In the Hands of the Beholder

by gwendolyn yoppolo          

To anyone else they look like a stack of abandoned dishes that you might see at a thrift store amidst a clutter of lost figurines, salt and pepper shakers, bins full of silverware, and piles of plates.  Small, low dishes (kind of plates / kind of bowls) that fit perfectly in the hand, fingertip to rim, foot centered above open palm.  The plain white porcelain is elegant yet understated, with what used to be bands of gold luster on the rim.  Now gold has faded to a nondescript fawn brown, worn away at the rims to the white porcelain beneath.  The maker’s mark on the underside belies the self-proclaimed importance of the dish set with an image of a crown and the company, “Royalton China Co.” Japan:  * Translucent Porcelain China * Imported Fine Quality *.

Royalton China Co. dishes.

Royalton China Co. dishes.

            An image of a former time of glory, the dishes sit now alone, separated from their larger and more important family members – large oval platters, pouring vessels, and other serving dishes.  Somehow they are still together, the four of them.  My family used to pull this set of fine china out every year at holiday meals.  In fact, for some reason they bring to my mind this Jello salad that popped up every Thanksgiving.  It turns my stomach even thinking of it:  glistening amber Jello with suspended fossil-like impediments of celery, walnuts and dried fruit.  Yet there it appeared, year after year.  Pulling out the fine china every year to me symbolized an uncomfortable meal, frankly, with food I did not love.  Turkey, dressing and gravy . . . that green bean casserole.  Sweet potatoes baked with marshmallows on top?!?  And of course the dreaded Jello fossil globule.

            For some reason the plowl form, part plate and part bowl, has always been one of my favorite forms to make.  I never have been a flat plate kind of eater, preferring the comfort and privacy of a deeper form that curves into cupped hands.  Flat plates imply a certain distance from one’s food; they are for knife-and-fork eaters, really.  Bowls welcome spoons, and soft edges, scooping rather than cutting or piercing.  Plates display food, working well to frame a visual presentation of a chef’s art.  Bowls coddle food, promising to protect it against spills when in motion or on unstable ground.

The softness of a bowl or plowl welcoming a spoon.

The softness of a bowl or plowl welcoming a spoon.

            Forms, like plates or bowls, do carry such inherent meaning and cultural narrative; yet on another level, objects in themselves are open-ended, with infinite potential for significance.  The meaning of an object depends on the perceiver or beholder, whose experience and needs frame an individual narrative within which significance is defined.  Those Royalton plowls, for example, hold not only my childhood memories, but also most recently the imprint of my mother’s illness.  She found herself overwhelmed by the task of eating and she requested smaller and smaller portions of food in order to avoid frustration.  Those palm-sized dishes became her meal plate, at times holding half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or a small scoop of mashed potatoes, or some grapes and a few slices of extra sharp cheddar cheese.  She still loved the idea of certain foods (she got so happy the day I presented her with roasted asparagus), but the actual eating was difficult.  Food was hard to stomach.  The size and shape of the plowl helped her feel a comfort from her food.

            As makers of domestic objects, we sometimes want to instill a political stance into the handmade, as if our work could take down the impersonal mechanisms of mass production.  Clearly, though, a mass produced object can hold intense meaning and bear a heavy symbolic burden within the holder’s life’s narrative just as a handmade object can.  Politics enter in when you look into the meaning of the production processes and value systems of empowered makers who contribute to the larger culture through their work.

Designing a spoon and plowl together.

Designing a spoon and plowl together.

            In my own making process, I try to maintain a certain open-endedness that allows for pursuit of a targeted design within certain parameters, but also encourages slight diversions, improvisations, and shifting.  Each object is treated as an individual sculpture, even if it exists as iteration within a series of say, mugs or small plowls.  Somehow the singularity of each piece is still important to me – for as much as I would like to increase production by casting or molding, I prefer the intimate contact with and variation in pieces afforded by devoting attention to the detail of each piece as if it were the first prototype.  Then, when finished, each object calls out to different hands and fits into people’s lives in different ways.

Bump molding in the creation of a plate.

Bump molding in the creation of a plate.

            I do use various types of molds to produce work; the mold processes that allow for the most flexibility are the ones that I turn to most often when I need to mold a form or part of a piece.  One mold system I call bump molding involves forming the negative space that exists underneath a piece, then building the piece up from that.  This allows me to create a related or stackable set of dishes without committing to a more permanent mold, thus liberating me to begin the design part of the process anew with each fresh cycle of work.  A bump mold for larger or more complicated pieces may stay with the piece through the drying process, as porcelain does a good amount of shrinking before it even feels the heat of a kiln.  A bump mold can be used and reused in its unfired state, or it can be bisque fired and used that way.

Bump mold used to create a larger, more complicated form.

Bump mold used to create a larger, more complicated form.

            Do those who perceive our finished work sense those meaningful choices made in the making?  Where does meaning lie in terms of the objects we make?  For us makers, the meaning is in the making.  We can’t help but make the things that we need to have exist in the world.  We can’t help but use processes that align with our own internal mental and emotional processes.  Then, we tell stories about the objects and about our making of the objects as we present them to others.  The words we choose to use, though, are just words.  The objects themselves meet people’s hands and move with their gestures.  Words may create an atmosphere, or link our work to a larger cultural context, but in the end the object speaks for itself, in its relationship to its beholder.