After injuring her neck in an accident, Heather Bradley decided to reflect on rupture and healing in a new installation of ceramic sculptures titled innominate. We visited the artist’s Santa Fe studio to discuss her art and massage practices, both of which have helped her to recover—and create. Read the full interview below, and come see Bradley’s monumental innominate installation on a 30-foot stretch of wall at form & concept.
What does the title of your new series, innominate, mean?
The series is innominate, which is a Latin word that means “unnamed.” It’s what they were calling the pelvic bone for a while, because it’s so mysterious. It was also what my massage school class chose to name itself.
It’s a special word for me in that it encompasses a lot of mystery and the unknown. I was having a really hard time titling the piece because it was such a wide range of subjects for me. I like the title innominate because it feels like it didn’t classify it too much.
You’re weaving together several personal stories in this series. Tell us about the different threads.
One thing that always goes into my work is whatever my heart is going through, what’s really happening in my personal life. Personal stories always go into it, but I try to encrypt that somewhat. I want there to be a sense when you look at the work that this person has put her heart and soul into the work in some kind of intimate way, but I don’t want it to be totally revealing.
I made this work while I was in massage school, but also I was nursing a whiplash injury. It’s about healing and really feeling my body and my bones and my skin and my muscles. I was learning the insides of bodies and feeling that connection between my own experience of giving massage and healing from my whiplash injury.
What drew you to massage school?
I decided to go to massage school because I’ve always loved to work with my hands. I’ve also wanted other people to feel comfortable in their own skin. I wanted to be of service to people. It was a six-month program. A month in, I had a pretty serious car accident. I got rear ended and I found myself with whiplash, and in desperate need of massage. So during massage school I really felt how important it is for someone to heal.
When I first had my car accident I was told by my chiropractor and the neurologist that I really needed to stop clay work. I started seeing a chiropractor three times a week and massage therapist once or twice a week. The car accident changed the curve of my sine. I felt like I hadn’t spent a lot of time thinking about my spine or the vertabrae and how everything fits together.
How did the experience of injuring yourself and healing manifest in the innominate series?
I feel like the necks of my pots have always been pretty prominent. It’s kind of a signature thing. When I started working on the necks this time, there was a special sensitivity in my fingers that I didn’t have before.
The necks of the pots started reminding me of my own neck, and how when you’re working on someone’s neck you can really feel the individual vertebra. It’s really important for the therapist to have that sensitivity in their fingers because the neck is so delicate. It just felt so similar to me, to create the vertebral column in the clay after my own vertebral column had been adjusted.
What are some other similarities that you’ve discovered between your art practice and massage?
In school we took a class called The Healing Power of Touch. It wasn’t so much about special techniques with your fingers. It was about the importance of going into a massage with the right mindset and intention for that person and yourself. You have to go in with clean energy.
I related that right away to the way I make art. I’ve always thought that whatever I’m feeling when I go into the studio comes out into the clay. The clay feels that and the clay sees that.
What about the actual technique of shaping clay versus moving the body?
When you first learn to close a vessel when you’re doing in pottery, you learn that your inside finger is important in relation to what your outside finger is doing. Finger coordination in massage felt really similar in that way.
The main thing is the actual physical sensation of the wet clay on your hands and the way it responds to your fingers. That’s really similar when you’re working on a body. It’ll first feel like there’s no response, and then eventually your fingers start to feel the details.
Describe the compositional decisions that went into creating the innominate installation.
One thing that was really important to me from the beginning was the color red. There had to be red pieces that felt like blood. I wanted it to be like a vein through the installation. So I started with the red.
And then there’s the white porcelain pots that I made. All of them have necks that are like spines, with black lines on them. Music has always been a big influence on my work, so I wanted to put the white pots on the wall in a way that mimics sheet music.
How did you decide to put text directly on the wall?
Once I put the pots together it felt like there was some element missing. I’ve always been a writer. When I went to India I spent 6 months writing a book. I write, write, write.
One of the elements of the show is journal pieces that I made out of porcelain slabs. I shook them out and made them thin so they’d kind of echo paper. And then I literally wrote my journal entries on them. They’re personal about my relationship or dramas that went on at the time. But I though they worked with the show. The writing element just tied it all together. I think of the journal pages and the writing on the wall as just one piece. The verbal part of the show.
So, despite being told not to massage or work with clay, they’re the things that helped you heal?
Yeah, I think so. When I first got into the studio, I had so much pain and numbness in my neck and shoulders. My ego got crazy and I thought, I’m gonna make the biggest pieces I’ve ever made. And I tried to muscle through making these gigantic pieces, but they had no grace. They just went back into the slop pile. When I started to slow down and think about what would be an honest thing for me to make in this situation, they got smaller and more intimate.
Click here to view all of Heather Bradley’s work in the form & concept collection.