Trauma: imported into English from the Greek word trauma: a wound; an injury; a defeat. Derived from “teiro” (verb) “to rub; to wound; to twist” with derivatives referring to piercing, injuring, making a hole.
The 1st World War gave us an awareness that wars are unpredictable and humans are vulnerable. This second realisation has been given many names since: shell shock, battle fatigue, post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is expected to become common post-COVID as people come to terms with the traumatic experiences they have gone through, experiences at work, having lost loved ones, living with the prolonged stress of fearing for their lives.
The initial inspiration for this piece was a drawing of an oversized scarlet top hat. In the 19th century, top hats were designed as head protection against the elements but also against accidents while riding as it was “better to lose your hat than your head”. My visual references progressed to the most protective headgear ever created – the Medieval helmet used by mounted knights for jousting tournaments. It covers the entire head with the only opening being the slit through which the wearer sees. Early jousting helmets were made from a single piece of metal. Later helmets featured hinged and bolted parts that could – eventually – be disassembled.
I wanted my representation of PTSD to convey this feeling of being on edge, exposed to danger, about to lose your head. And referencing the medieval helmet, I wanted it to have an iron-like quality, heavy and solid, dull in colour, devoid of sheen, rusty, as if unearthed from the deep earth after centuries of inaction. But the true cost of PTSD is that any protection it affords is illusionary. It does not reach the parts that still hurt. And to depict that, my rusty, jousting helmet would expose the entire upper skull.
I used two types of black clay, both a beautiful red purple: fine black clay full of oxides and iron and black clay with added grog. Grog, a mixture of silica and alumina, is added to clay to increase strength and texture. Grog reduces the plasticity of the clay and can provide stability. The more plastic the clay, the harder to hold its shape. It may tear or rip when handled or crack when bent. And clay that is very plastic will almost always shrink more meaning a higher risk of warpage and cracks.
The way I crafted this vessel is part of my telling of the story of PTSD. I tackled one high risk choice after another and worked hard, and with a fast-beating heart, to contain them all. I felt the fear of all my work going to waste, my vessel cracking, breaking, falling apart.
I did not prepare a single slab but rolled out individual small slabs and shaped them into face masks. Then I “stuck” one face mask over the other, pressing with my fingers, no waiting for the clay to go leather hard, no scoring, no slip to bind them. It would have been impossible to build this to the height I wanted but for the grog in the clay. But then some of my pieces had no grog at all and the way they were joined together was completely random – on purpose.
To honour the brief, I committed to a ceramic vessel designed to be
under constant threat of disaster
at every stage of its creation – sculpting, drying, finishing, first firing, glazing.
I waited to discover my coping mechanisms.
(Playfulness and light-heartedness allowed me to stay distant enough to be able to commit).