On Not Solving Problems

by gwendolyn yoppolo

There is something comforting about numbers, especially when tightened down to two decimal places.  It is reassuring to say a thing has a certain measured dimension, worth, or duration in space and time, thus locating it in the mental sense of the word.  But to truly apprehend that thing, you have to be able to feel its immeasurable dimensions as well, the qualities that may pose paradox, or dwell in mystery. 

We can ascribe numbers indicating nutrient and caloric content to our meals, for example, but food provides more than a measured dose of nutrition and energy.  It is packed with emotional, cultural, spiritual, political, and material significance.  In mediating our relationships to food and to other people, utilitarian ceramics can be a powerful way to access those layers of meaning.

A Feeding Utensil in use

A Feeding Utensil in use

The heart of pottery’s conceptual content resides in the space that an object fills in our lives; the pot is a positive that fills the negative formed by the gesture of a body.  When first designing forms for one person to feed another person, I decided to use actual hands as a slump mold for the gesture of offering.  It is significant that hands may be open and receptive during both actions of giving and of receiving.  

Press molding a gesture of offering

Press molding a gesture of offering

These open gestures became the foundations for the design of my feeding vessels (“feeders”).  A form designed for feeding/being fed is a solidification of the bridge forged of empathy and vulnerability.  Feeding vessels have a soft directionality to them, as they cross the permeable boundary between self and other and ignite the mystery of individuality and connection.  

The soup course of a feed/feel dinner

The soup course of a feed/feel dinner

As in all forms of ceramic art, there are certainly problems to be solved in the design of a feeder, such as how to deliver a liquid or solid cleanly and comfortably to another person.  Solving these challenges successfully, though, is only the beginning.  It’s one thing to formulate a glaze with certain qualities or craft a well-pouring spout.  But to use that glaze and form successfully to convey meaning is another thing.  That is where words and numbers both reach their limit and the sensual vocabulary of aesthetics takes over.  

Considering a curved spout design for a feeding vessel, so that someone can offer liquid to another who is sitting to her left.

Considering a curved spout design for a feeding vessel, so that someone can offer liquid to another who is sitting to her left.

In the sensual aesthetics of utilitarian ware, the object can disappear within the experience.  When feeding someone else, we do more than put food into her mouth -- we gauge her preferences and sense her appetite, we make judgments about temperature of the food, size of the bite, and pace of feeding.  When being fed, we have to trust the other with our own vulnerability.   During a feeding event, the pots are an invisible vehicle for the experience, unless there is a design flaw that brings them to attention.

Feeding someone else requires empathy, while being fed evokes vulnerability. 

Feeding someone else requires empathy, while being fed evokes vulnerability. 

Talking about problem solving makes our process as makers seem so rational, so closed ended.  But when we work at the edge of our growing limit, “problems” are in a state of constant transformation and are not usually solved once and for all.  We resolve certain aspects while discovering new areas to refine.  Personally, I’ve come to prefer to talk about attending paradox rather than about solving problems. 

When we attend paradox we accept that contradictory truths can coexist, and we encounter the unexpected, the incomprehensible.  The feeding vessels hold these truths:  You are separate from me, and you are within me.  Perhaps these feeding vessels can go beyond the physical, measurable world to satisfy our hunger for human relationships of mutual sustenance.  

Feeding vessels.

Feeding vessels.