MA Art & Material Histories student Ellie Arden presents her work from the Material Matters unit of the course: the Lockdown Clay Project, with collaboration as a crucial aspect of the project brief. Visit @thelockdownclayproject on Instagram for more insight into the themes of each week and photographs of the sessions. 

“The thing is,” Josh said to me, “…is that this actually…well…it made me feel quite sad.” 

We had had a fruitful but challenging third week of the Lockdown Clay Project. The idea for the weekly sessions arrived from thinking about how I would complete a brief focused on collaboration during a time where my only real-life, real-time interactions would be with my two flatmates, and the nice American lady that works on the tills in Waitrose. With the realisation that a block of clay that had sat looking sad and forgotten at the back of my wardrobe could be reused indefinitely, I decided to run with this and make it the project premise: each week participants would be required to use their whole block of clay, (ranging from 1kg to 10kg blocks) and would then return the clay to its container at the end of the hour. Not only did this serve a practical purpose during a time of scarce resources, but also became part of the ritual of our weekly connection with each other. Wiping the living room table after our week three session, (where participants made their own ‘Frankenstein’s monster’ from memory) Josh remarked:

“It’s just, it’s made me think of Alex [his boyfriend] and has reminded me that I haven’t seen him in ages. I get frustrated when I facetime him too.” 

It struck me in the infancy of social distancing how tired my friends and family already seemed from endless Facetiming and Zoom webinars. It appeared there was, and is, a dissonance between seeing and hearing a loved one without being in close proximity to them; confused brains and bodies that are accessing social connection without touching and being near people. We cannot perform social cues such as eye contact through a webcam, but our brains do not know that. With the reliance on technology to stay connected, there is an expectation to try and fulfil social interaction in the way we would in the flesh, with our bodies anticipating the same feel-good chemicals that arrive with those in-person interactions. There is vast discourse regarding how our brains and innate human behaviour have not caught up with the speed our technology has progressed, and the virtual world of Sunday morning brunches, classrooms and live performances in the COVID-19 climate exemplifies this disembodiment. 

What does it do to our health, both mentally and physically, (although as conversations push on we understand more and more that these are intrinsically intertwined) when we are removed from human touch and intimacy? What can collaborating with clay, and with each other, achieve in the way of bridging this gap? Can clay help us remove some of the pressure from all trying to substitute human proximity with technology during a pandemic? It seems hypocritical of me to critique technology and then create a project that relies on it. However, the concept originated from the idea of being ‘together’, and how this would allow our bodies to be present, and ease the dissociation caused. 

The human-clay love story is one for the ages. I spoke to material artist Jessie Mason, and we discussed how the slow process of the material  –  from taking it from the earth right the way through to firing and glazing, or perhaps to even the shatter of a pot falling from a shelf – created a sense of full body and mental connection (referencing the Bernard Leach philosophy of ‘hand, heart and mind’). It was clear from talking to other material artists and researchers just how monumental the role that clay and ceramics has played in humanity, from the sentimental to the more practical advancements in societies across history. Academic Sue Jenkins describes this as being born from “ times of stability”. It seems as if despite the newfangled materials that come along, clay is always present, even in times of diminished popularity.

But what about Josh’s sadness mentioned earlier? Clay was not replacing his boyfriend, and it wasn’t supposed to. The Lockdown Clay project was not trying to emulate the role of clay therapist during these sessions – I am not a clinical professional and, although my research has been largely looking at the theory behind art and clay therapy to inform the activities and enhance social connection, attempting to achieve what these highly trained individuals do would be not only unnecessary, but also unethical. The Lockdown Clay project was not trying to heal anyone of trauma, but rather create an opportunity to engage our disembodied selves in a time of trauma. Saying this, it should certainly not be making anyone feel down, so Josh’s sadness was a problem.  

The plasticity of clay depends on the interaction of the particles with each other and with water through a process of drying, shrinkage and warpage. From reflecting upon how this mirrors our hands and bodies interacting with clay, once again permits ideas of a romantic disposition to arise. In Trauma Healing at the Clay Field, Cornelia Elbrecht explains that “Two-thirds of the central nervous system is taken up by the heavy computational demands of refined hand control and mouth movements” (p.26) and so, when our hands are not put to use, for example – in the midst of a global health crisis – what happens to our nervous systems? Collaborating with the material, similar to how the particles collaborate with each other to create plasticity, could improve the plasticity of our minds and nervous systems and remedy some of the touch starvation we faced. My flatmate’s negative experience only highlighted this, and, although the aim was to feel connected to the people in the session, trying to represent the people we wanted to connect with did not work. I in part expected this to happen to some degree anyway, but it made me reevaluate what exactly it was that was making us feel connected during the sessions. We spoke about it as a group, and collectively decided that touching the clay and engaging in a group activity at the same time, rather than the contents of the activity, created the sense of connection. 

Something that struck me when I was photographing the sessions was the domestic objects that appeared in view: an arty shot of a clay form with a blurry kettle in the background, an unwashed bowl on the kitchen worktop. It made me consider the formal contexts we produce work in. There are pets that appear on tables, and one moment a participant runs to break up a cat fight in the garden (hissing sounds included). It pushed me to consider the contexts of where we work: how does a studio setting change the way we interact with the material? What has the pandemic done to our understanding of space and how we operate? Clay is messy – after the session, it would often take three or four attempts to scrub the table we’d worked on clean of the debris – and as frustrated as I was to be pouring washing up liquid over the surface yet again, the domestic context added something to the weekly ritual of the project. Looking at my laptop screen, I could see one participant on the floor, another at their kitchen table, and another at a tiny desk in their bedroom. Something that struck me in all of the sessions was the beauty of the objects and things made in their wet, clay form. No firing, no glazing, and more often than not, no recognisable forms. The rawness, and us huddled and barricaded into our homes with makeshift tools and makeshift work stations, showed a humanity that I think, like clay, is ancient and made of earth. 

We must collaborate with clay, the very stuff we are made of – we must dance with it, play with it, fight with it, poke, push, mould it, understand it, listen to it and sing with it. Clay was here and serving us long before lockdown, and it will continue long after. It still has much to teach us.