We have been tasked with creating our ‘ideal bowl’ – a bowl which distils into concrete form the main features and characteristics of our ceramic practice. I began by attempting to define vaguely the key elements which make up a bowl – an inside and outside, the ability to contain something, a top and bottom, a wide and narrow part. It appears the bowl is made up of opposites. Roundness I realise defines a bowl in that a bowl which isn’t round is defined by its quality of being a ‘square bowl’ or a ‘triangular bowl’. When asked to contemplate a bowl in our minds, mine is undoubtedly round.
I have written before about the roundness of things and have been recently looking at how time is connected with roundness and vessels. The bowl can be used as a metaphor for the day in that we often speak of having a ‘full day’ into which we ‘couldn’t fit enough time to do everything’. Time is often cyclical too which reflects the motion of the throwing wheel, my preferred method of working. The philosopher Roger Pol-Droit in ‘How Are Things’ muses poetically on his meetings with unremarkable things in the world; a bowl is one of them. He says of bowls ‘When the Bardo Tbödol , the Tibetan Book of the Dead, gives as its unit of time for a prayer or a ceremony, ‘the length of a meal’, it means this: the interval of a stomach, a bowlful of time.’ He goes on to say the bowl is ‘a thing of thresholds, of beginnings and endings…the thing is present when life starts up and gathers strength, and when it wanes and grows languid.’
In order to help me think about what the qualities of my ideal bowl would be I’ve chosen three bowls by other artists whose work I admire. I first came across Kathleen Standen‘s (http://www.kathleenstanden.com) sculptures in her book ‘Additions to clay Bodies’ and was instantly attracted by the contrast between the smooth insides and rough outer surfaces of her forms. Adding organic additions and coloured stains to porcelain she succeeds in making unique thick walled asymmetric, raggedy vessels which reference tools used in the fishing industry such as buoys and floats, hinting to her past as a marine biology student. I like how her work references geology and the weathering of rock in a very tactile sense which ties in with the interest I have in what Natasha calls ‘sensory geography’. In order to create the forms Standen presses stained clay bodies into plaster moulds to create defined stratified layers of coloured clay. Although I’m not particularly interested in this making technique, I’m drawn to the asymmetry of form and organic quality of the torn rim.
Martina Lantin ( http://www.mlceramics.com)is a ceramic artist I only came across recently while browsing a magazine. She works in a similar way to Brazilian Potter Carina Ciscato – throwing forms then cutting them up and altering the shape at leather hard stage. This technique was something I became very interested in last year on L5 since it throws in another challenge of timing on top of the throwing process. Playing with balance and asymmetry on a near-perfectly symmetrical thrown form appeals to me. Perhaps this wouldn’t have to come from altering the form itself however – presenting an odd number of bowls in a collection could similarly interrupt the equilibrium. Without leaning too much on the Japanese concept of wabi sabi which I believe is over used and inappropriately relied on to excuse a badly made piece of ceramics, there is something very appealing and human about asymmetry. However at odds with this is that things that are human often come in pairs too – meet, eyes, hands, ears etc – it’s an interesting dualism.
I fist saw a collection of Julian Stair‘s bowl shaped cups at CoCA York. Stair’s work is embodied by the clean lines and muted colours which are typical of today’s trend for minimalist pottery (take Jono Smart for example). His vessels suggest the possibility of function even if their unglazed surfaces celebrating the naked clay surface, aren’t designed with function in mind. Stair explores the anthropomorphic nature of vessels through different scales from domestic to monumental funeral urns and by grouping small vessels together creates an almost human dialogue between them. By placing different colours together, much as an abstract painter would he draws our attention to the subtleties in shades of grey, brown, green and blue, creating quiet compositions of contemplation. There is a solemnity to all his work, not just those focusing explicitly on the theme of death.
It’s important for me to remember the humbleness of the bowl and its connection to eating and comfort when getting lost in researching ‘art bowls’, bowls which are more sculptural than functional. While browsing through my flatmate’s Simply Nigella cookbook the other day I came across a section titled ‘Bowlfood’. For Lawson ‘‘bowlfood’ is a simple shorthand for food that is simultaneously soothing, bolstering, undemanding and sustaining’. Eating from a bowl is about comfort eating in the most innocent, infantile sense. Of the three artists above, Stair’s is what I feel most closely correlates to what I want to express artistically at this moment in time. For me the artwork above embodies the familiarity of the bowl vessel form and the elemental entanglement of the human-clay-natural world relationship.