MFA in Artisanry/Ceramics | Alberta E Boone | University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth | 2005
selected writing from
Familiarity is Everything...and the Kitchen Sink
The ceramic tableware that makes up my thesis work addresses my personal identity through an investigation of my family life. Whether they are put to use or seen within collections of pots that compose expressive assemblages, they are works of art that articulate the powerful effect of family relationships and rituals of eating that I have experienced personally and culturally. In the course of this study, I have discovered that I also have the ability to affect other people’s lives. I create pots that are not just useful objects, but subjects that act upon the space they occupy and, most importantly, on the people who interact with them. Through a sweetness of form, glaze surface and assemblage, my work presents a subtle invitation to explore the meaning of the rituals of domestic intimacy through an exploration of the senses.
What we search for is a kind of order and logic in what is the chaotic and illogical experience of being alive.
–The Orchid Thief (Orlean 2000, 289)
Many people in this world are nurtured within organized religious belief systems that provide them with satisfactory answers to the mystery of their existence. Apart from some Sundays spent chanting mantras at a Hindu temple, which, I have to say, I remember fondly, I was not raised by way of any obligatory religious practices. For me, those times had little to do with accepting or understanding the ways of the world by having faith in a god. I remember, though, the delicious smell of exotic food (I can even still taste it), I remember the beautiful sight of so many shades of orange saris that were worn, and I remember the way my legs felt as I sat, cross-legged, with my heels stretched up over my thighs. I remember these sensations clearly, as if they happened only a moment ago. Sensations are unfiltered responses. They are the closest things to truth that I know. In a search for the underpinnings of my development, I continue to be amazed by the insightfulness with which my senses ground me in the reality of who I am and what I do.
I express what I feel through the act of making ceramic tableware. This includes cups, bowls, and plates, as well as other forms that hold food or liquids. I think of these pots as metaphors for me and the members of my family; form, color, surface texture, and the various ways I assemble them into groups or sets reflect the relationships that define us and bind us together. I use a ‘sense-full’ methodology; I understand this language. It is one that is not intellectualized—it comes from my heart. With each creative study, I sense new understanding of my identity. In a fictional coming-of-age narrative, titled The Secret Life of Bees, August, one of three Southern bee-keeping sisters, tells the main character Lily that, “the hardest thing on earth is choosing what matters” (Kidd 2002, 147). Of course, every single moment commands a choice; often they are easy, made out of hand. On the other hand, the work I have done over the last three years has demanded a choice of ‘what matters’ much like that presented to Lily.
For me, life is defined by experiences. All human beings share birth, unique genetic heritage, and death, but what we experience in the meantime is what distinguishes each of us as an individual. As artist Irvin Tepper puts it, “What matters is not the days we live, but how we live their moments” (2002). These moments are what matter most to me. When I remember an experience, the poignancy of a moment is what glows in my mind.
When my maternal grandmother passed away in 2001, I sensed a flicker of radiance. Wading, waist-deep through the jungle of grandma’s stuff, I rediscovered moments of my childhood, I was introduced to my grandfather by way of artifacts, and I gained knowledge about what my mother’s life was like while she was growing up. I then realized how little I understood my family and I began to wonder how I could possibly know myself if this was the case. I recognized that by learning more about where I came from, I could begin to find my identity.
My subject is, in one form or another, ‘family’. We are put on earth, we don’t know why and we need to figure out how to make it feel meaningful, how to find some niche that we fit into comfortably...and yes, it is very much a matter of connection and disconnection and belonging and not belonging.
–The Orchid Thief (Orlean 2000, 287)
The impact familiar domestic relationships, such as coming together at mealtimes, have on each of our personal identities is something that is often overlooked. I know this because, until now, I’ve taken it for granted myself. In my search to reconcile the social outcomes of these conditions, I was struck by a statement written by the evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould: “Both inheritance and upbringing matter in crucial ways” (288). This clarifies the dynamics of human nature for me. I recognize now that one does not dominate the other, but that there is reciprocity between the two. Thus, in order to understand who I am, I have researched not just my family heritage, but also my family life.
Intimate domestic relationships are made up of nurturing interactions between members of a family that facilitate physical and emotional well being. As living beings, one of our most immediate needs is physical nutrition. As a child, I was not able to prepare my own food. I relied on my family, especially my mother, to provide nourishment. It makes sense to me then, that “one definition of a family...is ‘those who eat together’” (Visser 1992, 80) and that “the actual taking part (sharing) establishes identity” (24). When I revisit the memories of such intimate domestic experiences, I can feel, with emotion, how these rituals have shaped my development as an individual.
Many individuals, including myself, who were born and raised since the 1960s experience the effects that social changes (such as the women’s liberation movement and the rapid growth of consumerism in America) have made upon our lives, especially our identities. In terms of domestic familiarity, this includes the act of coming together regularly, as a family, to eat. Growing up, my mother and her sisters rarely ate meals at the dinner table with their parents, except on special occasions. Therefore, in terms of eating meals, her tendencies were toward autonomy. Until I was four years old, I lived only with my mother. She explained to me that when I was very little (2 to 3 years old), she would prepare food for me and put in on the bottom shelf in the refrigerator so that I could get it out to eat whenever I was hungry. My mother was very independent and this was one of the ways she taught me to be independent. I know how much she loves me, so when I think about what she did, I feel confused. I believe it has had a profound effect upon me regarding the connection between my sense of identity and my mother’s perception of domestic intimacy.
For me, there is a powerful connection between physical and emotional well being. Naturally, it is vital that we nourish ourselves; how we do this is where one potential for emotional nourishment exists. In eastern cultures, for example, domestic objects are artfully crafted; they are made with the understanding that the daily tasks for which they are used are sacraments. As an integral part of their collective identity, their tableware (and other utilitarian objects) has a humble integrity and an aesthetic beauty that is a tangible reminder of the poignancy of humanity, both physically and emotionally. My tableware also celebrates this connection and its powerful potential as a means for understanding personal identity, especially with regard to family.
I make tableware because it is an intimate means by which we, as human beings, transfer food and water into our bodies. But it does much more than this: these pots are also sensuous forms that affect their user’s emotional being. Art historian Philip Rawson explains the “the existential base of ceramics (Rawson 1984, 3)”: my interpretation of his observations is that the making of pots is not so much about creating a vessel as it is about defining the lives of those who use them. I see the intimate relationship between pot and user as a way for emotional nourishment to accompany physical nourishment.
Because I express my feelings through my senses, my pots become sensual objects. They have an aesthetic beauty that is welcoming, tender, and intimate. These are the same affective qualities that we seek in one another to cultivate the nurturing relationships that define our lives. Rawson also observes that the senses define experiences and provide an understanding of what it means to exist through what he calls ‘memory traces’. These are accumulated as we live our lives through sensory experience: the daily ritual of preparing and eating food requires the use of material objects such as pots that may be full of ‘memory traces’ (Rawson 1986, 16). In Rawson’s words, the pot becomes a ‘transformation image’ (1986, 2). Any one of a pot’s characteristics, such as its form, volume, surface texture, or color can evoke ‘memory traces’. As I work to create an understanding and memory of my own intimate domestic relationships, I create tableware that can activate other people’s senses. These pots are made to be used, but not just for holding food and drink: they are also objects that, either individually or collected into an assemblage, are a subtle invitation to contemplate the connections between the domestic ritual of eating and personal identity.
The extent to which we take everyday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives.
–Much Depends on Dinner (Visser 1986, 11)
Tableware’s context comes from the ritual of sharing food. It is a complex ritual that provides a basis for human relationships and defines cultures. “People actively, regularly, and continuously work on the portioning out of their food. This activity presupposes and probably helped give rise to many basic human characteristics, such as kinship systems (who belongs with whom; which people eat together), language, technology and morality” (Visser 1992, 1, 2). Various cultures and, further, the families within them each have unique traditions regarding what they eat and how it is prepared. This is proof that food and water have much more significance than the mere provision of essential nutrients.
It makes sense, then, that there are also traditions regarding tableware. Presently, American society enables a collective differentiation between tableware such as fine china for special occasions and the dishes that we use every day, which tend to be made of less exclusive materials, including even plastic or paper. In my opinion, disposable, cheaply made mass-produced wares reflect how little we value the actions for which we use them. Prior to the 1960s, the preparation of meals was the occupation of a homemaker. It was a full-time job to provide a family with three square meals a day, seven days a week. Over the last forty years, American society has profoundly changed. The lifestyles of people living in America today are a result of changes effected by complex economic shifts with regard to food production, technology, labor/occupation, and the mass production/consumption of goods. Food preparation, an act that once required time and energy at the family level, is no longer a communal production. It is no longer a norm that vegetables are cultivated in backyard gardens or that animals are raised on family land, nor is it commonplace that these goods are shared or exchanged between community members. For many of us, there is little love left in what we eat everyday or how it is prepared and served. We are often disconnected from it because it is no longer necessary that we be so directly or intimately involved in its production or its presentation. Our society offers so many alternatives: for many people, it is routine to ‘eat out’ at a restaurant, to buy prepared food and take it home to eat, or to eat ‘fast food’ on the go. Food has become a commodity, something that has more commercial value than social value. How can we possibly care what sort of dishes we eat from?
Often, we don’t even use them at all. Instead, we habitually eat from restaurant ware, plastic, Styrofoam, or paper products. Of course, individuals have variable ideas regarding the value of materials and goods or objects, but I have observed that from a social perspective, there seems to be a collective perception that equates monetary value or preciousness with importance. The shift away from personal or familial accountability for the production, preparation and serving of everyday meals perpetuates food as a commodity and this, in turn, often distances us from being aware of food’s social significance in terms of the relationship between domestic ritual and personal identity.
I am fascinated by fast food culture. I admit that I occasionally consume a greasy, but ever-so-tasty burger and fries, but I do it with the knowledge that, for me, this type of physical nourishment is not an intimate domestic ritual. It is a matter of convenience because I am alone and pressed for time. “Much of our experience in twentieth-century America is an effort to get away...to fade into a stark, simple, solemn, puritanical, all-business routine that doesn’t have anything so unseemly as sensuous zest” (Ackerman 1990, xviii). My perception is that the value of nutrition has been reduced to the Styrofoam cups, foil wrappers and plastic containers that are thrown in the garbage after a cup of coffee, a burger or a TV dinner. In my opinion, the implications of this reach far beyond the necessity of physical nourishment. Sadly, the convenient consumption of disposable goods has become our social fabric.
Through the act of making tableware, I have recognized an important duality. I am an individual and also part of the larger human collective: family, community and, ultimately, the universe in which we all exist. The pots I make are an extension of me. Because I am a part of the human collective, my tableware, by association, is also part of it. That humans connect to one another through the rituals and sensations of nourishment is no mistake. There is a delicate balance between nature, the fact that we must eat and drink to survive, and nurture, the rituals that foster the sensations that define us through generations and civilizations. One cannot exist without the other. One may argue that the fast food experience is in fact a collectively acknowledged social ritual and I would not disagree; but its sensory qualities are so different from a meal prepared, served and eaten at home, that I fear they will supersede many of the important nurturing actions and sensations that accompany a traditional family meal. For me, there is clearly an absence of contemplative delight in flimsy foil wrappers or squeaky Styrofoam containers—they are all the same (mass produced) and they are all disposable. I am neither a clone, nor disposable; I am unique and adaptable. I am compelled by my awareness of this extraordinary reciprocity to create tableware that subtly addresses the significance of intimate domestic rituals with regard to personal identity.
There is a kind of pottery that involves us in its use in a special way. The use becomes an oracle of experience—a riddle of functioning life—because the object is aesthetically self-evident without forfeiting its function. It seems to me important that the ceramic object not lose its mundane function. For in becoming contemplatively significant without losing its functionality it elevates the mundane activity of life it serves into an object of contemplation itself. It is the hardest thing in life to make the various everyday activities of life itself into objects of contemplation—make them seem fraught with aesthetic significance. One can, and we all do, observe life, but we rarely contemplate it—caress it with sufficient awareness to make it seem a lingering delight. The ceramic object can make such simple but profoundly intimate and fundamentally significant activities as eating and drinking seem sublime recognitions of life simply through the aesthetics of the object used to perform them. (Kuspit 1987, 39-40)
Takeshi Yasuda, a Japanese-born and trained artist who now lives in England, makes some of the most sensuous pots I have ever encountered. He calls what he creates ‘lifestyle ware’ (Yasuda 2003). This resonates within me as a means for remaining sensually aware of the connection between personal identity and domestic lifestyle. Takeshi’s pots are sensuously thoughtful; they are soft and subtle in form and surface, they are an uncomplicated and enchanting invitation to enjoy the moments during which they are used.
Through the sensory based aesthetic of my tableware, I also reveal a way for others to acknowledge and celebrate everyday moments of existence. When it is used, it becomes an important part of a daily ritual that has traditionally cultivated relationships with family, friends, and communities. And if our busy lifestyles do not allow us to share meals with one another ‘en famile’, the aesthetic qualities of these pots act upon our senses: through receptiveness of form, softness and depth of surface, and subtle color associations they evoke thoughts of the comfort of familiarity and of the significance of our physical and emotional connections to one another as they define each of us.
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Boone, Alberta, “Conversation with Takeshi Yasuda”. July 2003
Brennan, Anne, “Social and Sociable: The Vessels of Janet DeBoos”. Ceramics: Art and Perception. March 2001. Volume 43. Pages 87-89
Gould, Stephen Jay, Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1998
Gould, Stephen Jay, The Lying Stones of Marrakech. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000
Kidd, Sue Monk, The Secret Life of Bees. New York: Penguin Books, 2003
Kuspit, Donald, “NCECA conference closing address: ceramic considerations”. New Art Examiner. October 1987. Volume 15. Pages supp. B-D
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Orlean, Susan, The Orchid Thief. New York: Ballantine Books, 2000
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Tepper, Irvin, “Artist’s Statement”. Published in: Hernandez, Jo Farb, Irvin Tepper, when cups speak: life with the cup: a 25-year survey. San Jose, Calif.: Natalie and James Thompson Gallery, School of Art and Design, San Jose State University, 2002
Visser, Margaret, Much Depends on Dinner. New York: Grove Press, 1986 Visser, Margaret, The Rituals of Dinner. New York: Grove Press, 1991