Michael McCarthy and Ben Z., Space Furors are Sleazy, 2016. Wheel-thrown stoneware, altered, woodfired, salt-glazed, Cone 10, 15 x 10 x 8.5 in. All photographs by Michael McCarthy.I teach ceramics at the Austen Riggs Center, a small private psychiatric hospital and residential treatment center located in western Massachusetts. My department is part of the Activities Program and is housed in a building known as the Lavender Door, or to my students, simply “The Shop,” a short walk from the main hospital buildings. This full-fledged arts center offers instruction and facilities for various mediums within the patient-support structure of the hospital. 

Patients work with me voluntarily; there are no formal classes. I teach through self-directed, one-on-one, and group instruction and by fostering a collaborative studio environment. As in any shared studio space, students come and go on their own schedule. Making art is not a privilege that patients have to earn, but instead patients can start working with me any time after being admitted. This arrangement follows the belief that action in any form may promote growth and, as such, action holds more possibility than passivity. 

Joan Erikson, an author, educator, and craftsperson, founded the Activities Program at the Austen Riggs Center in 1953. What she created was simple, but her thinking was astute. Sadly, the shop is a rarity in today’s world. Erikson’s principle was that “art, crafts, intellectual pursuits…are productive for personal growth and development in any individual. These activities…promote change in a positive direction, support competence, and enhance the dignity and identity of the person involved.”1 Per Erickson’s belief, professional working artists who have not received clinical training staff the Activities Program. The hospital continues to value these ideas, which is why it has me, an artist, teaching ceramics. When patients are working in the studio they are referred to, specifically and correctly, as my students. Not patients.

That distinction may seem slight, but it is profound. The role of student-artist is a powerful alternative to the role of patient, underscoring that capacities, especially creativity, exist no matter how much someone is suffering.

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