2010
The ‘Nightmare Mealtime’ and ‘Giving is moving’ have dried enough to be painted.
Thomas is distant and distressed.
I need to paint and make and centre myself in a state of loss.
The shaken centre point. An undigested feeling. This is the unavailable. My sanity. My satin white. Calm and holding on. Bloating and sad. I am now very sensitive.
Tears are a pool at the base of my throat bone.
“Can I ask your advice?”
“You’d better ask Rebecca.”
The pain and panic rise. Am I entitled to have these feelings?
I felt dismissed and belittled and pushed out. I am drawn in to hear about a marriage breakdown and pushed out anything new.
Thingness thinness. Compress the thin thing to make it break.
Keep getting thin to the bone so the shell is nearer the surface. Mariella gives advice. Amanda asks me to take her sanitary towel out of a bag in the toilet. I sink in pain inside. I am absorbing pain. The cloth absorbs water from the clay.
6th October 2011
I can’t bring in my Expanding Light objects because Jonathan can’t leave the room now the group’s here and the session has begun. I am ironing, no, rolling with the rolling-pin, to make thin, thin pieces. They break as I peel them from the table.
I have my table top too, which I am covering in PVA. I go from one to another like an intensive-care nurse, caring and loving.
Roll, roll the clay thin, thin, then peel and scrape, then gently release from the table. Like skin burnt being removed before grafting.
With a pointed knife into the clay I write:
“ROLL And remove SkiN before gRAfTINg”
I think about Thomas and how exposed I feel and how there are unexpected rewards for being exposed. And I feel I am him, removing the top layer of skin in an operation.
The bits that are left over, the unavoidable loss. Parts of the former body that cannot be incorporated into the new.
Where do they go? They are let go, lost, or kept somehow but as debris. My work must be very gently handled. It must be fully supported and guarded and watched over.
I should possibly make a map of my life.
20th October 2011
Back to the skin. The sore, hacked underside. It will never heal, but I can seal it over, put on the PVA like balm, to stop further infection, to stop dirt getting into it, and to give it a chance to not deteriorate further
BREAKING A BOWL AT CHRISTMAS
8th December 2011
I pull out a fistful of clay, mould it in my hands to make a ball, press my thumb into the centre and begin to pinch. The bowl takes shape, a thick doughnut, then begins to widen out and thin. The surface gets silky and smooth, as the clay thins, the pinch-marks become scale-like, then hollow. I roll the emerging bowl around on the table.
I’m aiming for an even thinness. Each time I begin I hope to hold the bowl whole, but as the clay gets thinner it cracks and breaks around the edges. This time, a crack opens up at the base – something that’s not happened before. I had a vague idea that I would turn the bowl upside down (like a bell) and paint it red and gold as a Christmas decoration. I think suddenly of my sister and feel violent anger. Her estrangement. Her breaking off from me, then exerting tenuous, controlling patches.
I pinch together the cracking, breaking sides. But I leave the hole in the bottom of the bowl. It’s actually in the right place if I wanted to create the bell (on a string) but now I don’t want to, now I just anticipate ritualised jollity, suppressed anger, people sniping and snapping, and tinsel glinting all around, to no avail or purpose. My stepmother on edge. My dad bludgeoning. My brother turning the thin ends of everything into a joke. My sister with her cold shoulders. My niece who observes with irony. Me, the aunt, in tears in the doorway. Gritting. Thinning, feeling the holes and the cracks. Feeling how close we all are to falling apart.
Contact Nicola at firstname.lastname@example.org or via her website.