The Power of Clay: Abbie Kasoff and Say It With Clay
When New Jersey ceramicist Abbie Kasoff was tirelessly working to build her human services non-profit organization Say It With Clay in the early 2000s, she was driven by her determination “that clay would do for others what it did for me.” In love with the medium since her high school years, Kasoff returned again and again to working in clay, seeking the healing and transformative mental state that is called “flow.” She came to understand the power of clay as a means of communication, a way to express feelings and ideas and to revisit them in a finished product – in a “second-stage give-back.”
Kasoff earned two B.A. degrees, in Ceramics and Art Therapy, at the Philadelphia College of the Arts (now the University of the Arts), which she chose over traditional art school because it offered the dual degree. She recalls, “My parents were a little leery about an art degree, but when I visited the campus and learned about art therapy, I was drawn to it.” After graduation, she says, “Life happened,” and she found herself working more in the human services sector as she raised two children as a single mom. “Human services is a sort of one-room-schoolhouse profession,” she quips. “I’ve been a drug and alcohol counselor, worked at an emergency children’s shelter, taught at an alternative high school – you name it.” Throughout it all, she tried to integrate clay through art therapy. When tighter regulatory measures were instituted by the state government, she faced earning an M.A. to continue as a licensed and certified mental health professional. “I chose not to get the degree and to go my own way by founding a non-profit organization,” she explains.
In 2002, Kasoff found studio space in Collingswood, New Jersey and began her operation as a traditional “mud hut” ceramics studio. The property has a house in the front, where she lives, and a big backyard and studio space in a building in the back. It is walking distance from the PATCO High Speed Rail Line that connects New Jersey and Philadelphia. Building on her extensive experience and network in human services, she assembled a part-time staff of art therapists and set up a program. She began the long process of applying for non-profit status in 2004 and by 2010, Say It With Clay was awarded 501c status from the federal government and she began to operationalize her dream organization. Kasoff says, “What makes us different from other art programs - and from many art therapy programs – is that 90 percent of our staff has been trained and has clinical background in art therapy, special ed art or occupational therapy for mental health treatment or special ability programming. We have the ability to help anyone who walks through our doors.” Kasoff, as the Chief Executive Director, oversees a Clinical Director, staff therapists, university interns, and technicians.
Say It With Clay uses art therapy to address multiple challenges that people face. See below for a list of examples.
Say It With Clay offers an fully inclusive program for both the general public and special abilities clients, both adults and children. Special abilities clients come from schools, institutions, and government agencies and each is given a personal program. Kasoff says, “We work on forgiveness, self-esteem, trauma – but everything is a process-oriented experience designed to help people who have trouble communicating, for whatever reason.” For students from the general public, this thrust is apropos, even for the garden variety of life’s challenges.
Kasoff tells of a child with communication difficulties who works on creating a cup. The making process boosts self-esteem and might provide an outlet for emotions. When the cup is fired and finished, the child presents it to the parents who reinforce the child’s self-esteem through their pleasure. They continue to use the cup every day and the child is transformed. Kasoff coined her phrase, “Second-Stage Give-Back” to describe this unique quality of clay’s functionality, especially in the creation of objects that continue to be used for specific purposes. The process continues with the life of the created piece that was given as a gift.
Say It With Clay has grown over the last decade, expanding programs and reaching out to more communities. Kasoff is a high energy leader and says, “Walking into a roomful of strangers is the best networking you can do. They don’t know about us, so I am there to tell them. Conversations ignite possibilities.” The organization is a vendor for several state agencies; she established internship relationships with over five universities; she and her talented team members take programs directly to clients in a host of facilities and homes in an active mobile program.
Kasoff has a thriving volunteer program. She established a Youth Committee of volunteers aged 6 to 17. The children recently sold abandoned pots, planted with succulents, for a mini fundraiser. A steering committee of volunteer adults helps with the annual fundraising event, “Faces of Value” along with Kasoff’s staff of talented team members. Kasoff says, “All of our team members must have ownership in the organization for our success.” Each must participate in volunteer fundraising efforts throughout the year. To support the staff’s professional wellness Kasoff encourages her talented team members to explore and create with clay, providing clay, supplies, and equipment at no cost.
Kasoff is eager to welcome back an in-person Faces of Value next autumn. This unique event recruits a group of notable community members – politicians, community leaders, athletes and special abilities clients – to come to Say It With Clay for a mask-making session. Each participant creates a mask – either a self-mask or of another person – helped by staff members. Last year’s new category, “In Memory Of” will be revived this year. The finished products are presented in a catalogue and are offered by auction at a formal show.
Kasoff continues to talk and network. She and her development team recently heard about a grant opportunity with a pending deadline and scrambled to put together and submit an application to fund an ADA compatible bathroom – a long time dream of Kasoff – with two hours and two minutes to spare before the deadline. She also just completed “Clay @ Work,” a 12-week job readiness training program curriculum for the special ability population and others. Kasoff continues her own professional growth and development, always seeking new ways to expand Say it with Clay, to provide opportunities to all who can benefit from the power of clay. For those who have the good fortune to encounter Abbie Kasoff, the give back will extend to multiple stages.
Learn more about Say It With Clay at www.sayitwithclay.org