Translating Body and Trauma


Emily Irvin


Valley by Emily Irwin
Emily Irvin, Valley, 2018. Pressing porcelain with women’s hair and burnishing with beeswax. 46x20x34.5 inches, with a ghost-figure for scale.
Click to enlarge.


I am an artist, researcher, performer, and activist. These are some roles I inhabit to explore ceramic questions (Schjeldahl 2004).[1] Ceramic questions as a mode of inquiry positions ceramics as a way of orienting oneself to the world, rather than only a medium-specific way of creating art. The term was coined by art critic, poet, and educator, Peter Schjeldahl in his lecture at Alfred University in Upstate New York in 2004. Asking ceramic questions means inquiring within an arm’s length, where the body is observed in relation to the world in which it can touch. These explorations live in the same place as the mundane, an everyday and bodily experience, where it goes beyond a tangible location, and yet, is inseparable from it. By conveying the knowledge of my body through clay, and from clay to viewer, the viewer is given the opportunity to know my body, my experiences, and my trauma. When the viewer begins to comprehend my body and its experiences, they can examine themselves and perhaps know their own selves more intimately. Gesture becomes a kinetic effort to communicate through clay and establish relationships between artist, work, and viewer.

Ceramics is a laborious discipline where clay is an indexical material, recording the actions and intrinsic wisdom of the artist. The body of the artist is unmistakable to the person experiencing the ceramic object: in the fingerprint on the side of the mug, or in the mark of the tool of the maker. These productions are remnants of corporeal intimacies and create a form of touching or a nearness that connects past action with future viewer. This engagement comes from ceramic traditions where such objects are meant to be handled, inspected, to touch our hands and lips, and to hold that which gives us sustenance. Clay is a medium that lends itself to seek equality of bodies through the commonality of gesture imbued in the material, where the impression of my finger in clay resembles the shape of a finger of someone else. I draw attention to the similarity of bodily marks in clay not to essentialize bodies and their experiences, but rather to express the empathetic potential of clay. Thus, my work has applications in pursing social justice through the viewing experience of artwork.

Ceramic objects are talismanic remnants that hold embodied knowledges within their forms. This proves that being in touch with one’s body is a form of knowledge production. For example, I built a basin of porcelain mixed with women’s hair. It was named Valley (Irvin 2018). The basin was large, able to contain my own body and its making was quite difficult. I was young when I was attacked by a girl who still does not know that she fractured my lower spine, causing irreversible damage that causes my legs to go numb. As I built this vessel, I bent over hundreds of pounds of clay to smooth its surface, while the smell of the rotting clay-hair mixture overwhelmed my senses. The longer I hung over the outside edge, bending and scraping the inside, the more my spine refuted my actions, causing extreme pain and making my legs go numb again. The laborious and time-based performance created an exchange of information where the innate and acquired knowledges within my body of how to shape the clay intertwined with the basin’s own requirements. The result was a dance of doing and undoing, learning through process.

Using Valley as an example emphasizes that art making is a source of knowledge production. In Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective, Donna Haraway asserts the value of lived experience. This mobile position allows for individuals to locate themselves within their unique perspectives and emphasizes the role of the senses in knowledge production. Haraway argues for knowledge claimed from the “view from a body, always a complex, contradictory, structuring and structured body, versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity” (Haraway 1988, 589). Redefining objectivity as situated knowledge recognizes the value of ceramic artists because of their ability to imbue their lived experiences in clay.[2] One of the ways I shift viewer engagement is by orienting the viewer to the capacity of a name to communicate artist perspective that has been transferred to the art object in its making. For example, Valley is a name that comes from intimacy with injury. This name is transferred from maker, me, to object, the basin, through knowing one another. My knowledge of trauma was translated to the object by my hand as the making caused pain in my legs and back. I was reminded of my own valley, a sunken place, deep within my body where the fracture did not mend correctly.

The act of connecting body with clay, integrating the knowledge of one material with another, becomes a ritual where repetition and rhythm allow for the perception of the ordinary in an extraordinary way. Clay and the body share similarities; their metamorphosis is generated through careful material exploration and experimentation. As my body learns how to manipulate clay material, my marks in the clay reflect my development and understanding. Connection to an object through labor creates a language where individuals merge experience and identity. Encapsulating narratives and experiences in clay permits ceramics to exceed the utilitarian and become a social epistemology where multi-faceted experiences and identities of the maker are considered. Ceramic objects capture ephemeral residue, the traces of corporeal gestures. These traces also suggest a future of relational art making and viewing, a queering of current practices.

José Esteban Muñoz also found traces of ephemera in performance in his book, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Muñoz says, “These ephemeral traces, flickering illuminations from other times and places…assist those of us who wish to follow queerness’s promise, its still unrealized potential, to see something else… (Muñoz 2015, 28)” An art object, a clay basin, can maintain its materiality, while also holding the traces of the artist’s experience and intention. Queerness is a possibility for self-knowing and relational exchanges between maker, object, and viewer. This is what Muñoz refers to as “the hermeneutics of residue,” where traces and memories contain more world-making potential than the transparent and told reality of a life (Muñoz 2015, 81). A queer futurity of artistic exchange has the potential to tear down gendered, heteropatriarchal and colonial museum practices of displaying artworks, where barriers such as vitrines distance collected objects from their original communities. Through a queer futurity, preservation and usefulness would not subsume the priorities of museums. Additionally, new ways of navigating through spaces and art would reimagine temporality, even excluding a straight time linear progression of exhibition viewing.[3] In this queer futurity, capitalistic exchanges of art would not be the norm. An artwork’s worth would not be based on the speed of an artist’s elevator pitch or their ability to haggle the price outside of a gallery. Engaging with ephemeral traces provides an opportunity for careful relationship-building between artwork, makers, and viewers, because of its potential to foster human connection. It is through the trace that clay holds affective power.

I explore the concept of care between these same relational bodies: clay and maker, maker and viewer, and clay and viewer. I question the role of caregiving in art making, and whether and how viewers can care about artwork in similar ways that artists care about their work. Viewers, for my purposes, means anyone who views or interacts with an artwork who is not the maker, including gallerists, museum workers, collectors, museum and gallery visitors, and instructors. My exploration follows the conception, creation, and experience of my artwork, named Valley. Specifically, I examine three violent acts committed against the object and how this violence to the clay body translates to violence against my body and the body of the viewer. These violent acts are framed by care (the care to make objects, the care of oneself, and the care of objects by viewers). Care, or the recognition of a responsibility beyond one’s own body, serves to transform the lived meaning of bodies and materials, to transform broader museum and gallery communities.

In the first Act of violence against Valley, the art object was renamed “The Hairy Tub” by curators arranging objects in an exhibition showcasing graduate student work.[4] When renaming occurs without consent, there is injury. However, this injury can be reclaimed, according to feminist theorists like Judith Butler and Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, who have examined the resignification of the term, Queer.[5] In this writing, I record the violence committed against Valley to reclaim its injury, using these experiences to shift the normalized and problematic ways that viewers engage with artists and their work.

The second Act of violence occurred during a studio visit where the visitor, looking to purchase artwork, intentionally kicked Valley to test its strength. Although Valley was not structurally damaged, an exchange occurred as the burnished surface layer of raw clay dirtied the visitor’s black patent leather shoes and Valley was left with a matte place, marking the location where the clay surface was taken away. This unexpected violence provides a case study describing why expectations of art making are damaging, highlighting nuances where these components appear in the artistic process, and how I have refused these expectations, or failed to refuse, them in my experiences with Valley. Within the second Act of violence lies a call for artists to challenge heteronormative ways of making, showing, and selling. Sara Ahmed leads this conversation, arguing against the demand for art to be made transparently readable, for ceramic art to be useful, and for artists to create for a market. These heteronormative expectations of artists are damaging and position artists that fail to fill these requirements as unsuccessful, another limiting marker of heteronormative systems.

The last Act of violence, a culmination of the previous Acts, offers a call for consensual viewing practices of art objects – a non-normative process of looking that centers care and object phenomenology. This third Act of violence occurred during Valley’s first gallery appearance. The gallerist and I had a conversation about how Valley should be displayed: not requiring a pedestal, with the inside remnants of making remaining intact. In the end, the gallerist decided not to honor my positionality as maker, displayed the object on a pedestal, and removed its guts, splaying them around the object for, they thought, a more dramatic display. This example surpasses renaming, becoming an undoing of artist intent and object purpose. It also follows often-unethical display practices of putting objects on pedestals and in vitrines to preserve them, creating distance between objects and viewers.

Indigenous scholar and decolonial theorist Linda Tuhiwai Smith provides insight on the heteronormative and colonial aspects of this complex and violent Act in her book, Decolonizing Methodologies (1999, 29-33). She suggests that community-based projects are important, but that they should be done with a mutual acknowledgment of museum power by museum workers, art makers, and viewers. Recognizing power dynamics in the exhibition of objects by galleries and museums can be the first step in honoring artist positionality and intention.

One can question empty gestures of caring for art by galleries, museums, and viewers by considering Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion of “linguistic performativity” (Sedgwick 1993, 1-20). These utterances perform an action, as much as uttering “I do” in a marriage ceremony is a promise, an action signaling an immediate change in socio-cultural status. When I ask the gallerist if they understand my requirements for the artwork I created, and they say, “I do,” they have created a historical and actionable promise of collaboration. That this utterance can be revoked later, disguising broken verbal contracts as natural, affects the art world, artists, and work, forcing us to question how communities can foster caring and ethical relationships that break the colonial systems dominating artwork display and artist collaboration with viewers?

Careful viewing begins with seeing from non-normative perspectives, caring queerly in looking, touching, and hearing of art objects. This close looking on the part of viewers requires the observation of the recorded gestures, the residues, that exist within an artwork. Ceramics reaches through levels of meaning production to convey memories and lived experiences through the index of the body in clay material. Flipping and abstracting previous definitions of caregiving in terms of artistic viewing expands its world-making potentiality.


Artwork by Emily Irwin
Emily Irvin, Valley, 2018. Pressing porcelain with women’s hair and burnishing with beeswax. 46x20x34.5 inches. A caring gesture transfers my bad body into this object.
Click to enlarge.


[1] Schjeldahl has been writing for The New York Times since 1998. Although ceramics is not a primary focus of Schjeldahl’s, he spoke groundbreakingly on the ceramic medium in his lecture at Alfred University. 

[2] Clay is different from ceramic. Clay is composed of silica, alumina, and water, a malleable mixture. Ceramic means that clay has been fired or heated until it undergoes a chemical change where the structure becomes rigid.

[3] Straight time is referred to by Muñoz as both straight as in linear and in straight as in heteronormative. He presents an alternative: ecstatic time. This is the moment of ecstasy felt, where past, present, and future coming together where utopia and freedom lay on the horizon (Muñoz 2015, 31).

[4] Here, I formalize Act, by capitalizing it, to highlight the agency of Valley as an affective clay object. In this writing, “Acts” refer to the violent actions committed against Valley, the ways Valley works to change heteropatriarchal structures that dictate the making, viewing, and purchasing of artwork, and as divisions or chapters within the experience of Valley in the world.

[5] “Queer” has historically been used as a derogatory term against individuals and communities that have not identified with norms surrounding gender and sexuality. However, through the activism of these same communities, “queer” has been reclaimed as a self-affirming and identifying umbrella term (Butler 1993, 224).



Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

-----. 2019. What's the Use? On the Uses of Use. Durham: Duke University Press. 

Berlant, Lauren and Michael Warner. 1998. "Sex in Public." Critical Inquiry 24 (2): 547-66.

Butler, Judith. 1993. Bodies That Matter. New York, New York: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575-599.

Muñoz, José Esteban. 2015. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York: New York University Press.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. 1993. Tendencies. Durham: Duke University Press.

Schjeldahl, Peter. 2004. “Marginal Powers: Ceramics and the Art World.” Seventh Annual Dorothy Wilson Perkins Lecture, Schein International Museum of Ceramic Art at Alfred University, Alfred, New York, November 4.

Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. 2013. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. Moorpark, CA: Cram101 Inc.


About the contributors