Clay Culture: Yankee Swap

1 Participants in the Yankee swap group toasting one another with their new mugs after the Worcester Pottery Invitational in 2018.

Here’s a new and fun tradition to start: combine a trip with clay friends to a pottery sale and a classic holiday gift exchange.

Collecting handmade ceramics is, in part, about the connections we establish with the pots in our homes. The meaning builds over time with ownership and use, but it begins with the maker and the story of how we acquired each piece. There are so many ways pots enter our lives; we purchase them, receive them as gifts, win them in auctions, trade for them, take them home after Salad Days and Empty Bowls fundraising events, and so on. At times, these pots are objects that we have coveted for years, while others are amazing new surprises.

A group of wonderful friends and I have found a new way for pots to enter our lives: swapping. Although I do not love that word, this tradition began with a few friends taking a trip across New England to go to the annual pottery sale at The Art School at Old Church in Demarest, New Jersey. As it was the holiday season, we decided to have a Yankee swap with objects from the sale. What began as a fun way to celebrate with friends has become something more significant.

A quick aside about Yankee swaps/white-elephant exchanges and the significance of the objects involved. The phrase, “extravagant but ineffectual,” is used to describe the gifts typically given away in these exchanges. In our case, this is decidedly not true. These objects are of great effect in our lives and I love the idea that we are giving more weight to this history of swapping objects.

2 Kyle Johns’ slip-cast vase with flowers, continuing its story in a new home.

Rules and Perspective

We followed the normal rules of a white-elephant exchange. We set a price limit, hid our purchases from each other, wrapped them so there were no distinguishing characteristics, drew numbers to determine the order of selecting pieces, and the picking, stealing, and excitement carried on until everyone had a pot. The first exchange was a bit stressful for some (I will admit, me). Buying pottery is so personal; it is hard to know what someone else might like. This is even more difficult if you don’t know who the recipient will be. These first moments of fear about what to buy or if someone else would enjoy it were the first clue to me that something interesting was happening. We have all agreed that this created a new perspective for looking at pots outside the lens of personal taste, one that considered another’s thoughts about pottery.

Without going into specific detail about what pieces were bought and traded, here are a few observations and questions that stem from the first experience. The most traded and sought after piece at that exchange was, unexpectedly, a simple yet lovely plate. It was stolen four times. Why was it so coveted? We wondered if this is the type of object that might be overlooked in favor of louder pieces at a sale. A few people ended up with the piece they put in. Why? Are we often so resolute in our desire for a particular object, how it feels, the way color choices resonate with us, that we have to have it? What I have come to understand is that when you close the scope from rooms full of pots down to a few, you begin to look at them differently. It can help you focus in on what you really want or help you to recognize something about a pot the you may not have seen. One of the participants, Katie Fee noted, “I bought what I thought was the very best thing in the room, and went home with something that I might not have given a second look. It makes us think about why someone else would buy something.”

A Continuing Tradition

We have now done three exchanges, the first as previously described, the second at the National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts (NCECA) conference in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the third at the Worcester Pottery Invitational in Worcester, Massachusetts, and we plan to continue. Our understanding has evolved, allowing us to have a clearer idea of what conversation we want to start with the group about each piece during and after the trade. As we continue to do this, we have ideas about how to change the parameters, other potential venues to visit together, and the possibility of bringing these objects back together and exchanging them again. One further reason that we plan to continue is that these trades and the excitement they give us ensures that we will continue to find the time to go to shows and sales, we will spend time together, we will purchase pots, and this will support other artists and the art market.

3 Yankee swap at Worcester Pottery Invitational, 2018. Left to right: Katie Fee, Adam Hinterlang, Kyla Toomey, Craig Hartenberger, Renata Cassiano, and Chloe Marr-Fuller. Swap participants not pictured: Salvador Jimenez-Flores and Zach Shaw.

There is something so obvious and yet so special about what we have been doing. We have taken our shared love of pottery and allowed for that to bring an added level of meaning to some of the pots in our home. The heart of this activity seems to be about the stories, which come from establishing a tradition, the choices that were made, and how these stories create layered, loaded objects that can have so many levels of meaning and connectivity between people and pottery.

My personal favorite piece that I have acquired from an exchange was during the NCECA conference swap. Salvador Jimenez-Flores, who brought it to the trade, had a personal connection to the maker. It was a piece that I will admit I never would have chosen amid the thousands of pots at NCECA; however, as I looked at the group of pots during the exchange, something shifted, and I knew I wanted that cup. This pot has taught me things about form and scale, and I truly love it. As an added bonus, each time Salvador comes over for a visit, I make him a rather strong mezcal cocktail and serve it to him in this cup.

This pot and all of the pots we have exchanged have taught us about looking, listening, and finding new ways to continue the dialog around the buying of pots. I do not want every object in my home to have this history, but I love that some do and I would urge you to try this for yourself.

the author Kyla Toomey is a potter living in Boston, Massachusetts, who is always looking to learn more from pottery. For more information on her work, visit www.kylatoomey.com.

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