The Cairn Project: Healing Through Clay

Victor Cassidy Ceramics Art + Perception 109 2018 Yarrobil Home

I just started working with the clay, and then I saw it was becoming a protective angel,” says John, a Vietnam War veteran who struggles long after war’s end to come to terms with his battlefield experiences. John is one of many troubled people—ex-military, Middle East refugees, sexual abuse victims, and more—who have benefited from clay workshops created and led by Corinne D. Peterson, a Chicago ceramic artist.

Peterson, who was a practicing psychotherapist for many years, began to work with clay in 1986 as she underwent Jungian psychoanalysis that focuses on the subconscious. As she tells it, she discovered clay as a way to visualize her inner experiences. She says “I was amazed by how clay helped me recognize, understand, and begin to heal” from childhood traumas. Peterson eventually abandoned her psychotherapy practice to become a full-time ceramic sculptor whose work centered on rock and column forms.

In 2013 Peterson dreamed that she was hanging small black clay rocks in a grid on a wall. Later, she made black clay rocks in her studio and each seemed to represent a particular personal trauma to her. As she looked at the rocks, she recalled an ancient burial cairn (i.e., a pile of rough stones, built up as a memorial or landmark) that she had seen in Sweden. She envisioned a contemporary cairn that would address human sufferings and decided to organize group workshops in Chicago and the surrounding area.

A Workshop
Workshop participants were local people who’d had similar experiences to Peterson. When they arrived, Peterson showed them a table covered with rocks and asked each participant to choose a rock and find a seat. Introductions followed, and participants discussed how they, like rocks, show evidence of their life history. Everyone then told why they chose the rock they did.

At this point, each participant received a fist-sized lump of raw stoneware. Also, at their places were pen and paper, so they could draw or make notes of anything they wanted to remember—for themselves, not to turn in.

.. they had gathered to honor the history of their pain, which could range from ordinary setbacks to extraordinary life episodes that no human being should ever have to experience.

Peterson next explained that they had gathered to honor the history of their pain, which could range from ordinary setbacks to extraordinary life episodes that no human being should ever have to experience. She asked them to create two forms: a stoneware clay rock that embodied their inner experience of pain and loss, and a small white porcelain token that represented their inner light and hope. After firing, the stoneware rocks would be piled to form a memorial cairn, with the porcelain tokens of light suspended above. The light over dark became a collective expression of hope over trauma.

Peterson showed participants how they could shape, press, or pull their clay lump with their hands or employ tools, textures, and slip to mark or carve it. Participants could use all or part of their clay. There was no right or wrong way to proceed.

After a guided meditation that helped them let go of the outer world, be conscious of their body, and focus on their experiences of suffering, participants set to work. Peterson wanted everyone to have a conversation with the clay, expressing their feelings as they worked and allowing the clay to talk back to them. Most participants were silent so as not to interrupt others’ inner conversations, but one group of refugees, who all knew each other, chattered and laughed as they worked.

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