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Healing with Clay Article

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CLAY PLAY
A new form of therapy for both kids and adults
by Shelley Kanther

The encyclopedia list four basic steps to creating pottery: preparing the clay mixture, shaping the clay, decorating and glazing the item, and firing it for hardening. Abbie Gray or Hollis Citron add one more crucial step in making a finished work of art. It's called Sharing.

Gray and Citron own the House of Clay, a Collingswood-based pottery studio, offering a variety of group classes, staff retreats, birthday parties and special workshops. At the end of each class, students proudly show off their finished pieces and talk about their experience. Why did they choose to make this piece? What is special about it? How does it make them feel?

"We give everybody a chance to talk, and it's all volunteer, but people are into it and sometimes they are literally in tears, because their guards are down and they have the ability and comfort level to open up through the practice of creating," says Gray. "They don't even realize the level of relaxation they've achieved. It ends up being something they want more and more of."

This emotional expression is all part of the magic of clay therapy, a unique form of art therapy champi- oned by Citron and Gray. Students of all ages, backgrounds and ability levels get lost in a world of creativ- ity, which allows them to express their feelings, connect with others and reduce their stress through art. While working with this three-dimensional object — clay — which you can touch, feel and shape, students forget their worries as they squeeze, squish, pinch and press. Over the course of a few weeks, the budding artist ends up with a functional, solid, finished product.

"Here you get to go from start to finish," says Citron, "You have your idea, you mold it, you form it, you shape it, you paint it, you do everything." "The ownership and confidence and self esteem that comes with that process is amazing," says Gray. "That physical, hands-on creativity — it's invaluable!" Lisa Schmidt, mother of nine-year old Adam, wholeheartedly agrees. Adam has not yet been diagnosed with any particular condition, but he has nervous tendencies and becomes easily distracted, as though there are a million things going on inside his head. But since he began working with Abbie Gray, Adam has found a way to focus his energy.

"It's so therapeutic for him... there's a wonderful calming effect," says Schmidt. "He loves to go to clay. It's a place for him to shine. He's really in his element. He gets to take this picture in his head and then complete a finished product, which is so important." That finished product? A whole world of clay figu- rines, about an inch or so in height, which Adam quite proudly calls "The Adventures of Toadsly the Mush- room."

"You know what? They actually do look a little like mushrooms!" laughs Schmidt. "He's made about 50 of them so far."

Citron and Gray can spout off successful examples like Adam, having used art as therapy throughout their careers in education and social work. They graduated together from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, both earning degrees in Ceramics, while Gray double-majored in Art Therapy. They kept in close touch over the next 15 years: Citron got a Masters in Art Education and worked in the areas of special needs and general education while Gray pursued her career in social work. When Citron moved back into the area around the same time Gray and her husband bought the Collingswood property, they decided to partner and pursue their dream of using clay therapy to help people from all walks of life. "When Hollis came into the picture everything changed and we just went crazy brainstorming. We came up with a name and all these ideas," remembers Gray.

"It's been a phenomenal two years with what we've been able to accomplish," agrees Citron. "You should have seen the studio when we got started."

The House of Clay is a cement building standing behind Gray's home. Once a furniture warehouse, it needed to be cleaned out and revamped for use as a creative studio. Now the House of Clay is, well, messy. Gloriously and perfectly messy. The kind of messy that gives you permission to roll up your sleeves and dive elbow-deep into clay without a care in the world. The sky-blue walls are lined with metal shelves full of pottery projects in all states of completion, and in one corner sit thick plastic bags of raw gray clay the size of cinder blocks. Long tables are lined with brightly-colored chairs, and everything is covered in a thin film of white pottery dust. There's nothing intimidating about the workspace, as people with all sorts of special needs excel in the creative chaos surrounding them.

Citron has been working with three physically-challenged boys who have tactile difficulties. Their mothers bring them to the House of Clay, and join in the sessions as needed to help their kids use their hands. They work with different textures and weights — Legos, rolling pins, and other tools — to help them learn how to employ different pressures for marking the clay. Citron has seen an improvement in their motors skills, but just as important, she has recently seen their countenance transform from disturbance to delight. "It was the first time they had real smiles on their faces while they were doing it," she says. "They felt an immediate reward for their actions, which you can only get from being involved with the clay."

That reward, that sense of accomplishment, has also been felt by Partners for Kids and Families, Inc., a Burlington County Care Management Organization. Since May 2004, the House of Clay has provided Clay Play Therapy workshops, fostering positive interaction between children and their caregivers. Keva White, Community Resources Director, brought clay therapy to the group and says she has seen its positive effects firsthand.

"I saw the level of nurturing capability increase dramatically," says White of how the sessions affected the adults. He remembers one family in particular, a grandmother who by default, was forced to adopt her daughter's children. "She was so angry about having to take them on. She was so rough on them, and by then end of the sessions she developed a calm, nurturing persona as a result of working with the kids outside the home."

For the children, White noticed such joy through the self-expression of working with clay to create their own piece of art. "These kids don't have many choices," says White, "They always have someone dictating where they have to live and what they have to do." But with clay, the children were free to make their own decisions about what they wanted to make and how they wanted it to look."

Accolades are echoed by numerous organizations throughout the area, including Volunteers of America Delaware Valley, the Garden State Discovery Museum and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Camden and Gloucester Counties. The successful clay therapy programs created to help non-profit groups like these reach their goals have caused Citron and Gray to envision a goal of their own: to turn the House of Clay into a non-profit organization. That way, they could obtain funding to help even more people and special groups that are in need of art therapy.

"It’s not the right time yet, but that's where we want to go some day," says Citron.

"We’d also like a mini-van so we can stop using our own cars to haul all our gear around town for traveling workshops," adds Gray, laughing. But for now, Citron and Gray are satisfied that they have been able to realize their dreams of helping others help themselves through the healing powers of clay. They have created a space where you don't have to worry about the phone ringing in the midst of your artistic muddle. You don't have to think about keeping your scraps off the floor or your paint drips off the table. You can just create, relax and do whatever it is you want to do with your clay, which is the whole point.

"Everything else doesn't matter for that hour, two hours, three hours, for whatever length of time that person is scheduled to be here," says Gray, "Nothing else really matters but that clay in front of them. And that is so huge! It's such an escape for everybody."