giving bowls / sharing bowls

It was the coldest, bleakest part of this last winter. That was when my right arm was gripped with such intense pain that I had to stop working with the clay. I was not happy! The medical advice was to take a break for a month, but what was I going to do?  It turned out that this was an opportunity to completely rethink my making process. 

All my forms up to this point had been made by honing them into shape using a metal scraper held in my right hand, and it was the tension in doing that that had led to the pain. I loved that process, and I felt that the gradual refinement of the firms over many days was part of what people perceived in them. I thought that, in some way, it was the source of their calmness and what they communicated. So to be deprived of access to that process was a challenge to what I had come to believe the work was about.

But my commitment is not to the outcome of the making process, it is to the process itself – to try to find a rightness in the making process and see what that quality leads to in the finished pieces. Clearly the scraping that I enjoyed was not right for my arm, so could there be a new way of making that would involve less tension and more balance in my body? 

For some reason I had also been reflecting on my early days of recording wildlife sounds which eventually led to my first career in natural history radio. Thinking back to the child who stuck a microphone out of his bedroom window to record the garden bird song I realised how long I have had a fascination with recording the natural world in one way or another. I was thinking how clay also keeps a record of everything that happens to it until it is fired, at which point the story of its making is locked into its form and surface. Maybe thinking of the clay as a recording medium could lead to a new way of working.  And so it did. 

The Giving Bowls have now raised over £350 for the Stroud District Foodbank. I’m delighted. They seems to have found a real purpose in life, and their development is a story that is still giving life lessons to me.

A while ago I was thinking about the whole question of the value of the work – how to sell it, how to price it, and how to acknowledge the luxury of making and buying original art in a world where some can’t afford their household bills.  I was also aware that, by the time a piece is finished, it has already given so much to me. The experience of making is what motivates me, the finished piece is the outcome of my love of making.  Could I then charge for it too? 

That’s when I made the first giving bowls – bowls formed from a single ball of clay with the idea of giving them away.  I was thinking of leaving them out and about, unexplained, anonymously, for people to find – a kind of thank-you to the universe, and a challenge to the idea that everything has to have a monetary value and a way of making the work available to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it.    

I made 8 of them initially – each from a different type of clay – trying to follow with my hands what the clay wanted to do – to find the thickness at which it felt most comfortable, to let it produce its own natural surface, to discover the type of edge it inherently created.  All clays have their own personalities and I like exploring their different ways, to let the clay speak with the clarity and lack of inhibition that we artists pursue in our practice.  After the first firing they were all glazed with a simple white glaze that behaved differently on each surface. Rather than put a maker’s mark on the base I put a circle – it seemed to symbolise the circularity of giving and gratitude. I left my finger marks undisguised on the surface as they held the bowls in the bucket of glaze.  I liked what emerged and they sat on my shelf and prompted further conversations – both internal and with friends – about ownership, gratitude, and giving.  

At one time there was a grand idea to make a huge sort of art installation – 100 bowls left out in a public place under cover of darkness with a sign saying, these bowls were made for giving, and then filmed as people found and took them, and the story of the bowls maybe followed online via hashtags and all sorts.  A simple and genuine idea had turned into a theatrical project.  It felt wrong.  Gratitude and giving are small acts of humanity, not grandiose attention-seeking gestures.  

I also found that – as time passed – I didn’t really want to give them away!  I thought they were good work and maybe after all I did want some acknowledgment of my part in their creation.  And I have bills to pay;  if I’m going to keep making, the work has to generate an income.  On the other hand they had emerged from gratitude and I had told them/myself/the Universe that they would not simply be sold in the same way as other pieces.  I didn’t feel I could just change my mind and charge for them.

I made a further 12 bowls while the ideas simmered.  These were smaller and I played with slight variations in shape and openness to see how they felt. I liked these because the mark of my hand that dipped them in the glaze is completely visible when you look at the underneath.  And if you put your hand in the same place you are automatically holding out the bowl in a gesture of giving… and somewhere out of all of that emerged the possibility that the bowls could both be sold and could give simultaneously. 

So in the end the proceeds from the Giving Bowls have been shared 50/50 with our local Stroud District Foodbank.  Maybe they are sharing bowls rather than giving bowls. Maybe that’s the lesson for me – that there is a balance in all of this.  To give them away anonymously would have been an extreme position.  To deny the role I have in making them would have been to deny our individual agency in the world.  And yet to claim full ownership of and credit for the inspiration or the making abilities would be to deny that these are themselves gifts from the Universe. 

As I write this there are seven or 8 bowls left to sell.  I loved the process of coaxing them from a simple ball of clay and I think I’ll return to that in future, but I might just keep a couple from this first batch, just for now, and see if there’s anything more that they want to share.

2 Responses

    1. Thanks, Debs. I think these are beautiful things to explore… like finding the form that already exists in the stone, we are trying to see beyond the apparent surface of life to see the form within

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