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Managing stress through ceramics grounded in wellness

Casey Campbell, a licensed professional counselor, opened Elemental Studios after discovering the therapeutic relationship between craft arts and mental health and well-being.

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The students at Elemental Studios often come highly demanding professions and find ceramics offers an immediate way to offset their stress. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.
The students at Elemental Studios often come from highly demanding professions and find ceramics offers an immediate way to offset their stress. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.

The instructor utters a guided meditation. Students sit in the still of the studio. Five minutes pass and class begins. The clay glides between his fingers and slowly the reddish mound transitions into a perfect cylinder. He guides his rib – a flat metal tool used to smooth the clay – along the sides to narrow the neck of the now fully formed olive oil bottle. These words, fingers and tools belong to Casey Campbell, owner and instructor at Elemental Studios, a northeast Portland arts collective, and a licensed professional counselor.  

Elemental Studios offers courses in ceramics, fiber arts, drawing and even stop-motion animation. Additionally, it serves as a workspace for members to come and hone their craft. It is a delightful space with warm light, ivory white walls and dark wood finishes. But Elemental is more than just a charming space for creatives. The studio was built with intentional wellness at the forefront, aiming to prevent burnout and provide tools for those dealing with high stress environments. 

Ceramics classes have proved beneficial for alleviating stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Photo: Maria Orlova.
Ceramics classes have proved beneficial for alleviating stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Photo: Maria Orlova.

Campbell’s love for art was born in a ceramic course he took while studying psychology in graduate school at the University of Oregon, where he would “use ceramic class to escape the pressure of writing his thesis.” Though years away from launching his own classes, his awareness of the healing powers of art were already forming. “I didn’t know it then, but I was treating myself with art.” Later, Campbell would spend years working as a counselor for Portland State University (PSU), but says the thoughts of ceramics never left. 

“When I was in the counseling program at PSU, I just got really into wellness counseling. Looking at physical, emotional and cognitive well-being,” he explains. “It got me thinking about ceramics. Even when you’re on the wheel, you center the clay, just as you would center yourself.” Born from his experiences in undergraduate studies, personal struggles with depression and years of counseling experience, Campbell saw a natural opportunity: his own arts collective. He would buy his early studio equipment on credit, while continuing to take therapy clients to fund his growing business. Elemental would first open their doors in 2019, but this would be short lived due to the 2020 pandemic. It wasn’t until 2021 that the studio would fully reopen. 

Elemental Studios was the brainchild of founder Casey Campbell, a licensed professional counselor. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.
Elemental Studios was the brainchild of founder Casey Campbell, a licensed professional counselor. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.

Though Elemental is not a clinic, it is growing alongside an increasing societal awareness of the benefits associated with social prescription – the action of being prescribed enrichment activities, including exercise, arts and crafts, gardening or social activities such as dance, to improve one’s health. A study published by the United Kingdom’s National Academy for Social Prescribing “estimated that almost a fifth of GP [general practitioner] appointment time is spent on non-medical problems – including loneliness, isolation, relationship issues or stress related to money or housing.” The rapidly growing movement towards social prescribing connects people to non-medical support, instead of medications, to address these issues and other needs. 

The tactile experience of pottery can be meditative in nature, providing relaxation and enhancing well-being. Photo: Maria Orlova.
The tactile experience of pottery can be meditative in nature, providing relaxation and enhancing well-being. Photo: Maria Orlova.

Campbell embraces this ideology and many of the studio’s classes and workshops focus not only on the craft skills, but on using the creative process to address self-care. One workshop, for example, is based on Spoon Theory, a metaphor using spoons as units of energy for people dealing with chronic illnesses, including anxiety and depression, to express their limitations in managing their daily life tasks. In the workshop, participants learn to make ceramic spoons while exploring the concept of Spoon Theory and how to apply it to their own self-care. In addition to  learning to find your flow through ceramics, other workshops explore the concept of shadow through the art of sculpture and drawing and knitting as mindfulness practices.

Classes are available in pottery wheel throwing and hand building, as well as fiber arts and stop-motion animation. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.
Classes are available in pottery wheel throwing and hand building, as well as fiber arts and stop-motion animation. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.

The studio’s approach seems to resonate with its students, many of whom come from often demanding professions. Jessica Lee, an employee for the World Bank specializing in issues surrounding education, shared the memory of her first class. “It was nice to have a reprieve from the bustle of a busy morning and just be aware of my breathing, my body and sit in silence.” Meditation and breathing are not conventional pieces of Lee’s day, but these practices and others have continued to shape her life outside of the stucco studio walls. She adds that the unique practices implemented in class are helping her evolve beyond emotional gridlock.“It’s hard to let go of something when you spend so much effort making it…but things could always go wrong during trimming or glazing or firing – and you have to be able to let go of the desire to control the outcome because you can’t.” 

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Elemental Studio's classes are designed so that beginners, who might never have explored their creative sides, can find that trying some new or pushing past the challenges of the craft can bring rewards outside the studio. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.
Elemental Studio’s classes are designed so that beginners, who might never have explored their creative sides, can find that trying some new or pushing past the challenges of the craft can bring rewards outside the studio. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.

Other students feel the wellness that working with clay or focusing on knitting stitches can offer. Nina Butingan, a clinical researcher for St. Jude’s Childrens Hospital, shares that the practice has really helped her tune into how she is feeling that day. “I’ve realized what you bring into the studio can always come out in the clay.” Even beyond an increase in emotional awareness, Butingan recognizes what a wonderful contrast the class gives to her typical occupation. “If I have had a long day at work, coming to pottery is a really nice juxtaposition.” It is this very contrast that has helped her immensely in warding off the risk of burnout from her professional life. 

Other students say it has impacted their daily achievements more profoundly, encouraging them to reach new heights. “For me, there’s a moment when you’re trying something new or pushing your comfort levels within your practice where you need to take a deep breath, maybe give yourself a little pep talk and push through the uncertainties,” says Evan Fox, founder of the design firm We Are the Board, “which frankly happens all the time in everyday life and certainly helps to contextualize the big picture – it’s like, ‘you got this!’ 

The student shelves at Elemental are packed with works in progress and bags of clay waiting to take form. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.
The student shelves at Elemental are packed with works in progress and bags of clay waiting to take form. Photo: Fernando Torres Jr./FTJ Photography.

So much pressure exists in the various realms of our lives that we can exhaust ourselves. Utilizing mindfulness and exposing ourselves to new things is how we keep these pressures at bay. Elemental Studios is giving people tangible ways to offset stress while developing a new and important skill: resilience. 

Elemental Studios offer ceramics courses in 8-week sessions. Classes are hosted in the lower level of the studio (4634 NE Garfield Ave. Suite C). Prices for classes and workshops vary, depending upon the subject. Scholarship opportunities may also be available. 

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