JH Phrydas

For the past decade, I have worked with clay as an entry point to writing. I have led clay and writing workshops at CalArts, Naropa U., and local art galleries in Los Angeles. 

I first touched clay in my godmother’s ceramic studio in her house in Atlanta, GA. Whenever I write, I find myself back in that stone basement, the cold walls and cold clay that slowly warmed in my hands. But it wasn’t until grad school when I met and worked with Bhanu Kapil that the connection between writing and clay took form. Bhanu and I co-taught a clay and writing workshop where writers created a divinatory form in clay which we then walked to a local creek and submerged underwater. Creation and disintegration was a rhythm we felt with our hands. I wrote: 

I’m still processing life. Turning my back on it, the images and sounds and skin-sensations open, shed their associations with commerce and culture and pulse within an inner rhythm that matches my own. In between these in-tune and out-of-tune frequencies are the threads that make up story, unwoven. They can weave a thousand different patterns with the same threads. In an infinity, the coalescing force is daunting, hidden. It emerges within the chaos, makes itself known. But how? Through thought? But I distrust my thoughts as they lean back towards life, towards commerce and culture.

One way it does so is to bypass thought. That way is through claywork. 

I explored this process and shared it with others. I began incorporating the work of somatic psychologists and ceramicists into my practice. I let working with clay, with my eyes closed, letting my hands work out forms unconscious, embodied, show me the way. Sometimes, I open my eyes and see a wound. Other times, I open my eyes and see a forest. There are the symbols that guide my writing practice. This is a type of earth-divination. 

Michael Franklin, a ceramicist in Colorado, writes about how, when making a series of clay bowls over a few months, an unusual object began to appear. An accomplished and skilled artist, he couldn’t understand that strange, lumpish, alien form that grew in each successive work. Soon after, he was diagnosed with cancer. His body already knew this fact; his mind did not. The claywork, however, told him the news of this growth within him before the doctors did with their scans and supertechnologies. He calls this a “longitudinal embodied narrative.” One that emerges through intense attention to clay. Through feeling through a story as well as thinking through a story. 

My workshops, and my own practice with clay, opens into the space of longitudinal embodied narration. What can working with clay open up within us that is usually withheld from our conscious selves? How can we attune to our nervous systems, ancestral knowledge, and body wisdoms and write within a language that was taught to us by institutions and policed by hierarchies of power? 

My answer is: by means of clay. 

For inquiries into bringing me into your classroom, gallery, or writer’s workshop, contact me here