Celebration Vases

by Emily Schroeder Willis

It’s always curious to me how images and information resurface in odd ways in your work.  Sometimes the results are immediate, other times they percolate a bit more in your memory showing up in surprising ways.  In 2009 I visited Germany for 6 weeks.  During that trip, I went to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin, snapping photos of all sorts of forms and objects interesting me.  One particular group of work was their ancient Greek Amphora’s.  I was intrigued by their imagery, their text and the context of creation; how these beautiful vessels were trophies given away to champions as prizes for accomplishments in sports competitions.  Not thinking of this as immediate fodder for my work, this information was tucked away and the photos shelved within a file overflowing with information rarely revisited. 

A photo of one of the Greek Crator's from the Chicago Art Institute I walk by each day.

A photo of one of the Greek Crator's from the Chicago Art Institute I walk by each day.

A photo I took of one of the Greek Amphora from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

A photo I took of one of the Greek Amphora from the Pergamon Museum in Berlin

In 2014, I began teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.  Unbeknownst to me, the School (and more specifically the ceramics department) is actually part of the same structure as the Museum.  Not all days, but quite often, I would choose to walk through the museum portion before my classes.  In doing so, you must pass through the ancient Greek and Roman art.  I would constantly gaze at the handles, the forms, the ways the images were broken up on the surfaces of the work.  Again, tucking all of this visual and historical information away.

While this was occurring, my husband and I had been trying unsuccessfully to have a child.  In the process of those years, we went through 4 miscarriages and 1 failed IVF treatment.  We were told by several doctors we would never be able to have kids and gave us less than a 5% chance it would ever happen. To be quite frank, at times it became very difficult to continue my studio practice.  All of the objects I made seemed quite banal and uninteresting to me, completely out of place from where I was mentally.  I fell into a rut of making to make.  During that period of time, I was either recovering emotionally from the trauma of loosing yet another baby or suffering from the anxiety of feeling like my window for this opportunity was closing fast.  In the fall of 2014, I found out I was pregnant for the fifth time. Not being optimistic about the outcome, I acted as though nothing would come of this, the emotional heartbreak was too much to bear.

But on June 1st, I gave birth to healthy and very happy little boy, Luke Willis.  He is a miracle bringing excitement and joy into our daily routines and life.  A month after he was born, I was back in the studio working with him by my side.  Looking at him, I thought about how incredible this was, this unexpected child gift and how during my pregnancy I never gave myself a chance to celebrate this little being.  Simply put, I lived in 9 months of constant fear.  With relief finally in my grasp, I wanted to allow myself to fully feel and experience this moment in time.  I wrote down in my sketchbook: “Make Celebration Vases”. 

 I chewed on that for several days, not sure of where to go with that idea. What does a “Celebration Vase” look like?  I started thinking about the trophy amphora from the Greeks, with their purpose being centered around a physically demanding event only then celebrated in creation of a beautiful ceramic vase form for the victor.  I created a few standard vase shapes and began exploring their forms in a different way through the handle construction.  Suddenly, I had my “Celebration Vases”.  Having a child had been my marathon, my grueling event putting my life, my body, my emotional being through several years of intense strain. And with that said, this work is dedicated to my little Luke; every day my heart bursts with love and joy simply looking on his tiny face.