Rachel Cox, MFA AC+D '11 explores how bowls as objects can ground us in ritual.
From March through September 2013, in honor of Object Focus: The Bowl at Museum of Contemporary Craft, UNTITLED Magazine will be collecting essays, stories, poems, recipes, and other texts by PNCA community members about the bowl. The words of chefs, anthropologists, and poets will appear alongside those of critics, makers, and curators to extol on the bowl in its myriad incarnations.
A bowl was the first ceramic object I made as an adult, and it changed my life. In a beginning ceramics class, I rolled thin coils of soft gray clay and wound them around and up, pressing and smoothing the coils into each other, until I had created a satisfying volume. I pressed a sprig of rosemary into the side of the bowl for texture and dipped the bowl in a standard studio glaze, which promptly obliterated the texture. The fired form was lumpy, heavy, and astounding to me. The bowl taught me that I could make something useful—though I rarely used it to hold anything—and pleasing to look at—though it didn’t look the way I had imagined it would. Mainly, the bowl felt good to make and to hold. This humble form ignited my passion for working with clay.
Three years later, I was finding my voice in the medium and wanted to make something I did not know how to make. After traveling through southern Mexico, I was inspired to incorporate the imagery carved in the stone of Mayan pyramids and temples. I began building a large bowl using the same coiling method of my first bowl, but now with thick ropes of clay. The bowl grew larger and larger, outgrowing the drawings in my sketchbook and the images in my mind until I could no longer lift it myself and had to wheel it around on a cart. My impulse was to make something monumental to conjure the feeling I had in the presence of the jungle temples. When the bowl was more than ten times the size of my first bowl, I stopped building and started carving versions of the enigmatic but archetypical symbols I remembered from Mexico.
This bowl was a breakthrough in my ceramics experience: it was the largest object I had ever made, and I learned much about the laws of gravity, the limits of clay, and methods of damage control. As I worked over many hours in a community college class, engaged in the repetitive practice of coiling and carving, the bowl became a ritual object. The carved symbols invoked the rituals and mythology of the ancient Maya, but the bowl also served as a vehicle for paying attention to material and process, and as a vessel to hold my memories, feelings, and longings. Years later, in graduate school, I further explored the convergence of making and ritual. I concluded, simply, that objects ground us in ritual: they help us focus our attention and be present. My first lumpy bowl led me there.
RACHEL COX is a ceramic artist and education analyst living and working in San Francisco. She completed an MFA in Applied Craft and Design in 2011. Her graduate work explored the convergence of making and ritual, resulting in a project called “Objects of Invocation: Ritual Takes Shape.” More of Cox’s work can be viewed on her website.