Occupational therapy students work with clay at Scenic City Clay Arts so they, in turn, can use it with the people they help.

Allyna Kerley rolls her piece of soft clay out on the table into a long, rope-like cord.

She twirls it around itself, creating a swirl that attaches with a wet binding clay—called “slip”—to a clay bowl she’s forming. It joins all the other swirls she’s made to form the outer edge of her bowl.

Kerley has never worked with clay to create anything before.

“No, but with Play-Doh,” she laughed.

She and fellow first-year UTC Occupational Therapy classmates have all met at Scenic City Clay Arts for their Occupational Therapy and Mental Health course, led by Clinical Assistant Professor Elicia Cruz.

Occupational therapists, among other services, help children with disabilities participate in school and social situations, help people recovering from injury regain skills and provide support for older adults experiencing physical and cognitive changes.

“As occupational therapists, we believe that people are healthier if they’re engaged in their community and engaged socially. We work with clients to do that,” Cruz said.

One way to get clients into the community is to recommend ways to do so. Cruz wants her students to understand how their clients feel when a new experience is recommended, especially if the client is a newcomer to treatment. Such experiences can be daunting to a client, she explained.

“I want the students to know what it’s like because it can be really overwhelming, and they’re experiencing that,” Cruz said.

“It’s hard. So it can be really daunting for someone who—especially if they have maybe an anxiety disorder or schizophrenia and their cognition is a struggle—then if the occupational therapy students experienced it, they’re going to be able to better prepare the client for what to expect when they come to a place like this.”

Through collaborations with the H*Art Gallery to spending a 40-hour, weeklong rotation at a community health center like AIM Center, Orange Grove Signal Center or Sharon’s Adult Daycare, occupational therapy students are better equipped to work with clients, Cruz said.

At Scenic City Clay Arts, instructor Loren Howard introduces the class to the bare basics of creating with clay, providing solutions and suggestions as they ask basic questions.

The class assignment is to create something with at least one dimension and a minimum of eight inches in size. Their final product must be refined or, if it’s messy, the mess must be intentional. Otherwise, their assignment is open-ended. It’s up to the students to experiment and use their imagination.

Kerley and her classmate Libba Wigginton agree that just figuring out what they want to make is the most challenging.

“Just thinking of an idea and getting started was a little bit overwhelming. But then, getting into the groove of it was kind of fun and a little bit easier,” Wigginton added.

 Household items are stacked on shelves and across tables in Scenic City Clay Arts to help them add depth, styles or work as a blueprint for the pieces they create.

One student works clay around a large cardboard tube to create a vase. She has newspaper between the clay and tube so, as she removes her vase, the clay won’t stick to the tube.

This is the first time students in the Occupational Therapy and Mental Health course have visited a site outside of campus since COVID-19 hit, Cruz explained.

Typically, the course—which rounds out the doctoral students’ first-year studies—is heavy on experiences in the community. Experiences just like Scenic City Clay Arts where molding clay helps mold students into better occupational therapists.

Media Relations Contacts: Email UTC Media Relations or call 423-425-5119.

Sarah ’14, ’16 earned an MA in English rhetoric and composition at UTC where she now works as staff writer; she enjoys hiking with her husband and two boys and spending time with her backyard menagerie of goats, chickens and ducks.

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