Theresa Arrison, MFA '13 reflects on both the "why" and the "what" behind making.
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.
I came to graduate school with fourteen years of making functional ceramics. The only proper ceramics course I had ever taken was in college seventeen years prior. However, in that introductory class, the bug had bit. During the following years, I refined my skills in Park & Rec and adult community education classes, never thinking deeper about what I was doing. Instead, I focused only on learning new techniques and practicing until I felt confident enough to add them to my repertoire. I made everything: bowls, vases, candleholders, mugs, tumblers, and platters. Everything was created for other people to use. I never kept anything for myself.
I was in for a huge shock when I began grad school. All of a sudden the “Why” of what I was doing seemed to be more important than the “What” of what I was making, and I had no faculties with which to answer this question. I floundered and searched for meaning. Up until this point, there had never been any “why,” just “do.” It wasn’t until I was getting ready for a formal critique, dreading it, willing myself not to cry out of frustration, that meaning began to sink in.
I had been making a number of tiny, delicate porcelain bowls in an attempt to break out of my prior throwing style. I didn’t know what I was going to say about them or how to set up my display, so I just piled them on top of each other. In that moment, their story began to unfold. In this small pile of bowls, I saw an innate contradiction: an anonymous mass of seemingly identical objects which were anything but. On closer inspection, each bowl’s individuality began to speak: an uneven lip, a taller foot, a perfect roundness. In an effort to intensify this dichotomy, I decided to make one thousand “identical” bowls and display them in the same fashion. What resulted was a glittering pile reminiscent of shells on a beach left at high tide. The reaction was (thankfully) just as I’d hoped. Viewers took in the entire picture and then were pulled back in to look closer when they noticed something a bit awry. In retrospect, I wish I had let the display be more interactive. These bowls, inherently functional, begged to be touched, moved, stacked, and compared, but they still remained precious to me, despite their numbers.
Those one thousand bowls have moved on from the gallery setting. They are meant to be used. I have mounted pairs and trios of bowls on wood blocks for salt and pepper sets or dipping sauces. I use them in my studio to hold water, slip, or glaze. The duality they represented while on a pedestal has been replaced by the singular purpose of use, but they still resound with the history of their journey.
THERESA ARRISON is a Portland-based practicing functional potter. She graduated with an MFA in Applied Craft and Design program at PNCA and OCAC in 2013. You can view Arrison’s ceramic work on her website.