Falling to pieces.
These are all words people use to describe how they feel after the loss of a loved one. As people move through the pain of loss, new words begin emerge to describe where they are at in the grief- healing process:
Picking up the pieces.
Putting myself back together again.
Reconfiguring life without.
As a grief support activity, creating art from broken dishes can be a way to express painful feelings that go beyond or lie beneath words like shattered and broken. Emotions, thoughts and memories are given a chance to speak and be felt in the process of breaking and putting back together, offering a bridge between the sense that you or your life have been irreparably wounded, and hope that the future still holds promise, relief and healing from the pain of loss.
Broken pot and shattered bowl projects are common art and art therapy activities for grief-healing. Several years ago, I was inspired to expand upon those concepts after seeing an enormous (114" X 228") modern artwork at the Milwaukee Art Museum called "Claudio Al Mandrione (Zona Rosa)" by Julian Snabel. Made from broken and reconfigured painted plates glued to wood, the piece – covered in thick red paint - held my attention as an expression of shattering pain and loss.
As an artist, I have created mosaics from broken dishes and other objects. And as a grief support specialist and resilience trainer I have done and led broken pot activities. The visual impact of "Zona Rosa" inspired me to consider and then implement painted broken dishes on a solid wood platform as another viable activity for expressing grief and loss.
The Process of Creating Art From Broken Dishes
Creating art from broken dishes is best done with a grief support specialist or art therapist to help guide you through the process. Here are some guidelines to follow if you decide to attempt a broken dish project on your own or as a group or family.
- Safety glasses or protective eyewear
- Dinner and other plates of various shapes, sizes and colors (resale stores are an ideal place to find inexpensive plates; do not use fine china as it tends to shatter rather than break and the shards are more difficult to pick up or use)
- A thin wooden plywood board at least 18" X 36" in size (or the size of your choice)
- A strong adhesive or epoxy glue
- A small palette knife or trowel to spread the glue
- Acrylic paints in a variety of colors; watercolor can also be used for an opaque effect
- Paint brushes of various sizes (inexpensive brushes can be purchased in hardware and craft stores)
- Sandpaper – optional (this can be used to roughen or add texture to the surface of the plates)
- Hammer – optional
- Paper bag or old towels - optional
I prefer to do broken dish projects outside on a patio or driveway where there is plenty of open space; this allows plate pieces to travel outward during the breaking process without obstruction or risk of injury. If an outdoor space is not available, consider breaking dishes in a basement or other large room with a hard surface/non-wood floor.
Art-making that explores emotions related to grief and loss requires mental and emotional preparation to establish a sense of inner safety so that whatever needs to be expressed can come forth during the creative process. With that in mind, begin by setting a healing intention such as: I intend to explore the pain of my grief without judgment or fear. Then follow these steps; the first three steps can be modified to include mindful or calming practices that feel right to you.
1. The relaxing sigh.*
- Stand up straight.
- Sigh deeply, letting out a sound of deep relief as the air rushes out of your lings.
- Don’t think about inhaling – just let the air come in naturally.
- Take eight to twelve of these relaxing sighs and let yourself experience the feeling of relaxation.
The relaxing sigh can then be expanded upon to include folding forward loosely like a ragdoll on each sigh or exhalation.
2. Stomp your feet.
Next, stomp your feet either in place or as you walk around; breathe a little slower and deeper than normal. This step helps your emotions to come forth for expression.
3. Allow your body to move.
Next, swing your arms. Dance. Jump up and down. Do whatever movements spontaneously arise after you stomp your feet. Grief emotions are stored energy looking for acknowledgement, expression, acceptance and release; moving the body helps with this process.
4. Break Dishes.
With safety glasses on, drop or throw dishes to the ground. Break as many dishes for as long as feels right to you.
An additional option: instead of throwing or dropping dishes, put a plate in a paper bag, or wrap a plate in an old towel or piece of fabric, and then hit and break it with a hammer.
5. Pick up your plate pieces.
When carefully picking-up broken plate pieces, try to bring awareness to what it feels like physically to pick-up what has been shattered or broken. Do you feel relief? Sadness? Frustration? Longing? Do the pieces feel heavy or light? Without judgment, note what you feel as you carry broken plate pieces to your art table or work area.
6. Put together the broken pieces.
Consider in what way your plate pieces can be reconfigured to symbolize your life after loss and where you are at right now in the grieving process. For example: you might glue each individual plate back together to represent a new vision of wholeness – a life that is different than before your loss but still holds the potential for beauty; or stack shards of plates on top of each other to represent layers of grief; or leave pieces just as they are to signify giving space to where you are currently at in the grieving process. Use as many or as few of the dishes and dish pieces as you like. There is no right or wrong way to put your art project together just as there is no right or wrong way to put back together the pieces of your life after loss; allow your creative and expressive process to be guided by whatever feels right to you.
7. Secure plates and plate pieces to your board.
The gluing and painting portion of your project should be done outside or in a well-ventilated room.
Attach reconfigured or glued together plates, plate pieces and shards onto your board by generously coating an area of wood with adhesive glue using a trowel or palette knife (note: a paint brush does not offer a glue base thick enough to hold plates in place). The design and placement of your plate pieces can be planned out ahead of time by drawing directly onto your board and placing plates over your drawing.
You can also choose to spontaneously create your art piece, starting in the center or at one end of your board and placing pieces as you go.
Allow the glue to dry according to package directions.
8. Paint your plates and board.
Once the glue has begun to dry, paint your plate pieces and wood background using colors, shapes and symbols that best express what you want to say about your pain, loss and grief. You can also add photos, magazine pictures or small meaningful objects to your broken dish art.
*This exercise can be found in The Relaxation & Stress Reduction Workbook by Martha Davis, Elizabeth Robbins Eshelman and Matthew McKay. As a stress resilience trainer I have found the forward-fold modification effective in helping clients to relax.