The workshop I took to the Adoption Council of Canada differs from Somerset West Community Health Centre group at LaRoche Park in a couple of ways. The age group is 14-16 or so and they are all in the care of the Children’s Aid Society (CAS) for one reason or another. It’s also a big group – twenty or so teens that are currently in the care of CAS. These are kids who have PLENTY of good reason to be dismissive and distrusting and I ask them to get a bit silly, to make something and be vulnerable in that making. I am asking for a LOT in this workshop. I am asking for them to take a risk.
When we make with clay, we hit a younger, more automated part of our brain – like doodling spirals on paper while you talk on the phone. This automated making is not concerned with outcome and you need to be a bit loose to hit it. Raging vials of hormones and upheaval – teenagers are anything but loose. Tight with the tension of insisted maturity, they are still young, while being in the painful position of needing to seem old.
And yet. When I arrive at CAS with my ambassador from the Adoption Council of Canada, there are two teens that I will later learn are in the workshop. They are slumped in the waiting room, siphoned into their respective phones. And yet, the boy, visible marks on his face (a fight?) strikes up a perfectly polite, engaging conversation. The CAS employee who greets us is friendly and effective. She hones in on the boy immediately and says “we’ll talk before the meeting okay?” and he nods. She does too. While we’re setting up and the kids begin to file in, she makes a point to focus in and lead him out of the room. For a moment, this exchange reminds me where I am.
They return inconspicuously as I’m spreading out materials and dragging varying degrees of response from the teens. One of the first questions from a well decked-out girl is if this “stuff” is going to get under her nails. I say I hope so and that those acrylics look like excellent sculpting tools.
Some are hesitant, but we get out the clay and everyone starts forming their creatures. They’re more thoughtful that the younger group and we don’t draw up plans. I get them to plan as they go – just get them interacting with the clay – and I’m lucky. A couple of the alphas in the group are into it. In any social circle, but especially a group of teenagers, if you convert the alphas then you are in business. To my surprise and delight, they pretty much all pull up a chair and participate. We make some spectacular creatures and even the ones who hang back at first eventually get their hands dirty. The creatures that emerge from this age group are more intricate though sometimes less daring than the younger group. They understand, instinctively, the limitations of the material and it is both amazing and a little bit sad.
These kids also have a much greater capacity for the story component. Often this is too much for a six-year-old attention span, but teens are in an amazing place of still knowing how to imagine. I ask the usual questions, like What’s your creature’s name?, but also: Where did they come from? What noise do they like to dance to? What’s their favourite food? The answers are endlessly creative and they come readily. The stories form without effort and soon there is an alien creature names Kai who got on the wrong spaceship from Jupiter and landed on earth. Not bad from the girl who initially wanted to know if this activity would affect her perfectly manicured nails.
Funny thing about clay; it kind of makes you forget how old you are, even how old you’re pretending to be.
Click here to learn more about Brend Dunn’s Art Place workshops with Somerset West Community Health Centre.
Brenda Dunn has been getting in trouble for crayoning on the walls for as long as she can remember. She eventually went to art school at the University of Guelph and drew on whatever the hell she wanted. She works and plays in Ottawa where she came for grad school and just stuck around ever since. She learned a lot of busy words during her Masters in English Lit, but it turns out she actually prefers the visual to the verbal when it comes to communication. You can see all the things she makes at artinjest.com or rifle through her digital sock drawer on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram all @artinjest. She also doesn't totally get why these things are always written in the third person but concedes that it does just sort of feel right.