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  • Writer's picturejaneboutwell

Creativity & Grief: Nurture Bowls

I have been working on writing out the stories of artworks that I've made over the years that have come from a place of grief, whether it's my own grief or expressing and honoring a friend's grief. I find this to be something that's really important to me in my creative life. I think that when we don't let our griefs get expressed and seen, they fester and they can grow a hardness inside of us, that blocks our creativity.

I believe that creativity has a profound ability to allow us to work through and let the griefs process and flow out of us. Also, artwork that is made about a certain type of grief has the ability to let someone else who suffered that same grief feel a deep sense of attunement. {That's a word psychologists use to say 'your grief is seen and known, you're not alone with it. I can echo the look of pain in your eyes in my eyes because I'm feeling this with you and helping carry this with you, holding space for this'.} My hope is that the artwork that I've made around different areas of grief may offer attunement and bring a healing salve to those who have suffered similar griefs and heartaches.

When I've been going through times of grief, there is a point where I'm able to come to my creativity and make something, and regardless of what the finished product is, that process of creatively expressing what I'm going through can can feel like coming to feast after feeling famished.

My hope is that maybe you will feel the invitation to sit with something that has been grieving you and let your body and your heart find a way to express it creatively. Oftentimes, the ability to put words to our grief leaves us. The way our brain works, it just separates the feeling of grief from the ability to connect words to it. So it is so important and powerful to give yourself the opportunity to express with clay or with paper and paint- whatever feels right for your body-- a way to express and feel what you're feeling, creatively.

Below you will find one of my personal stories of processing grief with creativity.

I spent hours in the waiting room at the mammogram office. One check, wait for results. There is a need for a better image, and then another. Anxious quarter hours creep by. I’m asked to come into the ultrasound room. “We need to take a closer look”.

I lay there with the machine that reminded me so much of those first checks of an early pregnancy. The anticipation. Mostly excitement. This time, there was no excitement, only mounting anxiety. After a seperate appointment with a specialist I was told of the need to remove a milk duct and do a biopsy.

The way I tend to deal with any kind of stressful possibility is by doing a worst case scenario map in my mind. I travel that road and see where the final destination is, I acquaint myself with it and then I can come back to where I really am in time and space. Thankfully, often I do not meet the worst case scenario, but there have been times that the worst case scenario took me by surprise. And I guess it's my own way of trying to be prepared.

As I faced my list of possibilities I sank into a season of grief, the kind that makes you physically exhausted, your brain is in a fog and you zone out every chance you can.

After bingeing on Netflix during any free moments I had, finally the date for surgery approached. The night before, I had an hour to myself, sitting out in a friend's driveway where we had plugged up our pottery wheels a few before(both of us had been art majors in college and after years of neglect and non-use, we finally pulled each of our storage weary pottery wheels out for what we said would be a “Throwdown”: throwing pottery together to the entertainment of all the kids in the neighborhood).

I had a quiet hour in her driveway that summer evening, trying to face putting my body under the hands of a surgeon. Allowing them to cut and reshape- glue back together this incredibly vulnerable place on my body. As I faced that certainty, and the possibility of future loss of my breast, there was so much to hold. So many associations. I felt a tendency to want to hunch my shoulders forward and keep this tender place on my chest protected as best I could.

But I continued to choose to take a deep breath and stay vulnerable and alive in the moment. Face what came, knowing this tender vulnerable space where I had nurtured my babies, where I had faced intense pain through breastfeeding( a tongue tied child that left me scarred already). I knew what pain in this area was like. And all the complications, the contradictions of pleasure and pain experienced in this place.

I was ready to do what must be done. Take this next step.

My hands were on the clay as it was spinning on the wheel and I was thinking about all a woman's breast holds, all her heart holds. My hands formed a vessel and shaped it into a breast. I formed a nipple out of clay, thinking of how the surgeon would be reshaping and forming my own breast the next day. I continued thinking of all the complicated nuances held inside this breast.

I thought of the grief of so many women who have had breast cancer and had to lose their breasts to a mastectomy...the pressure they must have felt to be so grateful for that surgery that can save their life from cancer to the extent that perhaps they didn’t feel the freedom to grieve the loss of this part of their body. Such a powerful tender part of a woman's body- a ransom that often must be paid to gain the possibility of life free from cancer. I thought of known experiences of my own and my friends who had met the challenge to breastfeed an infant, to give their tender nipple to the chomping mouth of a learn together, with a newborn, how on earth to do this thing that is required to keep them alive and growing. Beautiful, endearing, miraculous, yes. But it is very often a hot mess and a great challenge, not to mention at times, intensely painful. The hours and hours- days worth of hours spent breastfeeding and nurturing, sharing this vulnerable place with your child. Such a symbol for what parenting is: exposing our vulnerable selves to our children, holding them in the tenderest ways and allowing our raw hearts (our children) to now live on the outside of our body with free volition to go and do as they choose. All of these associations with this part of a woman's body... I knew making this one breast sculpture was not the end.

I felt this was a gift that could be shared with others. Something to hold in our hands, to acknowledge that the struggles, the journey, the griefs associated with the things our breasts go through. We're not alone.Those secret struggles are seen and worth honoring with artwork.

The collection of Nurture Bowls grew out of that original vessel with a nipple lid. The original concept of a lidded vessel turned into bowls that are open to show what's on the inside: mammary glands, looking like a flower blooming, to give nourishment through milk. Lymph nodes- the rivers of detoxification, and lines that symbolize the musculature that gives strength. These three main elements paint a picture of my experience of womanhood and femininity. I'm one of four girls and most of my cousins are female so I've certainly lived a life that has been blessed with many women around. It has been an honor to make an art collection honoring womanhood and femininity.

As I worked on the bowls I had plenty of time to think about how the design elements are symbolic of deeper truths. The beautiful flower shaped mammary glands have the purpose of giving, providing, nurturing. As women (even those who have not breastfed a baby), we have this ability to comfort with a softness, to nurture and provide a place in which people can feel safe and loved in a unique way. But if we are always giving, giving, nurturing, pouring out that can lead us to feel resentful. We can hold on to those hurts and those places where we've been harmed. One thing that I've certainly been learning on my own personal journey, has been to see how important it is to have the balance of the nurturing and giving that is symbolized by the mammary glands, with what the lymph nodes symbolize.

The lymph nodes are part of our body’s detox system. They look like rivers and tributaries and it is so important for our health to keep them flowing. Things like exercise keep the lymph moving and flowing in our body. As I've been thinking about them symbolically in this collection, I've been considering how important it is to let go and let things move through. When we are hurt, and we hold resentment, it can block us up and hold toxins inside our emotional heart, and even our physical body. I have read that some of the people who have been researching cancer feel like we can hold on to negative feelings and get a buildup of toxins in our body. Any toxins in our body that are not flowing out and detoxing can lead to cancer developing. I am not a doctor, but these things resonate with the truth that I found in my own heart as I’ve been walking through emotional healing. When I was holding onto the hurt and resentment I had felt, it blocked me up and made me less healthy. As I've learned to grieve those things, then to forgive and let go of the resentment, I have felt a deeper freedom and health. Choosing to let grief, forgiveness, and the releasing of resentment flow like a river brings vitality. Having a healthy flowing lymph system physically and symbolically allows us to then come back to the nurturing and giving that the mammary glands represent from a place of health, without resentment.

The very artistic allusion to the musculature inside of the bowls represents the muscles in the breast supporting and providing infrastructure. This brings to mind the incredible strength women have. I do not speak about feminine softness, beauty and sensitivity, in a way that at all negates the rock solid strength of women. Women are the ones that have to push babies out of their bodies, women often are the ones that are often in the nitty gritty of caregiving- whether for children or parents at the end of life... cleaning messes that are unimaginable.

Women often are the ones doing jobs that are not recognized, not thanked, and require intense resilience and strength to carry about.

While our world tends to objectify women and all too often, women are discussed and valued for our outside of beauty, provocative sensuality... all of the outside appeal of women. So I really loved that this collection emphasized the internal world and all the richness and depth of beauty, strength, and flow of life that is within women.

While the interior of the bowl holds the focus, I had to make a decision about how to finish the exterior surface of the bowls. One of the aspects I love about creating ceramic art is the idea that somebody is going to physically hold the piece, feel it and interact with it in a tangible way. It delights me as an artist to have my hands on a piece and to know that somebody else will echo this touch as they interact with the artwork. So, the thought of what it feels like to somebody is really important and I couldn't imagine picking up something that's representing a breast and having it be cold and glassy, which is what the finish of a glaze feels like. So the choice I made was to leave the outside of the vessel unglazed. That gives a raw earthy, tangible feel. It also felt incredibly important to me to have the variety of womanhood represented and so I love that, with clay, there's a wide variety of tones. The ground in different locations will have a different makeup, therefore different colors. For example, over the years I’ve worked with a clay from near my hometow., Lizella clay is named for the small town Georgia where it comes from and it fires to a terracotta orange color. For the outside of the bowls I used slip (which is clay wet enough to be brushed on like a paint) in various skin toned colors of clay.

Regardless of how we appear on the outside, my hope is that this collection honors the struggles we face in our heart, as we work through holding all that our journey of womanhood might bring.


The Nurture collection:

To celebrate women who have harbored love in their breast,

To honor the blood, sweat, and tears shed in the carrying and comforting of young ones and the nurturing of babies at their breast,

And to grieve alongside those who have suffered harm in places of vulnerability & those who have said goodbye to their breast to fight disease.

These private battles are seen and honored.

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