Clay Culture: Vessels For Change

Want to address an issue in your community or culture? Learn how to collaborate with a diverse artist community and local businesses to support a common cause.

In January 2017, I became a naturalized American at the first citizenship ceremony since Donald Trump took over the presidency of the United States. When the presiding official encouraged us to become active, engaged citizens, I listened. But it wasn’t until August that I decided to act. I had enough of the mean-spirited actions from our nation’s leaders and the civil unrest that ensued. I needed to do something. As it turned out, many in our community wanted to do something too.

Just as most potters approach the creation of a pot or sculpture, I started with what I wanted the end result to look like and worked back from there. I imagined a room full of people, collectively celebrating their accomplishments, rejoicing in new friendships, and brimming with goodwill that develops from helping someone in need. I started chipping away at the pieces that would get us there.

I tested the waters of a potential mug sale by offering six of my Nevertheless She Persisted mugs for $100 on Facebook one morning with the promise of sending all proceeds to the Southern Poverty Law Center. By noon, all were sold and a check for $600 was in the mail. I was convinced we could do something bigger.

1 Potter Phil Sellers applies glaze at River Hill Pottery, North Adams.

2 Painters Anna Moriarty-Lev and John MacDonald apply underglaze to their mugs. Photo: Jack Criddle.

Doing Something Bigger

I tossed out the idea of having a party to celebrate our future success at Bright Ideas Brewing to the pub owner, Orion Howard. He jumped on board.

I bounced around the idea of doing a fundraiser with a few colleagues. I wanted the process of planning and making work for the fundraiser to be fun, so I knew it had to be collaborative. The organizing team was comprised of professional potters Amrita Lash, Gail and Phil Sellers, and me; accomplished part-time potters Suzy Konecky and Sandra Thomas; visual artist Laura Christensen; and Orion Howard.

We didn’t spend a lot of time discussing potential approaches—we just got to work. Five potters agreed to make and fire 20 or so mugs each; these would be our “Vessels for Change.” We figured we could round up 30 or so artists to paint the mugs with underglaze. We decided on a price of $100 per mug. If we could sell them all, we’d have $10,000 for a local non-profit. We selected the Berkshire Immigrant Center (BIC), an organization that helps immigrants and their families adjust to life in the US, as our beneficiary.

We each contributed in a way that fit our schedule, skills, or interests. We gathered supplies, turned on our wheels, rolled out slabs, and got to work. We reached out to our friends and colleagues in the art community to solicit their participation. Studio sessions hosted by the potters were planned and artists were assigned time slots to work. Potters provided guidance to the non-ceramic artists. Press releases were written to share information on the project.

Sheffield Pottery provided some of the underglazes we needed. Williamstown Community Chest helped by providing a non-profit bank account that we could connect to our credit card system.

We posted a project webpage and included a form to be filled out by those who wanted to purchase a mug and make a contribution. We managed everything online: Google Docs for scheduling, email for contacting artists and donors, and Square e-invoices for payments. We relied on the power of social media, including Facebook and Instagram, to spread the word.

The response to our initiative was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. In the end, over 60 artists from Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York participated, with more asking to be involved.

A few of the vessels were crafted to the specifications of the painters; however, for the most part, the painters selected their canvas from bisque-fired mugs presented at their studio sessions.

3 Artists Zoë Doucette, Alison Kolesar, and Jane Hudson (left to right) at work in Stephanie Boyd’s studio.

4 Painter Julia Morgan transcribes a sketch of her design to an Amrita Lash mug.

5 Arthur DeBow decorates a Phil Sellers mug.

Art Therapy and Togetherness

These sessions turned into a sort of art therapy. Artists gathered, learned, painted, chatted, laughed, snacked, and inspired each other. Some artists planned to invest an hour, but stayed much longer and returned the next day. Painters used to the smooth, slick, workability of oil paints were aghast when confronted with the comparative dryness of underglaze on bisque ware. Some, at first hesitant to take on the challenge of painting even one mug, ended up painting multiples.

Artists came with prepared sketches, or responded to the form or texture of their vessel. Some picked up mugs a day or two before their studio time so they could plan their approach. One artist first sketched her design on her mug with watercolor at home and then applied the underglaze in the studio. The vessels featured abstract designs, iconic images of our towns, intricate floral details, mandala patterns, and landscapes.

6 Stephanie Boyd (left) presents a check to Berkshire Immigrant Center Director Brooke Mead (right). Photo: Jack Criddle.

7 Finished vessels on display at Bright Ideas Brewing, North Adams, Massachusetts. Photo: Jack Criddle.

Forging New Bonds

The first mugs sold on September 29. Just 2 weeks later, before any mugs had been finished, our 100th mug was sold and a wait list was started. Those who delayed a few days to sign on were surprised to learn they had missed their chance.

We lined up the finished vessels from end to end of the gleaming bar in Bright Ideas Brewing on the day of the fundraiser party. They were a stunning representation of a community coming together. The room was packed!

For weeks, we had pondered how to distribute the mugs. In the end, we assigned them randomly. We placed a little story of an immigrant in each mug. We introduced the painter, the potter, and the new owner. We sipped our beer. We discussed the imagery on the mugs, our experiences as immigrants, of making, of politics, and of hope.

An anonymous donor provided a matching grant of $10,000, others gave at the door, or donated more than $100 at the time of purchase. We raised more than $23,000 for BIC, about 10% of their annual operating budget, to support their increased demand for services. And, we forged new bonds within our community. Some of us discovered new inspiration for our ceramic work. Many have developed a deeper appreciation for what goes on in a potter’s studio.

We recently gathered for a debrief and to talk about next year’s event, which will be just a little larger, 150 mugs perhaps. We’ll make a few adjustments here and there. We’ll choose a different organization to support. Perhaps add a potter or two.

We can’t wait.

the author Stephanie Boyd is a ceramic artist living and working in Williamstown, Massachusetts. She creates handbuilt and wheel-thrown functional forms in mid-range porcelain and stoneware. To learn more, visit: www.stephanieboydworks.com or follow her on Instagram @stephanieboydworks.

Comments
  • Muriel B.

    What a great idea. Maybe we should try something similar on this side of the pond (I live in the country of Berkshire, there’s a coincidence).

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Enter Your Log In Credentials
This setting should only be used on your home or work computer.

Larger version of the image

Send this to a friend