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Shaping The Future
Clay is helping to mold new lives
By Madison Russ

It used to be that you went to a clay studio for a kids’ birthday party or a first date; it was easy, fun and something different. But today, studio owners are using creativity to change lives. Whether for a teen with autism who relaxes while molding clay or a homeless woman who now has an income thanks to the pottery she creates, two South Jersey studios are using art to change lives. 

 

SAY IT WITH CLAY 

There are few places in the community that Abbie Kasoff’s nonprofit, Say It With Clay, doesn’t touch. Her Collingswood studio (which she lovingly describes as “chill and messy, but an organized mess”) is always buzzing with new programs and all walks of life.  

With the mission of providing affordable art therapy programs to special needs individuals of all ages, Kasoff’s clay studio has grown to encompass so much more  – helping people cope with grief, trauma, anxiety, depression, Alzheimer’s disease  

or cancer. Some students are kids whose parents are going through a divorce, and they mold clay to express how they feel. Others are teenage refugees who fled to South Jersey with their families.  

“Clay is malleable, clay is forgiving. Clay is unintentional risk-taking. Clay is messy, fun and just down right dirty in a way that feels great,” Kasoff says.  

“When I first started out, I remember my board would say to me, ‘You’re all over the place! Who do you want to work with?’ and they’d want me to reel it in or pick two populations that would be really great with this. We tried that in the beginning and worked with a lot of kids who had Down syndrome, and a blind population even. But then I just kept coming across opportunities and would think, ‘Well, I’m not going to say no,’ and the next thing you know, it’s cancer, it’s disabilities, it’s autism, it’s the Alzheimer’s Association. Everybody loves it, so why wouldn’t I do what I can for everyone possible?” 

Now, Say It With Clay boasts several community partners, ranging from Bancroft and Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to Jefferson Health and Volunteers of America. The nonprofit’s annual fundraiser, Faces of Value, gets politicians and athletes alike to roll up their sleeves and create masks that are auctioned to raise money for studio scholarships. Even Senator Diane Allen and 6ABC’s Nydia Han have gotten their hands dusty creating original works.  

But the nonprofit doesn’t limit itself to just the studio: Kasoff says her active mobile program takes clay on the road across South Jersey, over to Philadelphia and down to Delaware to do work in hospitals, rehab centers, schools and churches. There’s no space, she says, they can’t make work. 

“It just keeps growing and growing, which is really great,” she adds. “I knew it would be something that could help everybody. Clay engages people quickly. And it engages people personally. Next thing you know, it’s three hours later.” 

New students tour the studio and pick out a piece they’d like to recreate. From there, Kasoff and her staff (all professional art therapists) can determine if the new student would benefit from coming in after school a few days or maybe just a few hours a week. And she really insists: clay is for everyone. 

“We work with everybody, and we’re flexible,” she says, noting that not all who come to the studio have special needs. “We’re very small, so people get great attention. Our classes max out at eight people. We’re small on purpose.”  

Kasoff, who holds dual degrees in art therapy and ceramics from the University of Arts in Philadelphia and has 25-plus years of experience working in human services, recognized early in her career that clay is one of the few mediums that could work with everyone – regardless of their abilities.   

“Because of its form, there’s something you can do with everybody. Depending on someone’s abilities, we can tailor a project to exactly what their needs are,” she says. “If they can make a fist but can’t open their fist, they can pound clay with their fist or make textures using their fingers.”  

Throughout the years, she’s witnessed children with ADHD or autism blossom, nonverbal clients laugh or speak a few words, and cancer patients find comfort in her studio. For many, getting into the flow of clay is therapeutic, and creating something for themselves (or their parents) can be a point of pride that lasts long after they walk out the door. 

“Every single day, I see something that reminds me that I’m doing what I’m supposed to, that reminds me that all the hardships and struggles are worth it,” she says. “I don’t always know what it’s going to be, but every day I can wake up and count on that.”

 

MUDGIRLS STUDIOS 

Dorrie Papademetriou’s dusty clay studio tucked away in the old St. Michael’s Church in Atlantic City is a haven for disadvantaged women. Some are homeless, yet now they have a place to go every day and, even better, a way to make money by selling their ceramic creations.  

“Our mission is to empower women through creative making. The women who have joined us are very dedicated to being here,” she says. “It really drives them every day. They have somewhere to go, a responsibility to be somewhere important – it’s a big part of their day.” 

“They’re always on the verge of being homeless because of their situations and past histories,” Papademetriou adds. “Whatever has brought them to homelessness is still a part of them. This gives them something solid. My intent with MudGirls is that women in that situation would come here, and by being here, by being responsible and committed, they would learn some skills to move them into something else.”  

For Donna, who asked to be identified by her first name only, MudGirls Studio has become a welcomed reprieve. 

“It relaxes your mind,” she says. “I’m molding a new life within myself. Once you’re out on the streets and you try to get back to where you used to be, it’s really hard. Nobody is going to accept you the way you are. It seems like everything is a little bit harder.” 

Newly minted Mud Girl Susan Privitera is already feeling right at home in the studio since joining a few months ago. New to the city and a mother of five children, Privitera spends her day working in the studio while her kids are at school. Art wasn’t something she was always interested in, let alone passionate about, but since joining, she’s fallen in love with the craft.   

“It’s nice to be around other women who are doing positive things. We empower each other. That feels better than getting paid. Even though I need the money, don’t get me wrong, this is what makes me feel good. It makes you feel like you have somewhere important to be and something important to do.” 

Since their humble beginnings, the artisans have grown, working on large projects commissioned by Atlantic City Development Corporation. Recently, the artists designed and produced more than a thousand colorful ceramic tiles for Stockton University’s new campus in Atlantic City. They also sell their wares at open houses and craft shows. More commissions mean more sales, and more sales mean more hourly wages for the women and, potentially, bringing more women on board.  

“Art is a subjective thing. You never really know how people will respond to it, but the idea has been so well received, it’s been a little bit surprising. We had an open studio here on a really snowy day, and we essentially sold out,” Papademetriou says. “People want to be a part of something good, people care.”    

August 2018
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