Words by Jennine Jacob
Image via Lucy Michel Instagram

Four years ago, now ceramicist, Ivy Weinglass was going through a bad break up. Her work life as a fashion stylist was “non-existent.” She felt like nothing was going right. Her parents saw that she was going through a rough time, so they gave her a pottery class for her birthday. That six-week class changed her life. Even though she was bad at ceramics at first, she loved every minute of it. “I threw all my creative force as well as my time into being at the studio and I could not have been happier than when I was there. Everything just melted away – time, thoughts, anxieties, podcasts – and I was fully present in the moment with clay,” Ivy said.

“I threw all my creative force as well as my time into being at the studio and I could not have been happier than when I was there.”

There are many anecdotes of people who go through tough times turning to pottery and feeling better because of it. Some even say that clay has “healing powers” though there might be more to it than that. In 2016, researchers found that healthy adults given a 45-minute art activity (including modelling clay) had reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

To take things a step further, in 2017 Hong-Kong based psychotherapist, Joshua K.M. Nan, conducted a study on the effects of working with Clay Art Therapy (CAT) on people with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). He compared working with ceramics as opposed to other art activities. His findings suggest that working with clay helps improve mood, decision making, and motivation.  The participants were split into two groups, one group engaged in a traditional visual arts and crafts session with a social worker and the other group went to work on ceramics with an art therapist. It is not clear if it were the actual activity or the work of the art therapist that made the difference.

It might just be that working with your hands creates a good distraction from the fast-paced digital world that many of us live in these days.  Ceramicist, Lucy Michel, says about the effects of getting offline and into an analogue space helped her sort things out… “Over the years I would just [do ceramics] as a hobby, but then the preverbal s**t hit the fan for me professionally and personally so I really threw myself (pun intended) into ceramics.  It was one of the few things that made me feel happier and calm. I went to the studio every day, no matter what, it gave me a place to be quiet, create, and escape the fast-paced world outside the studio doors.  There’s something very cool about working in a medium that needs little to no modern technology. It allowed me to unplug and get lost in the moment, which when you’re feeling depressed or overwhelmed is really important. ”

And there might be something to that. Another study (yes, another one!) noted that people born in the later part of the 20th century when there were more modern conveniences suffered from more depression than people born before World War II. The study also noted how depression is much lower in Amish communities where modernity is absent, where you have to sew your own clothes, churn your own butter, farm your own land and so forth.

This study found how several parts of the brain are that “strongly influence well-being when activated by physical labor.” It’s called the “effort-driven reward circuit.”  It basically means that the brain is wired to work for your food and your surroundings, and these days that “work” is abstract beyond what our brain has evolved to identify as actual labor. “When we activate our own effort-driven reward circuitry, it squirts a cocktail of feel-good neurotransmitters, including dopamine (the “reward chemical), endorphins (released with exercise), and serotonin (secreted during repetitive movement).”

Will making pottery replace therapy and medication? That we don’t know. But what we do know is that working with your hands does generate good neurotransmitters. It does lower your cortisol levels. Art Therapy at least helps combat depression, according to science. According to our friends, yes indeed, pottery will help you get through rough times, even if it’s only a little distraction.