Three Views on Dinnerware
  A Ceramics Monthly Portfolio

by Patricia Glave, Andy Martin and Dick Lehman. Only Dick Lehman's contribution is reprinted below.

Dinnerware as Metaphor

When we create dinnerware, we work with a variety of criteria. At opposing ends of the spectrum are technical aspects (how we do it), and motivation (why we do it). While these are quite different concerns, they are of necessity related. If we are successful with the "how-to," good utilitarian tableware is the result. But if the "why" is well integrated, the work begins to point beyond itself.

Technical aspects of my dinnerware production are at once straightforward and simple: Porcelain slabs are made by slapping clay down repeatedly, before laying them into individually-made molds. The slab is "slammed" into place by gently dropping the mold four or five times, rotating 90 degrees after each drop. The plasticity of the Grolleg porcelain body I use allows the clay to stretch to fill the form. Next, the rim is flattened with a rolling pin, stretch marks are smoothed with a sponge, and an approximate rim is cut with a needle tool. Final rim definition is hand-cut at the leather-hard state. (A similar production method was described in "Styrofoam Press Molds," by Scott Frankenberger, in the September 1982 Ceramics Monthly.)

Decoration is accomplished with stains and oxides brushed over the raw glaze. A Cone 9 reduction firing follows. When luster accents are needed, a Cone 015 oxidation firing is added.

The technical process is simple, but as time passes, I am finding that my motivations for making dinnerware are increasingly complex. To my surprise, I am discovering similarities between the qualities of the historic building in which I work, and the motivation and concerns that inform this dinnerware.

My studio is located in a factory erected during the 1890's. The post, beam and brick structure was built to last. Its "slow-burning-mill" construction, distinguished by the dense and oversized wooden infrastructure, was state-of-the-art fire safety in its day. And its open layout has accommodated a variety of needs with a kind of timeless architectural foresight that tends not to go out of style. Over the years, the structure has been home to four quite different business pursuits: a soap factory in its beginnings, two different bag factories, and now a center housing ten fine arts and crafts businesses.

By virtue of its longevity, the building carries with it a sense of history which both accompanies and transcends time. Particularly noticeable is the "advertising," painted in huge letters, encompassing the exterior of the building. As it turns out, a former owner, in a effort to capitalize on the captive audience of a nearby passenger rail line, used the building as a giant billboard. And yet not altogether in a mercenary fashion: each end of the building sports in bold lettering "bagology," an obviously made-up word which both suggested just how seriously they took their bag making, but which also dared to poke a bit of fun at themselves and coax a smile from the rail passengers riding by.

The artists/craftspeople who now work at the Old Bag Factory, as the center is called, create and sell their products on site. All strive for outstanding quality and creativity — work that mirrors the durability, quality and integrity of the building that houses them.

The shops are open and accessible to the public — there can be interaction with the artists/craftspeople. Benefits to this design are mutual: the public seems to appreciate the proximity of creation to creator (perhaps reminiscent of an earlier, less depersonalized time in retailing); similarly, we artists benefit from the public's immediate feedback, which contributes to the quality and integrity of our products.

In my claywork, I try to pay careful attention to detail; to pursue the integrity which links process and product. However, I try not to be so serious or single-minded that I have no time for that great leveler: humor.

And, of course, in spite of all the control and care, pot making is still completely a relational activity — a kind of dance between clay and potter. Making dinnerware is a relational experience. If not, the results are neither inspiring nor persuasive. Only the potter's presence allows work to transcend the sterility of "department store dinnerware" (however well-made) with its slip-cast and hydraulic-pressed and (might I add) dishonest "throwing rings".

When we as potters are accessible, when we share the works of our hands with others, we and our work enter the arena of connectedness.

Dinnerware, perhaps, more than other utilitarian claywork, has the capacity to move from "product/object" to "metaphor" — connecting between things well known and those barely known (to paraphrase an idea from photographer Robert Adams).

Dinnerware naturally brings people together around the most communal necessities of life: sustenance and nurture. And one strength of pots as metaphor is that they not only point beyond themselves, but they are also with us now. Fine dinnerware has the potential for helping us to find, even though in a small way, affection for life and beauty in living.

If dinnerware does not imply something beyond a set of utilitarian tableware, then the work will likely hold neither our attention nor our passion for more than a passing moment.

An article I read recently suggested that in 25 years the sit-down, home-cooked family meal at the end of the day will be a thing of the past. I hope the writer is wrong, and not simply because mealtime together is perhaps of traditional or romantic value. I hope the writer is wrong because mealtimes and their attending preparation take time. And relatedness always takes more time than alienation; the making of beauty, more time and care than the making of ugliness.

About this portfolio "The Evocative Placesetting," a juried national exhibition of dinnerware, was presented recently at Martha Schneider Gallery in Highland Park, Illinois. From the slides submitted, Ceramics Monthly editor William Hunt selected the ware of three potters - Patricia Glave, Dick Lehman, and Andy Martin - for presentation along with the gallery's stable of three dinnerware producers - Stanley Mace Andersen, Dorothy Hafner, and Vicki Stone. This portfolio is concerned with the first three, artists whose work has received little major coverage previously. Their works represent a broad slice of current directions in functional dinnerware, an aspect of ceramics that appears to be enjoying a resurgence of interest as studio potters respond to public demand for innovation and style as well as utility. Industrial potteries, too, have responded in recent years with variations of their own, often mimicking the look of the handmade through mass production, thus demonstrating just how compelling is the art of the studio ceramics movement worldwide.

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the October 1989 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, 1989. All rights reserved.