EXAMINATIONS: an exploration of ceramics and health

In March 2021, I matured the idea to develop a project inspired by my experience with ceramics and health. The project called EXAMINATIONS came into shape over the last two months. The first three pieces were produced and exhibited last week at Lightwood House in Birmingham thanks to the Midlands Potter Association.

As explained in a previous article, pottery is very much connected to my health experience. In 2015, I was diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer at University College London Hospital. In 2018, I was diagnosed with a Gastro-Intestinal Stromal Tumour, a rare form of sarcoma cancer, and had surgery to successfully remove it. I started pottery as a way to feel better and develop my artistic side. Ceramics became my passion and a life-saving activity. 

In February 2021, I interviewed Josh Powell for Ceramics Today. Josh talked about his experience with clay, as part of his third-year degree in Art and Design at Birmingham City University, and how he expressed his childhood trauma into his vessels.

I discussed Josh’s experience with my friend Jan Morris. She is an art therapist who uses clay to help clients with trauma. Her comments helped me connect the dots together. Making ceramics was a therapy to recover from depression and it helped me overcome the traumatic experience of living with cancer.

There was a necessity for me to make a series of pieces inspired by my experience with cancer: the three vessels below as part of the installation EXAMINATIONS.

Initially, I was inspired by saggar containers, which were made of fireclay. They were used to protect ceramic pieces from ashes in wood or coal-fired kilns. In my creative process, I visualised saggars as a representation of our bodies, protecting the organs inside.I threw large porcelain and stoneware vessels and sanded them to a very smooth texture, similar to the skin.

The first vessel was inspired by the words of the uro-oncology surgeon after I had the prostate removed by surgery
“The cancer started to spread outside the prostate capsule. The surgery went well but we don’t know what we left behind”

I glazed the inside of the vessels with a dark amber red glaze from Terracolor, as this was how I visualised the body inside.

The sculpture was hand-built using paperclay porcelain, representing spaghetti around the prostate, as the cancer spreading in my body. The glaze was specially prepared with copper oxide to make a contrast of the blue green with the red.

The second vessel was inspired by the radiotherapy treatment that I received in 2016, to try to control the spread of the cancer. The radiologist explained to me that
“During radiotherapy, the x-rays will travel through your body and target the prostate bed from multiple directions”

The sculpture is made of porcelain rods hand-built and installed inside the vessel. They represent the x-rays travelling through, as the Linear Accelerator machine head was turning around my body.

The third vessel was inspired by my first appointment with the Gastrointestinal surgeon back in September 2018
“The scanner revealed a Gastro-Intestinal Stomal tumour, a rare form of sarcoma cancer, in your stomach”

I was told that the tumour was only 5 cm long, hanging from the top of my stomach, and would be removed by surgery.

Despite all this reassuring message, I visualised the tumour as one of the Alien’s egg growing inside my body…

Making these vessels was certainly a cathartic experience. There was a real challenge to build the pieces as I visualised them. Deciding which clay and glazes to use was also difficult. But more difficult was to express my own health experience in a piece of ceramic and to let it go. I was pleased with the final results and proud to show the installation.

Displaying the vessels and explaining my journey to visitors was a really interesting experience. Some visitors could relate to the pieces as they had cancer themselves or closed ones suffered from this condition. Others found it disturbing and I can easily understand why, as it is not a comfortable experience to be reminded that cancer can grow inadvertently into our own bodies.

The installation fulfilled my objective to raise awareness about cancer and help the public thinking about how health can affect our lives.

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