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Matthew McGovern , Glen Arbor, Michigan

Matthew McGovern's three cups, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, porcelain, soda fired to cone 10.

Matthew McGovern's three cups, 7 in. (18 cm) in height, porcelain, soda fired to cone 10.

The main motivation behind any of my work is simply making and creating with my hands. I believe that, in a world full of anxiety and fear, immersed in an age that moves at a supercharged technological pace, beautiful handmade objects that promote spending time with ourselves, our friends, or our family are not only important, but are crucial to our spiritual well being. My highest aspiration as an artist is for my work to inspire these moments of personal and shared reflection for the owners/users.

When I started developing this form, I was in graduate school, and finding the time to sit down to a cup of coffee, tea, whiskey, or wine was becoming so infrequent that I thought of making an object to inspire me to do so. I was looking at wine cups and stands from the Korean Koryo dynasty and was struck by the way the stand gave the cup a place to reside that wasn’t the cabinet or the shelf. It occurred to me that, by giving utilitarian objects a home, I could give them a setting or context that would allow me to further explore both their formal and metaphorical aspects. Three Cups with Stands was developed from the memory of getting together with three very good friends of mine from college whom I now rarely see. When on display, the piece reminds me of those days, and the conversations we used to have over a bottle of wine.


This article was excerpted from Contemporary Functional Pottery: A Discussion of Handmade Pottery by 11 Working Potters, which is free to Ceramic Arts Daily subscribers.

For me, any object that I make has to be as beautiful as I can possibly make it. First and foremost, it must be impeccably made and the craft must never be rushed. Most of my work never completely lives up to my vision for it, and it always has room for improvement. Maybe the foot could have been a little taller or narrower, maybe the glaze could have been applied a little thicker, maybe the kiln could have been fired a little hotter with a bit less soda and a bit more carbon trapping. Success is always within a quarter inch. Secondly, when finished, the work has to be utilitarian. It must function with ease and with grace. It should not leak, drip, or want to fall over, and it should feel good, both in the hand and to the lips.

Making, beauty, and utilitarianism are all circled around each other. They are all starting points and places to end. If the piece meets these initial criteria, it still has not achieved true success. For me, true success is when someone purchases a piece and brings it home because they had to have it in their lives. When they come back and tell me that the piece has become an integral part of their daily lives or a part of a new tradition or that it’s the serving dish that they bring to every pot luck they go to, I know that the piece has fully succeeded. In some ways, the qualities that I imbue my work with are just a starting point; success comes when a piece makes someone’s life a little more beautiful or extraordinary.

I believe that ceramic artists need to be very careful when they start associating and defining their work with the terms ritual and ceremony. These two words have been in use by artists (myself included) for a long time in the wrong context. When I started graduate school and began making this work, I was completely engrossed with the idea that I was creating objects for daily rituals and social ceremonies. But ritual and ceremony are based around religion, spirit, language, form, time, place, participants, movements, and processions. As I delved deeper into my research on rituals and ritual objects, it became very apparent that what I deemed a daily ritual was actually a daily habit or a necessary action for survival. I am not saying that daily rituals and ceremonies don’t exist anymore, or that people don’t perform them, but when a person gets up in the morning and has a cup of coffee, even if it is out their favorite mug, they are not performing a daily ritual. Drinking coffee is a habit that is controlled by a need or desire for caffeine. As creators of functional utilitarian objects, we supplement these needs and actions with objects of beauty and utility. We have to stop using the terms ritual and ceremony when describing our work. I consider myself a maker of functional utilitarian objects, not a maker of objects for daily ritual or ceremony. My pots may someday be incorporated into a ritual or ceremony, and I take this into account when making my work, but until then my work remains an object of visual beauty and utility.

I am fascinated by the ideas of intended use and actual use. My intention is to celebrate handmade utilitarian work on two different levels, both as symbolic objects that affect our lives on a purely visual level and as objects intended for use. I believe that it is very important for the customer to hear the creation story of a piece and understand what the intended visual and utilitarian functions are. It helps them conceptualize the work and understand its presence. But this is not to say that they can only use it for that intended purpose. Say someone buys one of my pieces (the piece shown here, for example) and purchases it because they have three daughters and they want to give one to each of them so that they all may know that each of them possesses a part of a whole. They separate the piece and completely change its format, individualizing each cup and possibly breaking up the piece forever. For me, this would be okay: if a customer appropriates my intended utility and visual function and uses the piece for their own symbolic purposes, so be it. On the other hand, I have a friend who purchased two of my coffee mugs to have coffee with a lady friend who was coming to visit him. She stayed with him for a week and every day they drank coffee out of those two mugs, talking and sharing thoughts. After she left, he washed the mugs and put them on his dresser, never to be used again, but they now function up there on his dresser as a visual symbol of two friends getting together and spending time with one another. By doing this, he took two separate pieces that were not intended purely for display or as a set, and made them into a set and removed the utilitarian function from their life. This is also fine with me, and is in fact very exciting, because part of my work’s intended function is to bring beauty into the owner’s life purely on a visual level. My work is made with the idea that it may only function on this level.

I always encourage a customer to pick up the work and let them know that it is okay to handle it, informing them that I do not have a “break it, buy it” policy. Getting the customer to comfortably interact with the work is very important. Talking about the work in a way that lets the customer know why you make pots, what you think handmade utilitarian ceramics are all about, your process, and how it affects and transforms the work, helps too. If a customer wants to know the intended use for a piece, I will describe my own inspirations and intentions in making it, and usually after I do so I will turn the question back to them, asking, “But what would you use it for?” The replies vary from, “Oh, I would never use that because I would break it,” to, “Oh, I thought it would make a great bowl for oatmeal,” to a little boy saying about my large oval serving dishes, “Look at the pretty bird baths, daddy.” This dialog varies, but it is always a learning experience for both of us.
I feel that in modern day ceramics, we need to redefine the language we use to describe and critique our work. There are many words out there that get tossed around and have created a cloud of misunderstanding around art and utility. These words are functional, non-functional, utilitarian, and use. Webster’s dictionary defines these terms as follows:

Function: The work a thing is designed to do, its official duty.Utilitarian: Holder of utilitarianism, doctrine that the morality of actions be tested by their utility.
Utility: Usefulness, profitability
Use/Useful: To employ with a purpose, consume as material, serviceable, and efficient.

A maker can get lost in the land of superiority when making functional or non-functional work. I feel that this is in part because art critics of the past have stated that function is not content or a concept. Sculptors and painters have all but removed the terms from their aesthetic vocabulary, because anything slightly associated with function will smack of craft and will be deemed not high art. But what the critics of the past have failed to realize is that the term non-functional should not be used in any art lexicon. There is nothing under the sun that does not have some sort of function, even purely visual objects function on some sort of level. But everything under the sun does not have utility. It is important that we stop using the words functional and non-functional and start using the words utilitarian, use, and function. Let’s replace the term non-functional with non-utilitarian when describing purely visual and tactile qualities. Then artists can begin the creation process by asking themselves what sort of utility they want their work to have and how well do they want this function carried out, or how useful they want this particular object to be and in what context.

Once a maker knows how they want their work to function, it becomes a lot easier to justify and define the work. As a maker of utilitarian objects, I believe it also makes a great deal more sense to think about the particular food or event that the work will be used for before creating the work. For example, I wanted to make dinner plates this winter, but was confused about what shape and size I wanted. I started by asking myself what kind of food would be consumed on these plates. I decided that the plates would be designed around the type of food my wife and I eat and our cabinet sizes. I designed a shape that could be used for both creating a larger shallower bowl, good for both pasta and for soup. In the end, it was very easy to talk about and critique the work, because my intentions were known right from the get-go. It was also easy to understand the changes I was making during the process, because I could always ask myself if I had shifted from my initial intents. Once we begin to use the proper language when creating and defining our work, we are able to fully immerse ourselves in, and relish the task of, creation.