One-click access to over 250 makers through the Online Artists Directory! Explore Now ×

The Village Potter

The Village Potter

The Village Potter

April/May 2014 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Clay
Michael Strand

In a "post-object world," Michael Strand uses craft as a catalyst for connection. Photo: Steve Niedorf

We all have a misfit cup in our cupboard. It’s nondescript – or maybe it’s strikingly ugly. It’s chipped – or it’s in perfect condition. We just don’t ever reach for it, and yet we hold on. Why?

It’s the kind of soul-searching, conversation-starting question ceramist/activist Michael Strand loves – a way to “dig deep” into the role and meaning of objects in our lives.

A few years ago, to explore these ideas, he started the Misfit Cup Liberation Project. It works like this: You give him your misfit cup, along with something you’ve written about it. Cup and story become part of a collection or “orphanage” in his care. In return, he gives you a ceramic cup he’s thrown by hand. You undergo a kind of  catharsis, letting go of the misfit and whatever it held for you, replacing it with a new object that still carries the memory, but in a different way.

At first Strand made colorful soda-fired cups, but lately he favors muted, “contemplative” pastel glazes. With more than 400 cups and stories collected so far, Strand  aims to take the project worldwide, culminating in an exhibition and book. He’s already brought it to Tallinn, Estonia (where a woman proudly proffered her last government-issue cup from the old Soviet occupation), with Amsterdam next on his itinerary. But it was at the first gathering of about 100 participants in his hometown of Fargo, North Dakota, that he experienced one of the best moments of his artistic life.

“So this gentleman shows up and blows my mind, right?” says Strand, an engaging storyteller with the droll, amiable delivery of a comedian doing observational standup.

“He’s brought this nondescript plastic cup with a black handle, and it’s got his inmate number engraved on the bottom. He wrote his thing and he put it up there, and it  was this beautiful story about how he’d used this cup in prison every day, and now, three years out of prison, this was his chance to move on with his life.”

As Strand tells it, the response was strange and wonderful. “People started circling around his cup, right? – I still get goose bumps talking about this – and he was there, and we embraced. It was very, very moving.”

Two transformations took place: for the man releasing the cup and all it meant to him, and a palpable shift in the attitude of the crowd. “He’d titled the cup ‘ex-con,’ and people have an association with that. In this case it was, ‘Wow, what a strong human being.’ ”

This, he believes, is the power of craft: It’s not just about the object, but what happens around it.

“Designing the space between object and humanity” is a mission for Strand, 44, who calls himself a “village potter” – the village in this case being that of shared human experience. Whether he’s dropping off cups on doorsteps in rural communities as a random act of kindness or crafting a cup to be shared among leaders from different religions in a project he calls Cupumenical, he sees his various outreach projects as a way to make the world a better place, one interaction at a time.  

“What ails us is a lack of an understanding of human scale in what we do,” Strand says. Too often we see others as groups or types, not individuals, resulting in a failure to communicate. “This is pretty classic – what, social distance theory? Whatever. It’s easy to hate somebody you in no way know, right? You objectify them, and you hate,” he says. “So there is a political edge to this. It’s not quite do-good. It’s more like how, by creating a common experience across cultures and demographics – like this cup in your cabinet – can I begin to create links of understanding between people?”

As an advocate for craft, Strand is convinced that mining this experiential vein is important in a “post-object world,” where technology means we no longer need handmade items just to get through daily life. Consumers, he suggests, continue to want handcrafted things because we perceive them as “warm” – for how they look, yes, but more for the human experience they embody. Meanwhile, also thanks to technology, we’ve gotten used to participation, be it on social media or by scanning our own groceries. What it all amounts to, he says, is great relevance and opportunity for craftspeople.

“We don’t have to invent the way in which people actually interact with what we make. As a painter, as a sculptor, you have to invent these frameworks that sometimes become overbearing or elaborate. A cup is pretty damn simple. It’s as basic as the moment that we formed clay to extend our hand while we’re dipping it in a stream of water, right? So seamlessly and unassumingly interactive.”

That description could well apply to Strand, a people person to his core. All his life, he says, he’s had an overwhelming drive to connect with and help others. Part of it came from his mother, a community activist and advocate for children, who taught him “the foundation of everything is relationship.” Growing up in Fargo, he used his natural social skills as a newspaper delivery boy from age 9 to 16, dealing with customers along his rural route. Later, he excelled as a part-time clothing salesman at a big-and-tall store (Strand himself is a burly 6’4”). “It was the best job I ever had. My goal was always to transform the local farmer, get him to wear a funky tie.”

Not surprisingly, he originally wanted to be a therapist. He enrolled as a psychology major at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Then, in his senior year, he took a ceramics course, and halfway through the semester, it hit him: This was it, his calling. So he re-booted, eventually getting a BFA in ceramics and an MA in painting from St. Cloud, and later an MFA in ceramics from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. Michelle, the high-school sweetheart he married at 20, was with him all the way, with loving support that continues to this day. (She’s now a physics teacher, and they have two young sons.)

After graduate school, Strand spent several years in Lincoln, directing the education program at the Lux Center for the Arts, while doing his own pottery at a cooperative clay studio he started. He was productive and successful, despite having developed, he says, a problem with alcohol. “One day, I woke up and I prayed. I said, ‘I have two choices. Either I’m going to be awesome or I’m going to die. So let me know what I should do here.’ ” It was two days before the birth of his second son, 10 years ago, and Strand hasn’t had a drink since. “If you want to know the point of departure, where I knew exactly where I needed to go – to connect to people  – that was it.”

With a new sense of freedom and energy, he set out to follow his mother’s example and “do something good” with his life. “The moment I became sober, I thought, ‘This is my chance to really fulfill and understand what Mom was talking about. I am a maker, and I love people, and I’m going to figure this all out.’ ” Soon after that epiphany, he was offered a job at Midland Lutheran College in Fremont, Nebraska, and two years later moved to Concordia University, where he taught and ran the Center for Liturgical Art. (He describes himself as a practicing Lutheran, with an interest in Native American spirituality via his Ojibwa great-grandmother.)

In 2009, two years after his mother died, he “came home” to Fargo and a position at North Dakota State University, where he is associate professor and head of the visual arts department, and founder/director of the EngageU art and social practice research organization.

Having found his place and purpose, Strand is happily devising new projects all the time. (Once a year, as a kind of mini-sabbatical, he retreats to his studio for two weeks to make “these intensely internalized, solitary drawings” on terra sigillata clay tablets.) Bowls Around Town, a recent collaboration with the Museum of
Contemporary Craft in Portland, Oregon, sent his bowls, plus a camera and journal, circulating through the community, to families, foodie groups, fire stations, even public library patrons. Everyone who hosted a bowl used it as part of a meal featuring a favorite recipe, which they recorded in words and photos. Strand wants to expand the project beyond Portland, for a community-curated cookbook.

Next, he’ll try to find out if a cup can change the national dialogue. For his Cuplomacy Project, he’s making 100 cups and saucers, enlisting “cuplomats” from every state to personally deliver them to their U.S. senators, along with instructions for each senator to sit down for tea or coffee with a colleague from the other party. At a time when Americans feel a sense of division and disconnect from Washington, Strand is giving voice to “what we’ve all been saying in a variety of ways, which is ‘Just sit down and talk.’ ”

Idealistic? Sure, he admits. But what if it works?

“There is a kind of naïve simplicity about it, right? Something wacky about this stuff extending from a potter in Fargo, North Dakota. From Fargo! It’s a little bit like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – ‘Ya know, I’m just going to make these cups and everything’ll get a little bit better,’ ” Strand says in his best Upper-Midwestern-earnest-everyman voice.

He chuckles, then adds, “And I actually have the optimism that it could.”