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Date: 01/01/2014
  • Practices
  • Honoring Our Pain
  • Emerging Facilitators
  • Facilitators

Imaging With Colors And Clay

from chapter 7 of Coming Back to Life by Joanna Macy and Molly Brown; second edition, published 2014. Please acknowledge the source when you use any of these practices.


Time: 30-40 minutes


Verbal expression of our concerns for the world has its limits, for words can hide as well as reveal. We use language not only to communicate, but to protect ourselves, distracting others’ and our own attention from what is painful. To connect with our deep responses to the condition of our world, it helps to go beyond words, or dive beneath them to that subliminal level where we register inchoately the anguish of our time. On that level we can tap our energy and the wellsprings of our creativity; images and art give us access.  

When we use colors on paper or model with clay, images surface; the tactile, visual engagement releases them. According to neuroscientists, artistic engagement shifts the locus of mental activity to the right hemisphere of the brain, with its capacity for thinking spatially rather than consecutively. We open our awareness to the web of life, and its far-reaching reciprocities, beyond linear cause-and-effect. Workshop participants are often surprised by what their hands have portrayed: potencies of feelings and reaches of concern that they had supposed were peripheral to their lives. Unlike the words we speak, these images seem to have a reality of their own: we feel less need to explain or defend. The images, once birthed, are just there – like a fact of life, self-existent – and viewing them we feel at the same time both revealed and protected.

Acknowledge people’s hesitations. Many people, especially adults, feel dismay when asked to engage in any kind of artwork. Make clear that the point here is not to portray or create anything, or to measure up to any artistic standard. Encourage participants to trust whatever shapes and images arise, and any changes that emerge, remaining open to new directions and to use more paper or clay as needed.  

Encourage participants to work in silence. To let images arise, we need to let our thinking, talking mind take a rest. Soothing, non-vocal music helps. Tell people how much time they have and give them a warning two or three minutes before the time is up.



As you lay out the materials, suggest people use color and shape to express whatever they are feeling. Drawing with the dominant hand allows us to express with less frustration the images that have arisen. For this, allow plenty of time (say, 15 to 20 minutes) because people become very engrossed and want time to complete what they envision. On occasion, however, try drawing with the non-dominant hand; people find it frees them more completely from the control of the censoring mind, keeping the focus on color and movement and feelings.

Or let people bring in from outside some small object that attracts their attention: a leaf, a rock, a piece of bark. Placing it in the center of their paper, they allow a drawing to appear as an expression of that object – lines and shapes and colors extending out from it, as if that piece of nature were the artist.

Allow time at the end for quiet discussion. Imaging work is enhanced by the opportunity to share with others and hear their reflections. Have people gather in small groups, or in the larger circle, their drawings face down. Then one by one, as they choose, people turn their sheets over and describe what they saw and felt as the lines and colors emerged on the paper. Avoiding “psychological” interpretations, other participants ask clarifying questions and offer observations to help deepen discovery of what the drawings reveal. Sometimes two or three drawings seem to resonate together. At the close, people often like to tape the sheets to the walls and move around absorbing them.  



In another form of imaging together, people make a group mural, drawing on a long roll of newsprint placed on the floor or wall. In intergenerational gatherings, adults and children can each–in turn or simultaneously–draw something they love or something that makes them “feel sad about the world.” To do this first and in silence, and only later tell about what they have drawn, encourages children to express themselves in the company of grown ups. They feel readier then to share what is on their minds, especially since they are freer with color and images than many adults.



In a similar way, people can create either individual collages or a group collage, using images cut from old magazines. Environmental magazines and National Geographics offer great images for this. In a group collage, themes often emerge, with people spontaneously placing similar images together.  


Clay Work

Imaging on paper is easier to arrange and less messy than working with clay. Yet clay work, being more tactile and involving larger muscles can release emotion and tap our subconscious wisdom. Joanna experienced this personally during the Vietnam War when she felt sapped by a sense of futility. Here is how she later described the experience that took place at a Quaker-sponsored conference:

To give form to feeling, and tired of words, I worked with clay. As I descended into the sorrow within me, I shaped that descent in the block of clay – cliffs and escarpments plunging into abysses, dropping off into downward-twisting gullies, down, down. Though I wept as I pushed at the clay with fingers and fists, it felt good to have my sense of hopelessness become palpable. The twisted, plummeting clay landscape was like a silent scream, and also like a dare accepted in bitter defiance, the dare to descend into empty nothingness.

Feeling spent and empty, the work done, my mind turned to go, but then noted what my fingers had, of themselves, begun to explore. Snaking and pushing up the clay cliffs were roots. As they came into focus, I saw how they joined, tough and tenacious, feeding each other in an upsurge of ascent. The very journey downward into my despair had shaped these roots, which now thrust upward, unbidden and resilient.  

Contributor/Author: Joanna Macy & Molly Brown