Here, Helen Lee provides some fascinating insights into being a volunteer with the Leach Pottery, working alongside the Sensory Trust and our Wednesday Wanderers group – a creative ceramics project for people with dementia and their carers. This voluntary work helped Helen combine her love of ceramics with her background in psychotherapy to reach some understandings about the positive impacts of such activities.
That this journey has involved the Leach Pottery in collaboration with the Sensory Trust could scarcely be more apt as it has involved sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Here I am, at the end of this latest journey in making, sitting in the Clore Learning Studio of the Leach Pottery, sharing the powerful taste of matcha (finely ground Japanese green tea) with the ‘Wednesday Wanderers’. They are tasting the tea in beautiful teabowls each of them has carefully and skilfully made over previous months.
The Wednesday Wanderers is ‘a creative walking, nature and ceramics project’ for people with dementia and their carers. They meet once a week with the support of volunteers for a walk and a coffee, feasting their senses on the local Cornish landscape and finding joy and support in each other’s company. They also walk to find inspiration for making things in clay, often using items found on the walks such as pampas grass, to make brushes, and seed heads to make stamps. Each month they come to the Leach Pottery for a Studio day under the creative direction of Learning & Participation Officer Jackie Clark.
Teabowls were central to the creative exchange because the Leach Pottery is deeply connected to Japan and had, at the time, an exhibition of Japanese teabowls – famed for being embedded in an ancient appreciation of the senses with their wabi or simple, imperfect, design that fitted the group’s interests. A visit to the exhibition, The Teabowl: Past & Present, started the making journey, followed by a YouTube demonstration of a Japanese potter making a tea bowl using a traditional coiling method.
Jackie and I sourced examples of teabowls for people to handle: we explored their feel, classic dimensions, and the possibilities of decoration inspired by the group’s walks. Coiling is a quick method of making: one Studio session was enough to make the bowl and, the following month, a foot ring could be cut and the walls thinned. The bowls were decorated using incising, slips, and oxides, and were glazed with the Leach Pottery’s celadon glaze.
The acquiring of new skills in a group is wonderful to witness: it takes courage to make mistakes in front of others which inspires encouragement, support and humour in the shared learning. Research shows that the bonding this results in is incredibly helpful for people facing various mental and physical challenges because it creates an expression of implicit solidarity around the overarching reason why the group comes together – without the need or pressure to talk about those challenges (see: discussion on the positive effects of group learning).
Working with the Hands
There is much healing and well-being to be gained from working with the hands. It stimulates large areas of the brain encouraging an almost meditative state as one shifts focus to the detailed sensory feedback in the fingers and leaves behind thoughts and worries that can drive much of our stress and anxiety.
It is also worth noting, particularly in relation to dementia, that memory is not just in our brains. Neuroscience is now recognising that ‘receptor cells/specialised neurons’ that are found throughout the body – particularly in the fingertips, the gut and the major organs – can be understood as a kind of brain cell holding memory and intelligence; as this sensory memory is stimulated so other memories flow. This is important because where words and details might be frustratingly difficult to find, self-expression and a sense of autonomy can flow more easily through the hands by making something. (see: The Incredible Human Hand).
Working with Clay
Working with clay can be very helpful: it is a sensory, natural material which can take us back to childhood memories of pottery classes at school, and even playing with mud. Going back to early memories stimulates brain plasticity allowing new skills to be acquired more easily, and stimulating old, long buried memories to bubble up to the surface (see: Brain Plasticity).
Back in the Studio
A month later the teabowls have been fired in the gas kiln, giving them a rich green finish with the white slip and incisions showing through underneath – some with deep blue highlights.
Everyone studies their finished bowl: its design, how it feels in the hands, its weight, its glaze and surface decoration, the feel of the rim on the lips, noting how to feed this information back into the making of their next piece.
Using the inspiration of the Japanese aesthetic that Bernard Leach brought to St Ives, we are recreating the Japanese tea ceremony as best we can. Jackie has fitted a Japanese door curtain above the Studio’s entrance, sourced beautiful squares of fabric to rest the teabowls on, and even recruited someone to make a small Japanese flower arrangement in the middle of the table. I sourced the tea, which each member of the group tries – experiencing the bitter, powerful and fresh taste of green powdered tea! There is much giggling and apprehension at trying something so different and new.
Dementia & Resilience
The challenges dementia brings are many and the diagnosis often comes with descriptions like ‘devastating’ and ‘heartbreaking’, and it is important to appreciate and honour the loss and pain that it can bring for both those with the symptoms and their loved ones. However, my work as a psychotherapist has taught me that we can be incredibly resilient and resourceful and, with the right strategies and support, we can be at our best when facing our greatest challenges. Dementia can also teach us how much we can achieve, how strong we can be in the face of grief and loss, how precious life is, and how caring and sharing, and joy and fun, are what really matter in life.
To watch each member of the group contribute so much love and care for one another makes it a huge privilege to share time with them. The Leach Pottery, Sensory Trust, and the Wednesday Wanderers have achieved the sharing of much pain with much joy and I take my hat off to them and thank them for allowing me to share some of that journey with them