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What’s in a Vessel?

What’s in a Vessel?

Five artists describe the construction of their extraordinary vessels and reveal what they hold.
Feature Article

What’s in a Vessel?

Five artists describe the construction of their extraordinary vessels and reveal what they hold.
Spring 2023 issue of American Craft magazine
Miniature glass blown pitchers.

Photos courtesy of Kiva Ford.

Functional mop bucket made of stoneware.

Photo courtesy of Juan Barroso.

Honoring the Janitor

Stoneware clay, bolts, underglaze

Biggest challenge:
Getting all the pieces to work together so the mop bucket is functional

Size: 23 x 23 x 14 in.

Honoring the Janitor is made of coil-built stoneware fired to cone 5 in an electric kiln. The coils of the main bucket were scored, slipped together, and the surface smoothed with my finger and then a rubber rib tool. It was a challenge to get the proportions of about 20 different parts accurate enough for them to fit and move together well. I wanted the mop bucket to be functional, all the way down to rotating wheels.

The wheels were wheel-thrown, and the mechanism that squeezes the mop was made with small slabs. Hidden bolts allow the movement between parts. To reflect the overlooked labor of janitors, I hand-painted the image of a janitor on a small corner of the bucket using underglaze and a tiny watercolor brush.

I want to use my work to help humanize the immigrant and honor immigrant labor. This vessel was inspired by the labor of the janitors in schools, whose presence and labor often go unnoticed or unappreciated. Before my mother became a legal resident of the US, she cleaned houses and drove around with a bright pink vinyl sign that read, “Lucy’s House Cleaning Services.” Because I observed a lack of respect for the janitor at school, I was embarrassed by that sign.

Headshot of Juan Barroso

Photo courtesy of Juan Barroso.

Years later, while working the closing shift at Michaels, I was mopping the restrooms as clean as my mom would have left them. I realized then the dignity with which she worked to provide food and a decent education for my sister and me. I also realized that learning to work hard and blend in was a part of the undocumented immigrant experience. At times, it may be a response to the fear of deportation and the hope of more time to pursue the American dream.

The mop bucket holds the story of my family and a reflection of the immigrant experience. My favorite part about this vessel is its ability to start conversations about immigrant labor, conversations that may help break down the line separating people into an us-or-them mentality.◆

Juan Barroso was born in Oklahoma City and grew up in San Miguel Octopan, Guanajuato, Mexico. He received his BFA in art at the University of Oklahoma and his MFA in ceramics from the University of North Texas in Denton. His ceramic work is represented by Companion Gallery in Humboldt, Tennessee. Barroso currently lives and works in Jackson, Tennessee. | @juan_barroso_art

Miniature glass blown pitcher.

Photo courtesy of Kiva Ford.

Tiny pitcher

Materials: Green borosilicate glass

Biggest challenge: Being extra precise so as not to destroy the glass

Size: 1.75 x 1 x1 in.

Fingers like fine machines twirl molten glass inches from a 5,000-degree flame. Absolute focus is needed to control this capricious and unforgiving material. One wrong move can result in a destroyed piece of glass or a trip to the emergency room.

Gravity, breath, fire, and graphite were the tools needed to shape this tiny, intricate borosilicate glass pitcher.

I began making miniatures when I lived in Jersey City. Friends often said they loved my larger works, which include intricate sculptures, but had no room for them in their small apartments. I was inspired to make works that could exist in any space and still embody the beauty and perfection that I seek in my forms.

Over the years, making miniature vessels has turned into a type of meditation for me. It brings me into the present and allows me to focus on balancing creation and observation. This is because when I make miniatures, I never have a shape in mind until I begin to heat the glass. I react to the glass as it moves and try to keep my mind a blank canvas. The creator uses skill and craft to bring the object to life, while the observer must listen to the material and feel what it wants to do. I find that I do the best work when I am able to achieve this balance.

To create this pitcher, I heated the glass until it became molten and then I shaped it using basic, minimal tools, which can be tricky when working in miniature. I love its handle. It was challenging to get an elegant sweeping handle with flawless seals connected to the pitcher.

In a way, this is the physical manifestation of my ideal vessel. I am a big fan of Plato’s theory of Forms, which says, roughly, that forms live somewhere transcendent to humankind and creators have to reach into the ether and bring these ideal forms into the physical world.

My formal training as a scientific glassblower and decades of work in the field have given me the precision needed to create such intricate works. By day, I manage a scientific glassblowing shop for a major university and work with scientists to create unique custom glassware for research—from particle detection tubes to optical cells for dark matter research. It is incredibly rewarding as a craftsman to be able to contribute to scientific research.

Scientific glassblowers are trained to make handmade items look like they were machine made. The goal is always for flawless work. I enjoy the never-ending quest for the perfect piece of glass.◆

Kiva Ford’s passion for glass is anchored by his degree in scientific glassblowing from Salem Community College in New Jersey. He has collaborated with scientists at top universities and research institutions throughout the United States. His sculptures, goblets, pendants, and vessels have been featured by the New York Times, the Corning Museum of Glass, and the Glass Art Society. | @kivafordglass

Photo of Kiva Ford heating glass.

Photo courtesy of Kiva Ford.

Close up image of a sterling silver urn.

Photos by Cole Rogers Photography.

Full view of pendant necklace.

Photos by Cole Rogers Photography.

Plan B amphora pendant

Materials: Oxidized sterling silver

Biggest challenge: Connecting the chain to the bottom piece of the urn.

Size: 2.25 x 1.25 in.

I originally designed this amphora pendant in the early 1990s. I had been working on a series of pendants that were wearable objects. This had been my inspiration: to create truly sculptural pieces that were also functional. All of the works had chains within them that could be pulled out by another form that nestled on the top—much like a bottle and its cap. Most of the pieces were vessels of some sort, but not traditional vessel or urn-like forms.

At the time, I was a new mother and deeply sensitive to not only women’s (and my) fertility, but also to how we become vessels ourselves, when carrying a child. Vessels can protect what they hold, as an unborn child is protected by being inside the womb.

When the Plan B Art Project was initiated, with the goal of drawing attention to the state of reproductive rights, I immediately thought of these early pieces and what I might contribute. It was suggested that I use an amphora as a form to work with, as it relates so directly to the message the project seeks to communicate: that women’s bodies are their own and we have the right to choose and be safe and healthy in doing so.

Photo of artist Didi Suydam.

Photos by Cole Rogers Photography.

The irony of wanting to protect one’s unborn child while at the same time believing in the right to terminate a pregnancy is not lost on me. It’s a poignantly emotional dichotomy that women struggle with.

I love working in and have an affinity for metal. The parts of this amphora pendant are cast from original metal models I created by hand. The material is oxidized sterling silver with a hand-sanded finish. Connecting the chain to the bottom piece of the urn was the most challenging aspect of the work and had to be done before I assembled and soldered the pieces together.

I felt compelled to incorporate the IUD into my piece—thus, the “T” form that serves as the cap to the amphora. (The original amphora was topped with a pearl connected to the chain.) This is to draw attention to the fact that the use of birth control is also being restricted in the United States. Many women feared that when Roe v. Wade was overturned, the IUD would become illegal, deeming any woman using it a murderer.◆

Didi Suydam received her MFA degree in jewelry/light metals from the Rhode Island School of Design. She has exhibited and sold her work in galleries and shops internationally and has been featured in books and publications including Metalsmith, Metropolis, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and the New York Times. | @didisuydamcontemporary

Pottery structure impaled with pieces of shard.

Photo by Jamie Young.

Boilermaker: Tweet

Materials: Red earthenware clay, white terra sigillata, ceramic shards, nails.

Biggest challenge: Impaling the leather-hard clay with sharp ceramic shards.

Size: 13 x 10 x 11 in.

My Boilermaker series is largely inspired by the voluminous features and impaled surfaces of nkisi nkondi. These power figures, originally from the Congo region in West Africa, were used to affirm oaths and ward off evil. Because of colonialism, these objects made their way into Western consciousness as looted artifacts.

This pint-sized figurative vessel, Boilermaker: Tweet, honors my family history as well. My father and uncles worked as boilermakers—tradespeople/welders who build, maintain, and repair boilers. My older brother and several cousins and nephews still do. I am from Pittsburgh, an old steel town, and although the city reinvented itself many times over since its industrial decline in the 1970s, four generations of Bey boilermakers exist in my hometown.

Of course, the physiognomy of the central mask-like face is consistent with West African sculptural conventions, but I also wanted to express the anguish of the ever-toiling and overworked laborer, so I sculpted it roughly from a very coarse clay I acquired years ago from a brickyard in North Carolina. I love that my fingerprints are so visible in the clay.

Each of my sculptures is structured around a central pottery form. Boilermaker: Tweet is built around a single rose vase form I first saw my friend and mentor, David MacDonald, throw during a demonstration in the late 1980s. After throwing the vase using a low-fire red earthenware clay, I flipped it over, added a wheel-thrown coil to the bottom, and then coated the entire piece with white terra sigillata (made from OM4 ball clay). I then impaled the vessel with countless nails and shards of previous works that I found while rummaging in attics, garages, basements, and the homes of relatives.

I often rediscover and repurpose shards and components of earlier works. For example, I originally made the face and feet in 1999–2000. I stored these fragments in a shoebox and kept track of them for nearly two decades before they emerged as integral parts of this series.

The porcelain shards incorporated into Boilermaker: Tweet are fragments from Syracuse China, a large manufacturer of hotel and institutional ceramics based in the city where I live. The factory closed in 2009, part of the shift away from manufacturing in the US economy. The shards can be seen as emblematic of this shift, while also speaking to the longevity and domesticity of ceramics.

After impaling this vessel’s leather-hard vase with countless nails and shards, I dried it slowly and then fired it to cone 04. The zinc coating burned off the nails, leaving a black crusty residue. The natural rust of the nails and resulting iron oxide stain on the white matte undersurface is the result of a cold finish. In multiple settings, I sprayed the metal with a solution of hydrogen peroxide, salt, and distilled white vinegar. Eventually it began to rust, and the rusty solution bled into the white vase. It is all in the process.◆

Sharif Bey is a Syracuse, New York–based artist and educator. He studied sculpture at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia, and earned his BFA from Slippery Rock University, his MFA from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and his PhD in art education from Penn State University. Bey’s work is represented in museum collections throughout the United States. | @sharifceramics

Artist Sharif Bey working on a sculpture.

Photo by Amanda Wilkey.

Woven leather moonjar.

Photo courtesy of Hyunsoo Alice Kim.

Woven Moonjar

Materials: Leather strips, silver wires

Biggest challenge: Supporting the weight of the woven pieces while maintaining a curve.

Size: 13 x 13 in.

Drawn to the traditional moonjar’s modesty, roughness, asymmetry, and beauty of curve, I began exploring this form from a third-person perspective, learning Korean aesthetics for the first time as a stranger—I was born in Korea and spent many years living abroad as a modern nomad—and through the eyes of a textile artist.

I define Korean aesthetics as modesty, the beauty of curve, pragmatism (efficiency), and harmony with nature, all of which are prevalent in Korean traditional culture—from music to fashion to architecture. Due to the flourishing of scholarly culture and Confucianism in the 17th-century Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910), Koreans valued modesty as a supreme virtue. This idea of modesty not only influenced the language and culture, but also inspired the fashion of making. Contrary to Europe during the Renaissance, which boasted of its wealth with splendid architecture and fashion, the display of wealth in Korea was taboo. Artisans therefore avoided dazzling decoration, placing a high value on maximizing the utilization of material property.

While my Woven Moonjar employs the traditional moonjar’s hue and form, deriving from the virtue of modesty and the beauty of curve, what distinguishes my work from others of its kind is its use of the material’s inherent qualities.

Artist Hyunsoo Alice Kim working on a woven moonjar.

Photo by Studio Munch.

The woven moonjar utilizes various textile-based materials and construction techniques, while at the same time paying homage to traditional ceramic moonjar construction methods. Leather strips, and in some cases silver wires, were woven into a lightweight and portable object through the process of braiding, coiling, and knitting. Unlike working with clay, which adheres to itself, supporting the weight of the woven pieces while maintaining a curved form presented a challenge during the crafting process.

This idea of transportability emerged from my countless experiences transporting weighty artworks and delicate pottery from continent to continent as a modern nomad.◆

Hyunsoo Alice Kim is a multidisciplinary artist, researcher, and educator based in New York and Seoul. Her art and research have been invited to numerous international exhibitions and conferences. Kim holds a BFA in textiles from Rhode Island School of Design and an MS in textiles from Philadelphia University. She is a doctoral candidate and adjunct instructor at Columbia University. | @studio_alice

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