Breath holding is a phenomenon familiar to those who suffer from chronic pain. Tensing themselves physically and psychologically, sufferers brace their bodies to cope with the constant pain they feel and anticipate. But in doing so, they inadvertently stop doing what they implicitly know aids the body in pain management – breathing.
Virginia Leonard is a breath holder. Following a serious motorcycle accident in the mid-1980s, Leonard lives with ongoing physical trauma. Decades later, and driven by the need to articulate her daily experience of chronic pain, Leonard shifted from painting and began working in clay, describing her ceramic practise as a language and a proxy for her body. Of this, she says, “chronic pain has no biological value…it lacks both language and voice. The language of my clay making is my attempt to rid my body of trauma.”
Leonard frequently finds herself breath holding in her studio. ‘Í hold my breath’, she reveals, ‘often when I‘m doing a physical action that my body finds difficult’. Ongoing, the condition means that sufferers, Leonard included, breath shallowly into their chests not deep into their lungs. Looking at one of her ceramics, it is possible to see this reflected it her work. The oozing clay, resin, and glaze forms are fired precariously mid drip, as if the ceramic, too, is breath holding, bracing itself against the physically charged pummelling and massaging actions she inflicts on the clay. But the resulting works are in no way solemn, instead, the glistening, lustrous surfaces garland her ceramic proxies, and titles such as ‘Dressing up for ward rounds’, and Í wish a was a Plastic Surgeon’ are witty self-reflections that directly reference her years spent in hospital.
As poems constructed from her clay language, Leonard’s ceramics delight in the viscera of her body. The large structures recall the quotidian shapes of vases, jugs, and urns, but are abstracted, morphed into melting masses of sticky resin and bulging lumps. By creating vessels we associate with the domestic, Leonard reminds us that for her chronic pain is ongoing – part of her unique every day. As pneumatic objects that contain air in their hollow bodies, and topped, urn-like, with lids, Leonard’s ceramics are themselves breath holders: gleaming reliquaries of her spirit.