Matilda Sample discusses clay and the body, as part of the MA Art & Material Histories MATERIAL MATTERS collaborative project

We can change it to our liking, to fit into an ideal form. To become something or someone. We can use it to capture someone’s attention or make or take a certain impression. To direct a certain gaze or replicate one. We can hold it. It can be massaged, smoothed, scraped, grazed, rubbed, pinched, even cut. There is a certain weightiness to this thing, a density. But also, there is a fragility to it, as it can be broken but also mended. Sometimes these mends may be visible in the form of scarring. These scars can sometimes enhance it, giving it an identity, something to become fond of: Sashiko or Kintsugi-like. Fundamentally this thing is natural. Today, there are plenty of superficialities, chemicals, accessories to enhance or mend, but fundamentally this is nature giving the world a material to form in the way an individual or society sees fit.

I am not talking about one material, but two: clay and the body. For this clay-focused project, I drew a comparison between clay and the body. In doing this I deciphered the materiality of both to demonstrate how they share overlapping properties and qualities. Considering clay in relation to the body may seem a tenuous link, but there is more to this material relationship that meets the eye. I picked three words to define, compare and contrast, highlighting the material qualities and properties of both. The three that I settled on were: malleable/malleability, impressionable/impression, natural/nature. Before I go on, I want to define these words.

Malleable is defined as ‘easily influenced, trained, or controlled’, a malleable substance which ‘is easily changed into a new shape.’ Malleability is defined as ‘the ability to be easily changed into a new shape’ or ‘the fact of being easily influenced, trained, or controlled.’ 

Impression is defined as ‘an idea or opinion of what something or someone is like’, or as in effect, ‘the way that something seems, looks, or feels to a particular person’, impression as in to copy ‘an attempt at copying another person’s manner and speech’, and finally, as a mark, ‘made on the surface of something by pressing an object onto it’. Impressionable is something ‘easily influenced’.

Natural ‘as found in nature and not involving anything made or done by people’ or ‘a natural ability or characteristic is one that you were born with’ or ‘seemingly normal and relaxed’ or even ‘natural food or drink is pure and has no chemical substances added to it and is therefore thought to be healthy.’ Nature is ‘all the animals, plants, rocks, etc. in the world and all the features, forces, and processes that happen or exist independently of people, such as the weather, the sea, mountains, the production of young animals or plants, and growth.’ Additionally, as ‘the type or main characteristic of something’ or ‘a person’s character.’

I chose to work with two groups to discuss this connection further through the action of bringing the two materials together in a literal manner. This took the form of workshops which encouraged those involved to discuss the aforementioned properties/qualities and use the discussion to sculpt a form which reflects this relationship between the body and clay. Working with clay also ensured that everyone crowded around the table was able to touch and engage with clay. Through touch we were able to reflect upon our own bodies. Throughout this article I have included videos taken from these workshops, capturing the hands working on the clay, a motion which I find to be very beautiful as the two materials intertwine with and within each other. The clay reacts to the movement and motions of the hands, but at the same time, so do the hands so as not to spoil the form which they are making.


I had considered malleable/malleability to be easily applicable to clay and the body. Clay is a material which is ready to be touched and manipulated into a certain shape/form and the body shares this quality. Turning to the discussion in the groups as we sat around a table with our own lumps of clay to handle, Kate (23) and Jess (32) from each group said that although both the body and clay are malleable, clay is more immediately malleable. As soon as it is touched when soft, there is an imprint. The body is not as responsive in this way. I thought this was an interesting point. In some cases, the body is very responsive especially when it comes to reactions such as anaphylaxis or more minor allergic reactions. I have heard time and time again of friends with piercings taking out one earring to replace it with another, and within those seconds the piercing closes. The two materials respond to agents from the outside, the difference is that the body is usually trying to fight them while the clay adapts around them. In this respect, the body is almost unmalleable as it fights an interior war against an unwanted substance. However, although clay may seem endlessly malleable, we know this is not the case. If it is stretched too far or made to be too thin it can collapse. In the kiln, when being fired, it takes a bubble, a trapped foreign substance, or the clay being too thin or thick for it to self-terminate, often taking others with it. Just as the body has a reaction to a foreign substance entering its border, so does clay. I hope at this point you are beginning to understand the complex similarities between these two materials.

Looking at malleability from another perspective, Lindy (73) said: ‘malleability is all about shaping, in this instance we are shaping clay, we are in control. As women, our bodies are shaped by so many factors which are not under our control. This is our control, and we can enjoy doing this – although I am so bad at this that mine is already falling over and the message that I want to get is falling apart, but in principle- I am in control here! But otherwise, we have so many pressures on us as women, and I think that society looks at us as malleable.’

Society looks at women as malleable. I loved this quote. Historically, there is mounds of evidence to support this statement – not just physically, but also legally, sexually, biologically speaking. I thought of women wearing corsets and removing lower ribs in order to achieve a cinched waist, women binding their feet in China to make them smaller and more appealing, or the women of the Bantu, Padaung, and Kayan Lahwi who wrap coils of metal around their neck to give the illusion of an elongated neck. This reminds me of Germaine Greer’s argument in The Female Eunuch (1971).

Like the body, clay has been used to make an ideal form. Regardless of what form the clay ultimately takes, a mug, a sculpture, an ornamental vase, in order to be a finished product, it becomes a physical representation of the ideal held, albeit sometimes subconsciously, in the potter’s mind. There is a sculptor-material relationship at play here. As we discuss the materiality of clay and the body, we acknowledge the influencing agents which contribute to the malleability and impressionability of both. For clay, it is nature, human intervention, and environment. For the body, it is nature and biology, human intervention and societal pressures and influences.  Returning to Lindy’s point, does this mean that certain bodies are more malleable than others? Certainly, physically, and biologically speaking women are more flexible, being able to move our hips in different ways and the ways that our body is able to recover after childbirth. Does this mean that the female figure becomes more clay-like and malleable than the male figure?

This idea of certain bodies being more malleable than others went beyond gender/sex and also into age. When Kate was younger, she said felt more able to change her body, from what she ate and what she did. This was mainly to do with weight. Now, she said, ‘this is something that I can’t do, and am learning to surrender to, and that’s a process.’ So, the body becomes more malleable depending on gender/sex and age like clay is more malleable depending on composition and exposure to environments.

There was one story in particular which offered another insight into how malleable we consider the body to be.

‘Well, when I was 15, 16, 17, it was Twiggy, really flat chested women, absolutely flat, and then the fashion started to become like little girls. They would dress like little girls. And I had the biggest breasts, and I was just so horrified. I mean it for me, it was really not an easy situation. I got over it, but also, you know, I was slim for most of my life, I was quite normal. The rest of my body, normal, whatever that is. But I could never fit in a shirt. I could hardly ever fit in a dress just because the top was too small, and I just couldn’t. I was normal, or average let’s say, in weight. Anyways, I never thought I would change anything about that. That never crossed my mind. A lot of my friends change their noses and all sorts of things. When I was younger, I think it was just starting to happen. I was completely horrified. I always thought that you somehow had to make friends with what you got. Yeah, that was really my thing.’

‘Much later… I started to feel really self-conscious. And unhappy, you know, uncomfortable, but socially uncomfortable more than anything because I was much more comfortable without a bra… And then finally one day I thought I would do something about this… Well, I had an operation, breast reduction. You know, they took away 3.2 kilograms of breast… And all the pain from there (gesturing towards her neck) went that, you know, I had been carrying for so many years. So, it’s funny because I kind of counter, you know, maybe somebody else would have done that much earlier, but because I had made up my mind that you really don’t mess up with your body and that sort of way unless you need to, obviously, unless it’s a lifesaving thing.’

This story shows that actually, when we are considering our own body, we do not always appreciate how malleable it can be. In this case, due to technological advances, our bodies have become more malleable. I added that I knew three women my age (23) that had undergone similar operations, something which this person had not considered at that age as possible. For clay, we perhaps look at it to be limitlessly malleable, but as discussed before this is not the case. Both materials have the ability to be incredibly malleable despite the way that clay initially seems much more malleable at first. Perhaps when considering the body, we limit our malleability because of other factors such as pain, time, or recovery. Whereas with clay, we are able to push it as far as it can go, and if it goes too far, we can mend it by starting again, even after it has been fired this is possible. 


Returning to Kate, as she sculpted her white grogged clay torso, she said that impression comes across as a way of presenting the body, as opposed to malleable which describes the physicality of the body itself with more long-term changes as opposed to superficialities. Sabine (63) added, ‘It’s more like glazing than actual clay’- which I thought was the perfect way to illustrate what Kate had just explained.

In response to this Helle (23), also sculpting a curvaceous torso from white grogged clay, brought up the positivity and freedom that can be found with in adding to the body in order to make a certain impression:

‘I quite enjoy the fact that I can change my body to make an impression, actually…Maybe this goes away from the female form, but things like clothes or makeup as well. I actually really like from a creative perspective, the fact that I can, if I want to look nice for a day, I can wear something, and I think it makes things fun. And it’s a route for creativity in a way. And that’s why I actually, perhaps slightly contrary to the traditional, almost old-fashioned feminist narrative, to think that this is your body, and this is it exactly. I actually think it’s like a tool and a powerful thing to be able to use it how you want to use it. In the same way that if you’re feeling bad about yourself, and you want to have a good day, you can put on makeup or an outfit that makes you feel great. And I actually don’t think obviously, if it’s coming from a deep-rooted place of insecurity, then, you know, there might be deeper issues there. But your body does have so much malleability. The way you can change it to make, blending term to term, but the way you can change it to make a particular impression, I think it’s actually really powerful and a really good tool for self-empowerment.’

Impressionability once again places an emphasis on the sculptor-material relationship. When discussing how impressionable the body is, we want to look at what it is in response to. In this instance, Helle says that it does not always have to be triggered by another agent, nothing else is sculpting us but ourselves. Of course, as Helle also mentions, this is sadly not always the case as vocalised by Lindy:

‘Well, I think the impression thing is terribly important in your professional role. And especially when you’re getting old like me, you feel that you can’t look your age because you wouldn’t be acceptable. So, for instance, I was doing a webinar session yesterday, with a group of learners. And I honestly must have spent half an hour doing my face putting my lenses in making sure my hair was washed and sort of not in my face and worrying about my clothes and all the rest of it, which I think is really terrible. Because actually I had also spent an awful time preparing the lesson so that it would be participant led and learner focused and all that stuff. But…I thought to myself, I’m working with this lovely young guy… and he appeared, and he was sort of semi shaven, as is the mode, with an open-necked linen shirt, looking absolutely fabulous. And he’d probably spent two minutes getting ready, and I felt that it was so unfair. And so, in answer to your question about impression and impressionable, I’m impressionable, because I feel that I have to do that. And the impression that I make to the people you’re paying for me to do this, I think it’s terribly important. And I think that the first time your face pops up on that zoom, they’re going to look at you and how you look. And they don’t do that in the same way for men. And so, from that point of view, I think it’s a feminist issue. It’s unfair, but I’ve swallowed the importance of making an impression in my professional setting. Hook, line, and sinker.’

This brings us back to the idealisation of female body image and Germain Greer, and the body being malleable in different ways depending on your age. Lindy hinted that, because of her age, she felt like she had to make more of an effort. Like malleability, making an impression and being impressionable perhaps differs depending on sex/gender/age. Typically, you might think that the younger you are the more impressionable you are. Although this might be true, as you grow up, there is more of an emphasis on making an impression upon others. This is where the slight difference in the definitions comes into play.

In this instance it is harder to reconcile clay and the body. Both are definitely impressionable, but for different reasons. For clay, this is entirely physical. For the body, this may be physical but is triggered by another agent or ourselves, not necessarily physically. In terms of making an impression, clay can physically make an impression of something, but it is not always in the same way that we can make an impression with our bodies. Impression/impressionable definitely has fewer overlapping qualities when applied to clay and the body.


Obviously, both clay and the body are natural materials, both coming into being through natural means and this makes them more impressionable and malleable as a result. While talking about malleability Sabine dipped into this discussion fusing together malleability and nature. Sabine had been researching ochre for a symposium, and brought up the etymology of Adam, coming from the Hebrew to mean ‘son of the red earth’, which comes from ‘adamah’, meaning ‘ground.’ This is, of course, completely true (see this link for more information). This metaphor is carried on throughout the Torah and the Bible: 

Genesis 2:7

Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.

Isaiah 64:8

Yet you, Lord, are our Father.
We are the clay, you are the potter;
We are all the work of your hand.

2 Corinthians 4:7

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.

The last quote taken from 2 Corinthians is particularly interesting, as clay becomes a universal symbol for the creation of mankind. Aside from religion, Sabine told us that there were scientists who believed that clay is a possible structure for the mechanism of life to have actually happened (see this link for more information). All of this points to the fact that clay and the body are deeply natural materials and, if clay was the start of organic life, then our bodies have been born from and sculpted by clay, the material sat in front of us as we sculpt it in its different forms.

At the same time, Kate thought that although the body and clay are both natural, they are different kinds of natural, one being animate and the other, inanimate. Kate added: ‘I guess it’s because I think like Clay, I think of as very much from the ground, whereas I think bodies, of course, when you’re newly born, that feels like an organic human being, like sort of fresh, you’ve put nothing else in it. Like food. To live, I think we have to sort of intoxicate us a little, you know we have to put new things inside us that aren’t natural. Whereas with clay is very much, obviously you can put things in, but it doesn’t need that to function. It is there as it is, and will stay there, whereas we have to sustain ourselves potentially using non-organic things as well.’

Interestingly, clay is considered to be an inorganic material, whereas our bodies are organic, setting aside all superficialities. This triggered some interest in the group as we considered clay and the body both to be natural, but only one is organic. Compositionally, the body even shares all of the same chemicals as clay. When researching for this project, I stumbled across lots of literature promoting the use of clay in beauty therapy because our skin shares the same minerals. Although we might view the body and clay to be different reflections of nature/natural, this is one quality which seems to overlap extensively. The body has considerably more minerals and chemicals which make us human beings as opposed to inanimate non-beings made from flesh, bones and blood, however, we share all that is found within clay and that is undeniable. Through their natural state the body and clay pronounce themselves to be truly intertwined.


At the end of both workshops, after scrubbing the tables and carefully placing the pieces which everyone made into a suitable spot, I felt satisfied that we had discussed those three qualities in relation to the body and clay. One quality which I haven’t discussed, is that of touch. Retrospectively I would have talked about this more, for Helle, it was the tangible quality of clay that linked the body and clay most. On this level, the density of clay and the body must be similar, too. There is an intimate connection between the body and clay through the action of touch. It is through our touch that clay becomes malleable and the body seeks to make a physical impression upon it, that two natural materials combine together in a symbiotic relationship to create something new.

There is a feeling of action/reaction which is profound within both. As with any material, this action/reaction is what makes it malleable, impressionable, and when dealing with clay and the body, because they are natural materials there are many active/reactive agents involved in both, creating a sculptor-material dynamic.  The body and clay respond to touch, and when the body and clay touch each other the nature of both materials come to light. The gentle caress of a hand which is equally capable of destroying a clay form with a thud of a fist. The strength and density of clay, when rolled or stretched too far becomes weak and unsupported. The unpredictability of both, leading to mistakes from pressing too hard, taking too much, pinching too little.