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Kathryn Horn Coneway: When The Artist Listens

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Kathryn Horn Coneway has worked as an art teacher, artist in residence and art therapist as well as pursuing her own artistic practice.
Kathryn Horn Coneway
Kathryn Horn Coneway has worked as an art teacher, artist in residence and art therapist as well as pursuing her own artistic practice.

Clay is a favorite medium in my art studio for children. Young artists play with the clay, sculpt it, transform it and see the impact of their hands. There is also craft to be learned in working with this material; the thickness of a piece and how well parts are attached are crucial factors in whether a creation withstands firing in the kiln.

It can be a delicate balance to facilitate clay work because I often feel torn between wanting to encourage free exploration and expression and wanting to intervene to make sure that the piece will survive.

Because of this tension, one of my clay artists spent many weeks mired in frustration. She would start with a vision of what she wanted to create and end up overwhelmed at the challenge of executing her idea. She required a great deal of assistance and cheerleading, and there just didn't seem to be a feeling of satisfaction or accomplishment when she did complete something.

One busy day in the studio, I had not spent much time at the clay tables but looked over to see her pounding and rolling pieces of clay into slabs. I returned to see that she had cut out a flat circle for a base, and was shaping a long, flat rectangle into the side of a pot. She carefully scored the edges and used wet clay to blend the pieces together.

I felt a glow of pride in seeing this first step toward artistic independence and commented on the care she was taking.

Returning later, I asked about her plans for the pot. She told me, "It was going to be a pot, but it is too deep." Hands poised around the edges, I worried she would crumble it. I debated making suggestions on how to change the shape or size but worried these would only seem critical. Stumped for what to say, I didn't say anything and turned to help another student.

When I came back, she was in motion again, assembling a miniature ladder and adding it to an inside edge of the pot. At sharing time, she proudly explained, "It's a hot tub. I was going to make a pot, but it was too deep. So I added a ladder and now it's a hot tub."

Boy was I glad I hadn't offered my suggestions.

Madeleine L'Engle says of the creative process, "When the work takes over, then the artist is enabled to get out of the way, not to interfere. When the work takes over, then the artist listens."

In the case of my clay artist, the work took over for both of us. It was a blessing I hadn't had time to formulate the right thing to say -- it freed the artist to figure it out for herself. The magic happens in moments like this, when listening is the most powerful intervention I can offer.

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