The Healing Art of Clay

There is an incredible thing happening on any given Friday right around 10am in a small classroom in White Plains. Men and women are gathering, shrugging out of their coats, sitting on studio stools and talking about their week. It is familiar and comfortable and happens there 6 months out of the year. In the social hum of the morning there is also an undercurrent of excitement, something is about to happen and it will blow you away!

Clay Art Center Teaching Artist Denis Licul opens a box of clay and the atmosphere changes, it becomes more focused and lean and the creativity swirling in the air brings a richness to the conversation. The group, mostly women with a few exceptions, all have one thing in common: they create with clay each week as they cope with the frustration and pain of living with cancer. The class is called Clay Expressions and is offered free to clients of Gilda’s Club a national organization built to fulfill Gilda Radner’s vision to create welcoming communities of free support for everyone living with cancer – men, women, teens and children – along with their families and friends.


Teaching Artist Denis Licul with Clay Expressions Students

Teaching Artist Denis Licul with Clay Expressions Students

Denis hands out balls of clay and guides each student through a meditation; as they breathe they pinch the clay creating forms that become vessels to hold bitterness, anger, anxiety and hurt. This healing exercise center’s each student and frees them from the burdens outside the classroom walls. The program has a huge impact, for seven years men and women have been pursuing their creative vision, often for the first time, in a safe and nurturing space. I have seen the incredible arc of change that has happened in this time, from the first classes where students introduced themselves and their cancer to the program today where some of those same students now introduce themselves and talk about what kind of artwork they create. The transformation into self-possessed artists has been phenomenal. Student Ana Pagan shares,

“The clay makes you feel strong, that whatever happened in the past is gone. I feel that out of something so horrible something wonderful is created. I am so proud to give my pieces to my friends with the same experience and tell them, you are going to be okay!”

Raku Tiles by Clay Art Center Teaching Artist Denis Licul

Raku Tiles by Clay Art Center Teaching Artist Denis Licul

This program has also prompted a greater acknowledgement of the power of clay to heal and provide solace. Since its conception many of CAC”s artists have become involved, visiting classes and sharing their artwork with students. Among those Susan Wortman, Tomoko Abe and Denis Licul have shared with us why they feel this healing connection we have with clay is so powerful.

Denis Licul

“Creativity gives wings to the spirit, and the spirit becomes empowered to transform the matter”, shares Denis. “Our interaction with clay involves all senses,our sense of touch, sight, smell and hearing are engaged and our attention is pulled to the present. We are experiencing life in this moment of engagement.Our first memories come from the tactile contact with our mother’s body. While working with clay our first experiences and memories, stored in our subconscious, are being revisited and released.” Denis herself discovered clay as a child, “I was blessed to be raised in a small town where it was natural for the kids to will play outdoors. Kids knew where clay could be found in nature, along a few creeks and ponds.There was a coal mine in town and clay was used in sealing explosives in the mine. So we always had access to clay.”

Winged Women  by Clay Art Center Artist Susan Wortman

Winged Women by Clay Art Center Artist Susan Wortman

Susan Wortman

“Our lives are often so busy and over scheduled with other people’s needs or activities that we put our playful and creative selves last. Setting time aside to touch clay is a way of listening, nurturing and often healing our true selves.  For me, getting my hands in clay, getting messy, being silly or serious and making something out of clay while loosing track of time is pure joy. Sharing this experience with a group of fellow artists fills me with pleasure, and opening the kiln to see finished work is like unwrapping a gift at holiday time.  That all adds up to a whole lot ofhealing for me.”  Susan, herself a breast cancer survivor, began using clay in a uniquely therapeutic way.

“After being diagnosed with breast cancer, I began a series of female forms that evolved into a body of work entitled ‘Winged Women’.  They were my way of dealing with a mastectomy and reconstruction and the range of feelings I had about my changed body.    The Winged Women all have scarred, stretched and imperfect bodies and they are my army of breast cancer survivors.”


#19  by Clay Art Center Artist Tomoko Abe

#19 by Clay Art Center Artist Tomoko Abe

Tomoko’s Abe’s connection to clay has also referenced the devastating and enlightening cycle of healing. “I have used medical gauze that my grandfather left in installations. These were unused rolls of gauze that he had used to treat his leg which was amputated during the war and left behind. I wanted to make them into art works to capture his past.  In these works, I dipped gauze into slip and then fired them.  The gauze burnt away but the texture and movement of the gauze were captured in the slip.”
“Everyone has memories of playing with mud from their childhood. It is soothing to touch, manipulate and forgives when you make forms. I think we have a fundamental connection to clay, as we live eating products of the earth and go back to the earth.”

These incredible stories echo the transformation that happens in the Clay Expressions class each year for more than 24 men and women. This program and this process is celebrated in the upcoming Exhibition “Clay Expressions” at the Greenburgh Public Library from April 4-May 30th. Student artists of the program invite you to share in their journey. On Sunday April 10th Denis Licul, Susan Wortman and Tomoko Abe will offer a free lecture on the “Healing Art of Clay” from 2-4pm to kick off the exhibition. We all need a little healing in our lives and the inspirational stories of those who have been saved, nurtured or inspired by clay is something to feel restored by.

The Clay Expressions program is made possible by an anonymous donor and sponsored by ArtsWestchester. To learn more please visit our website and attend the exhibition proposed, created and inspired by our students.

By Ariel Edwards, Clay Art Center Community Arts Director