It had been a long journey for Liz Koniz. The Delran resident was trying to heal after surviving stage 3 breast cancer and enduring a double mastec-tomy. She was stressed, sick and not in the mood for much of anything. Then she received an unexpected gift from her husband: clay-molding sessions at a local art studio. Koniz hadn’t made pottery since high school – but she decided to give it a try.

Liz Koniz

Liz Koniz

“I was hooked after the first class,” says Koniz. “Now I go two or three times a month.”

Nearly every Monday evening, Koniz leaves work and heads straight to Say It With Clay Art Studio in Collingswood, where she and several other women – and sometimes men – spend two hours creating works of art. Studio co-owners Hollis Citron and Abbie Kasoff-Gray are there to instruct and encourage. The clay-molders chat and laugh as they work, gently critiquing each other’s work and learning what each clay piece means to the sculptor.

The social therapy of the clay class has helped Koniz deal with her illness, she says. “I take Tamoxifen to prevent cancer recurrence, but a side effect is it causes me to feel blue. I really have to push myself to socialize. Creating pottery takes away my everyday stress. The stress completely evaporates.”

Koniz also credits the steady exercise of using a pottery wheel with strengthening her arms, which had grown weak after her surgeries. The pieces she molds earn a special place in her home.

“I’m so grateful to have found this group,” she says. “And Hollis and Abbie are as hands-on as you want them to be – they give suggestions but never push. They ask questions and are very helpful. It’s a feel-good kind of place.”

Citron and Kasoff-Gray say they love hearing stories like Koniz’s – it’s why they run their studio. They want to provide a creative outlet for people of all ages, backgrounds and ability levels, including recovering cancer patients, children and adults on the autism spectrum or with other developmental disabilities, families affected by loss, ex-convicts or the blind population.

The artistic business partners have found that, oftentimes, working with clay opens a line of communication that wasn’t there before. Citron remembers working with a nonverbal boy with various disabilities who was nervous to come alone to Say It With Clay.

“In the beginning, his dad came to class with him, and then slowly, he didn’t have to anymore. It was a matter of us getting used to each other,” she says. “And this boy made tiles, mobiles, serving platters and plates. For his father, the plates became conversation pieces – something his son made that he could show off at Thanksgiving.”

Kasoff-Gray says she loves being able to give students a chance to show off their work. “One woman was clinically depressed, and she made these beautiful tiles,” she says. “She couldn’t wait for her husband and kids to come out and see them. She was so proud of her work. To give people that feeling – wow.”

The reason clay works in art therapy is because of the process, explain Citron and Kasoff-Gray.

Abbie Kasoff-Gray and Hollis Citron operate their clay studio so students like cancer survivor Liz Koniz can use clay to relieve stress and heal

Abbie Kasoff-Gray and Hollis Citron operate their clay studio so students like cancer survivor Liz Koniz can use clay to relieve stress and heal

“We’ve talked together a lot about the theory of ‘flow,’” says Kasoff-Gray. “It’s when everything else subsides around you. You truly forget about everything except the clay.” She explains that this makes clay-molding an extremely powerful form of therapy, whether it helps a child with ADHD focus only on the clay in his hands or improves the motor skills of a person with developmental disabilities.

“Clay is one of those materials that is so forgiving and inviting that you can’t help but touch it. It’s very different from a traditional art-therapy class. Any-body can work with clay; anybody with any type of disability.”

At the beginning of a session, the clay ladies let their students decide what they would like to create, offering helpful suggestions to students who are unsure. After the molding is done and the session is almost over, the new artists are invited to stand and speak about their work, thus completing the therapy.

“It’s powerful when they get up,” says Citron. Citron and Kasoff-Gray ask questions – not critically, but in the spirit of discussion. Then, says Kasoff-Gray, everyone gives feedback. The students are always positive, and always build each other up, she says.

Part of the therapy is empowering the students to create something they never thought they could. “We tell students to take the words ‘I can’t’ out of their vocabulary,” says Citron. “So many people start their sentences with ‘I can’t.’ You can do it. You can make something out of this ball of clay.” And the payoff of working with clay is worth it, says Kasoff-Gray.

“When students receive their finished pieces, seeing their faces with the sense of accomplishment and pride – they’re beaming,” she says. “No matter who it is, the smile you get on a 3-year-old is the same smile you get on an 85-year-old. It doesn’t matter what their disability is, or if they’re not disabled at all. That same level of pride is there. They surprise themselves.”

When Citron and Kasoff-Gray realized the benefits of clay-molding as a therapy, they began the complex process of gaining nonprofit status. “I’d always thought in the back of my brain that we’d eventually go nonprofit,” says Kasoff-Gray. “As soon as we started integrating the effects of the clay on a therapeutic level and saw what it could do, we just knew it was the right decision.”

It was a long process. Citron and Kasoff-Gray quietly reduced the business’ classes and programs while they gathered members for their board of directors, wrote by-laws, developed content for programs, drafted text for catalogs and brochures, and eventually renamed the business. In 2010, they were finally awarded the nonprofit title.

“Going nonprofit, it ain’t no joke,” laughs Kasoff-Gray.

With their nonprofit status, Citron and Kasoff-Gray have hired additional staff members and launched a scholarship fund to allow clients with disabilities to attend classes and workshops for free.

“The biggest surprise was how many people can benefit from this. We had no clue,” says Kasoff-Gray. “It was like, ‘Where do we start?’ It could be anybody and everybody.”

The duo began connecting with groups like Partners for Kids and Families, and the Garden State Discovery Museum’s Open Arms program. They also started working as vendors at community events such as Walk Now for Autism Speaks. At Camden’s Day of Healing, they enabled families of homicide victims to express their losses through clay.

“Not very many people get to live their dream. And it may have taken us a really long time to get here, but we’re here,” says Kasoff-Gray. And while she believes the nonprofit studio has exceeded their expectations “beyond our dreams,” she says, “I feel we still have so much more to do.”

Citron and Kasoff-Gray plan to seek more grants to increase their programs and staff. Kasoff-Gray says one of her goals is to have Say It With Clay work in prisons, so children can work with their incarcerated parents.

Both women agree that one day, their nonprofit will be too big for the old converted cement warehouse in Collingswood where they currently operate. “That’s further down the line. That’s a fantasy,” says Kasoff-Gray. “But we’ll get there. We just look at each other sometimes, and we just can’t believe how far we’ve come.”

“We always say,” adds Citron, “from a ball of clay, all of this happened.”

February 2014
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