Behind the potter’s wheel, veterans work on healing

by David Conrads from The Christian Science Monitor, Asheville, N.C.

Returning to civilian life after military deployment can be disorienting. For these veterans and their families, working with clay offers comfort, focus, and community.

168102Instructors Sara Ballek (left) and Paige Janeri join Gabriel Kline in celebrating the birthday of a class participant. Starr Sariego/Special to The Christian Science Monitor

| ASHEVILLE, N.C. - When Gabriel Kline founded Odyssey ClayWorks in 2013, he intended it to become more than a thriving business with an educational pottery studio, a sales gallery, and a residency program for ceramics artists. He says he also wanted to “do good” in his Asheville, North Carolina, community.

The former U.S. service members who participate in Odyssey’s Veterans Clay Program feel the good the studio is doing – from their places behind the potter’s wheel. For 11 years now, military veterans and their families have been coming for a series of pottery classes that Mr. Kline offers free of charge. The classes help veterans heal or simply forge stronger ties in the city.

“When you start doing pottery, you just lose yourself in it,” Roseanna Coates says while working on a series of ceramic tiles during one class. “It’s a better form of therapy than any therapy I’ve ever had.”

Ms. Coates, who was in the Army for three years in the 1980s, says she suffered an incident of sexual trauma before a service-related injury ended her military career. She was attending counseling and therapy sessions at the Charles George Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Asheville when she learned about the Veterans Clay Program. “It just felt like home,” she says. “It’s calm and nonjudgmental.”

168102Starr Sariego/Special to The Christian Science MonitorMr. Kline finishes throwing a large serving bowl on a pottery wheel.

An appreciation for service

Mr. Kline notes that he is not a trained art therapist and that the classes, though therapeutic, are not art therapy in the formal sense. But clay, to him, is “a material that calls you into the present moment.” And throwing clay on the potter’s wheel takes so much concentration, he says, that “it’s very difficult to be thinking about anything else.”

Though Mr. Kline himself never enlisted, his father and grandfather both served in the Army, and he grew up with a respect for the military and for the idea of service. He also knew of many contemporaries from his hometown who were returning from overseas tours of duty with physical and emotional problems. Starting a program for veterans was a way to pay homage to his family’s service, to honor a good friend who was killed in the Iraq War, and to establish his business as a beneficent force in the community.

“I thought pottery could provide a returning soldier the peace, serenity, and calm I experienced,” Mr. Kline says. “I thought maybe it would be a good experience for people who have gone through something traumatic.”

Mr. Kline began his practice of pottery as a high school student in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. He continued his ceramics training at the Rhode Island School of Design while earning degrees in visual art and religious studies from Brown University. He talks about pottery as both an artistic technique and an internal, spiritual process.

Classes offered through the Veterans Clay Program were an immediate success, filling quickly. At first, Mr. Kline taught the classes, but he now has mostly stepped aside from teaching and passed those duties along to other artists from the community. 

168102Starr Sariego/Special to The Christian Science MonitorGabriel Kline founded Odyssey ClayWorks, which offers a series of classes free of charge for former service members and their families.

“A beneficial effect”

Lori Pelaez, a former Army nurse, estimates this to be the fifth series of classes she has taken through the program. While painting the underglaze on a ceramic dog she made in class the week before, she explains that working with pottery is relaxing.

“It’s getting away from all the bad things in the world,” she says. “The contact with the clay and molding it with your hands has a beneficial effect. I love it.”

Rebekah Wiggins, an art therapist and licensed clinical mental health counselor, has worked at the VA Medical Center in Asheville for 10 years. She has helped connect numerous veterans in Greater Asheville with Mr. Kline’s program. Thanks in part to her efforts, the ceramics work of many of the veterans is on display in a showcase at the VA Medical Center.

Ms. Wiggins brought a group of veterans to one of the first classes that Mr. Kline offered. They ranged from 56 to 90 years old. 

“It was amazing,” she says. “Most of the veterans had little or no prior experience, and everyone felt a measure of success after each class.”

Ms. Wiggins recalls the experience of one particular veteran, a man whose legs had been amputated above the knee. “By the end of the series, he was working the pottery wheel with core stability, independence, and felt a sense of achievement,” she says. “Forgotten were the words, ‘I can’t do that.’” 

168102Starr Sariego/Special to The Christian Science MonitorMr. Kline watches as veteran Rita Thornton paints underglaze on a dragon-themed tile.

Ms. Wiggins says programs such as Mr. Kline’s are beneficial for veterans, including those who have suffered trauma. 

“Not only does it help veterans to get out into the community with peers in a supportive and creative atmosphere,” she says. “It also can be a steppingstone for trauma recovery. There is a significant mind-body connection when it comes to trauma, and clay work invites a direct, physical experience.”

Initially, Mr. Kline paid for the program out of his own pocket, even though his business was not yet making money and he had a newborn daughter at home. In time, he secured some funding from partners as well as money from the city and the state. Much of that funding dried up during the coronavirus pandemic. Now the program is funded by a benefit auction, outside donations, some private foundation grants, and All Together Art, a nonprofit organization founded by several veterans who have participated in Mr. Kline’s program. “I love the work we do,” he says. “We use the studio like a center for self-improvement.” 

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Page created on 4/8/2024 11:40:39 AM

Last edited 4/8/2024 12:00:13 PM

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