Treasures Made of Clay
Five years ago, I came home from the thrift shop with a rare treasure. At least, it was a treasure to me. I am enamored with hand thrown pottery and especially pottery that has been glazed well. On this particular day, I hit the jackpot. For a pittance, this well crafted and beautifully glazed bowl joined my small but growing collection of “Art Pieces”.
I love the idea that the “spirit of the artist” is infused in handmade items and this bowl was especially clever and fun. It instantly became the showpiece of my collection and I displayed it carefully in my china cabinet as eye-candy. I kept it dust-free year after year.
A Young William Morris at Heart
It wasn’t until yesterday, when I was struggling to declutter the knick-knacks in our home, that my teen son’s insight stopped me in my tracks. Although I have parted with most of my little dust collectors, I still have enough to clutter my visual field. I was determined to cull the herd, but I hit a wall trying to downsize my pottery collection. In this area, I find every piece to be uniquely beautiful. As I stood pondering which items I might part with, my son simply pointed to my prized bear bowl and asked, “Why don’t you use it?”
Use it?? What a concept!! Actually using the bowl for what it was intended?! I suddenly realized I had a mini-museum on my hands…look but don’t touch. Beautiful pottery that would serve as a backdrop of visual interest but would never be used for the purpose for which it was designed.
William Morris and Utilitarian Art
I once studied the work and philosophy of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement. At the turn of the century, automation allowed for the production of cheap goods in abundance, but the beauty and quality of traditional handmade crafts was vanishing from the lives of the common man. Morris’ dream was to produce handcrafted items that would allow common laborers to enjoy the same beauty and quality in their homes as the wealthy enjoyed. Morris’ mantra, still popular today, was “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”
As I began to embrace minimalism as a lifestyle, I attempted to balance my love for art and the uniqueness of handmade objects with a self-imposed boundary fashioned in the spirit of Morris. The items I own must be beautiful or at least useful. If they don’t fit either parameter, out they go. Easy enough… or so I thought.
The Truth Usually Lies Somewhere In Between
This particular bowl challenged the cross-point where those two parameters collide. What if an item is both? Do you treat it as art, and simply look at it? Or use it as a utilitarian piece? Why do people wrap their furniture in plastic and never sit on it?
My bear bowl is so unique, the choice to keep it was clear for me. But I realized the dogmatic either/or choice I devised still left more eye-candy than I wished to curate. I love so many items for their beauty that I run the very real risk of over collecting. I’ve decided I don’t really want simple dust collectors in my home anymore. I want useful items that are also well designed.
No longer will I pigeon hole items as if they must fit into one category or the other. And I doubt Morris would have been so dogmatic either. If I have items of beauty that are also utilitarian, why not enjoy them? Why set them on a pedestal to be admired but never have the opportunity to enjoy the fine craftsmanship in a more tangible way? Using it would release the art from its static china cage and set it free to serve its humble purpose… to bring joy.
“But, I may break it!”, I protest.
My son (who is wiser than I) points out, “Isn’t that kind of like having a car and never driving it?”
Fly! Be Free!
Today, I retired some less attractive bowls and I took my little bear bowl out for a ‘spin’. I filled it with Crispy Oats, a few pecans, and a nice long splash of cold milk. I felt like a little kid with my favorite cereal bowl. I loved the weight of the bowl. I loved the cool sensation of the stoneware. And I loved having those little bear faces greet me as I spooned my way to the bottom. It was a small matter when compared to life, the universe, and everything. But somewhere out there, I think William Morris was nodding his approval.
So I say, if you cannot learn to love real art, at least learn to hate sham art and reject it. ~William Morris