Transitional Shapes, Traditional Functions
There’s a theory that in early human evolution, it wasn’t the spear that came first, but the vessel (Le Guin). How can you store or carry hunted meat without a sling or a bag? Even before that, how can you carry water, berries, or children? Regardless of timing, throughout human history we have always needed to contain things. One of the most common ways, to this day, to carry or contain our food and possessions is through ceramics.
For this KMA Picks, we’ll be exploring part of the Kennedy Museum of Art’s ceramic collection with an emphasis on containers. Not only do each of the pieces reference “containing”, but because of their differences in form, each piece also has something different to say about the idea of “containing”. In order to discuss the differences in function, we’ll be walking through various forms, from plate to teapot, by noting the gradual changes in shape that lead one type of object to the next.
We hope you enjoy this KMA Picks post! It has been a wonderful chance to learn about the breadth of ceramic art the museum has. I am grateful to Sally Delgado, the curator of education, and the rest of the KMA education team for their feedback and assistance with this project, as well as Akira Jakkson for assistance in photographing works.
Carrie Summerford, Educational Programs Assistant.
While a plate is not a vessel because it does not enclose a space, it is a good starting point to talk about the act of “carrying”. A plate is usually flat, if not slightly rounded, and makes a good surface for solid food. Without obstructing walls, a plate can easily display, serve, or allow access to the bounty it holds. Not only is it good for showing off whatever it is carrying, but the large flat surface also makes the plate great for depicting ideas through image or design.
White on White
A quintessential example of a plate, large, flat, and open.
Amy Smith (1975-) and Simon Levin
Stoneware and porcelain
Here Amy Smith and Simon Levin expand on the idea of a plate from the previous piece. While it is still a plate, is no longer intended to be functional. Instead of holding food, it displays concepts: waves, the idea of water, and earth.
Compared to a plate, a bowl is usually somewhat less wide and has walls that are much taller, forming a basin. Whereas a plate is unable to hold a lot of liquid, a bowl is perfectly suited for fluids. Like a plate, the entire interior surface is still visible, meaning the bowl can “hold” visual ideas alongside physical objects and liquids.
Unlike a flat plate, which more so suggests two sides like a coin, a bowl introduces the idea of inside and outside, since the walls separate the space inside the bowl from the space around it.
Diego Romero (1964-)
While this bowl would structurally be perfectly functional, the artist Diego Romero has chosen to use the inside space as a canvas for ideas as well.
Mieke Everaet (1963-)
Bourdaloue Vessel 1
Here Mieke Everaet plays with the traditional form of a bowl by adding a second belly.
Charles McWeeny (1956)
These bowls, while not meant to be used functionally, demonstrate another appeal of the round shape: storage of pottery.
Starting with the form of a bowl, one can imagine a transition to a vase by elongating the walls further and narrowing the opening, creating a neck.
If a plate forms the idea of a bottom, and a bowl forms the idea of sides, then a vase starts to define a top. Although not quite closed off, the neck obstructs the interior surface, and it is no longer easily visible. Additionally, since the inside is no longer easily accessible, the form’s function shifts from serving/eating to storing. One of the most common usages for a vase is to store water so cut plants can be kept fresh.
Tony Pena, Juanita Motoya Pena
San Ildefonso Vase
In contrast to Diego Romero’s bowl, which featured designs on the inside of the pot, this vase by Tony and Juanito Montoya Pena features designs on the outside, as the viewer is no longer able to see in.
Mikang Lim (1961-)
Another highly decorated vase, Mikang Lim references what one might use a vase for.
Adding a lid to a vase closes off the top section completely. Jars and pots, the types of ceramics that often have lids, function for containing. They are often much wider than a vase, and lack a neck, but also have a much narrower opening than a bowl and are more voluminous.
A lid blocks off the only opening to a vessel, for safekeeping. Nothing can get in or out, and the distinction between inside and outside is fully defined.
Without the lid, this jar appears very similar to a vase, however the addition of a lid changes its purpose. Now, instead of displaying objects (such as food), the vessel is meant to enclose and contain them.
Detail image: A jar can also contain ideas just like a bowl. Since the viewer wouldn’t be able to see drawings or design on the inside, concepts can be communicated through the types of 3-dimensional objects placed inside a jar. The long white items in this jar have unknown significance, but they are permanently fused to the inside.
Unknown Yoruba artist
Lidded Cooking Pot
Another example of how a lid can be useful, this Yoruba cooking pot is meant to contain food, but also heat or steam for cooking.
Unknown Laguna artist
Laguna Pueblo Seed Pot
Although this Laguna seed pot has no lid,the seed pot shape aims to achieve a similar goal: total containment. Once seeds go in, they are very difficult to remove. This particular pot is meant to be decorative, but it would functionally work the same as a less decorated seed pot.
A plate is completely open, and a lidded jar is completely closed, where is left to go in the sequence? Open the vessel back up! A teapot is very much like any other pot, except for the addition of a spout. This spout allows water, which would otherwise be entirely contained, to escape again from a different exit. The water then has a new path, often physically changed (into tea) from its time inside a vessel.
Martin Mohwald (1954-)
A teapot has a specific function, to brew and serve tea. Although the functional intention is very narrow, many ceramicists find the specialized construction to be a fascinating question of design. How does one make the perfect teapot?
The teapot, as it has many elements including a handle, body, and spout, is an apt form to experiment with design. Even if this teapot is hardly functional, it riffs on the traditional shape to communicate style.
Gail Busch (1958-)
These teapots are not meant to hold tea and serve a different purpose. In this case, not only is the design of each teapot stylized, but the stacking of the forms also heightens the sculptural intent of the work.
We hope you have enjoyed this KMA Picks! Of course, there are many more techniques, materials, types of vessels, and variations on the named forms than what we have listed. If you would like to see more of the museum’s ceramic collection, feel free to visit our website (https://www.ohio.edu/museum/art/collections) and keep your eyes peeled for any in-person exhibitions that feature ceramics.
Sources: Le Guin, Ursula K. Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. S.L., Ignota Books, 2020.