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.

Ben Z., I Poisoned Your Food, 2013. Slab-built stoneware, underglazes and glazes electric fired to Cone 6, 1 x 9.5 x 9.5 in.When working with clay, a person identifying as a student will have a different set of expectations and possibilities than someone identifying as a patient. Students may allow themselves a different set of successes and failures, risks and rewards, that the self-identifying patient may not. This shift in identity makes for better learning and ultimately, better art.

I teach students at the Austen Riggs Center as I would anyone, anywhere. I don’t know why my students have been admitted to the hospital; this is an important boundary. Although sometimes my students may be anxious or depressed, or have memory and focus issues, I don’t need to know why. Initially, I am sometimes surprised that they are patients at a hospital at all. Knowing their medical diagnosis isn’t going to make me a better teacher. While a diagnosis may be important toward a treatment plan, it is irrelevant to my work with students and may actually get in the way of my ability to clearly see my students as the complicated and unique individuals they are. Diagnostic labels don’t provide any information about someone’s needs or abilities as an artist, and they won’t help me teach a student how to center a pot on the potter’s wheel, make an aesthetic decision, or fire a kiln. 

At times teaching in such a setting may be confusing. Any type of learning, in clay or otherwise, can have therapeutic aspects for the students. Still, it is vital for me, especially in this setting, to be vigilant in maintaining my role as teacher. The same is true of my students: they must maintain their role as student. I think this contract should exist, unbroken, in any teaching environment because it creates both boundaries and a sense of professionalism within them. Proposing any other arrangement would be outside my responsibility as a teacher and would diminish the vast offerings that a teacher-student relationship allows.

Unfortunately, my students sometimes label themselves as failures. Generally, when people do not expect to succeed, they become risk-averse. Being a beginner can be difficult. Typically, the aesthetics of students new to working with clay are far more mature than their hand skills. They may believe that what they are making isn’t very good. They may not be able to see the progress they are making in their work or understanding that it actually reflects their skill level regardless of whether they’ve invested days, months, or years in learning.  A failed pot is not a reflection of a failed maker, but for many of my students, being a beginner can feel risky and dangerous.

When I tell people where I work, many respond by describing what they think the work made there must be like. Many assume that mental illness somehow liberates one’s mind from inhibitions and makes creating art easier. Their misconception embraces the idea that the sane mind has a filter making creativity more difficult. The “madman as artistic genius” is a romantic notion based on fiction, not reality. What I often see is extreme self-consciousness, self-doubt, perfectionism, a self-perception of lacking creativity and skill. Mental illness is not a creative savior. It is more likely to provoke fatigue and insecurity than inspiration and freedom. 

Ben Z., A Jolly Ahoy to You, 2013. Slab-built stoneware, underglazes and glazes electric fired to Cone 6, 1 x 9.5 x 9.5 in.In any classroom setting, concerns such as aversions to noise, physical space issues, inadequate hygiene and body odor must be managed. Addressing them may be an uncomfortable necessity, but one that allows a communal studio or classroom to function. Doing so within the support of the hospital gives the students the opportunity to better understand themselves. In this way, although I teach in a nonclinical setting, I can help students be aware of their actions. But what the students and I always share and what we come back to day after day is the physical work itself: the object. These objects offer a common focus for my students and me.

Makers of all backgrounds and at all skill levels often question why they create and the value of what they create. At The Shop, objects may take on a different meaning: The students have a physical record of what they’ve accomplished. These objects can be powerful when a patient’s way of expressing themselves may more commonly occur through the clinical offerings of the hospital. The objects my students make are theirs and theirs alone. They are surprised and amazed to discover what their hands can do and what their hands can make. Together, we are able to put aside their initial uncertainties, fears, and expectations. What continues to inspire me is the capacity we all have to learn and the potential we all have to overcome doubt.   

1. Joan Erikson. Activity, Recovery, Growth: The Communal Role of Planned Activities (W. W. Norton & Company; New Ed edition, 1978), 59.