Overlapping Patterns

Open, 6 in. (15 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown porcelain, glaze, 2011.

When I think about my pots I take into consideration how they can be both practical and decorative. The definition of utilitarian has always bothered me when used in the context of handmade pottery. To define handmade pots as something that is designed to be useful rather than attractive does not pertain to what I strive for in my work. Instead, this minimalist focus on utility at the expense of aesthetics seems more appropriate to industrially produced ware made for certain applications or settings. In studio pottery, both the design and the function are integral to the work.

What I really enjoy about tableware is that it impacts us both as a functional and a decorative object. From morning coffee and toast to thanksgiving dinner, handmade pots have a place in every situation. As a maker I am humbled and flattered by the fact that people chose to involve me in any of these rituals. It is important to give consideration to how pots incorporate into home design and décor. When we stop thinking of pots as individual objects, it allows for motif to become the primary focus. I draw a lot from Art Deco design, and symmetry and repetition are key to my design choices. By nesting bowls inside one another, stacking forms, and aligning handles, my work starts to have more dimension and visual layers. That is what moves me to make my work, I want to impact people in their daily routine.

Bowl stack from the "Mise en Place" exhibition, wheel-thrown porcelain, glaze.

Setting and Inspiration

Cabinets, tables, and shelves are the ideal locations for my work. I prefer to display my work in a setting that is as close as possible to what I envision its natural environment to be, namely a home. In many ways the last place that my work belongs is on a pedestal. This focus on environment, the decorative and function has led me to come up with a number of different display options when showing my work in a gallery, and when thinking of the visual layers and motifs I want to convey once the pieces end up in someone’s home.

Most of my stacks are inspired by a combination of overlapping patterns seen in nature. I look at my garden as it starts to bloom, hostas emerging from the soil in the spring, and the growth patterns and structures of succulents. I envision tightly wrapped leaves as bowls. I try to capture the tension of a flower bud just before it opens. I do a series of sketches focusing on the outline of the form and then analyze the sketch and start to figure out what individual pieces need to be made.

I also think about particular scenarios and what stacking arrangement might suit them best. For a potluck dinner I think of how I can replace a stack of paper bowls and plates. In this particular case I think not only about replacing the stack of bowls but also how I can create a stack that dispenses the bowls. For a Christmas dinner, I think about what might replace grandma’s elegant china cups and saucers. Social interactions that occur around food are a main influence in my work, whether they are large parties or breakfast in bed. It is the relationship between people and my work that inspires me.

My passion outside of pots is food. I might read about a tasting menu that was offered at a gathering I attended,  and think about how I would have presented it to the group. I enjoy quality and presentation, and I want to celebrate that with my work.

"Mise en Place" exhibition detail showing several bowl stacks, 2009.

Cup of Inspiration, detail of cup wall in the "Mise en Place" exhibition, 2009.

Creating the Stacks

My process is an intuitive one. I start by making parts—cups, bowls, jars, and vases. From there it is a puzzle; I don’t know what I am looking for. A table of bisque ware can sit for weeks or longer before I start to arrange pots. Placing one inside another, I play with how they nest and relate with one another. I pay close attention to how the lines of rims and handles line up and intersect. I look to create visual patterns that flow throughout the room. I am drawn to the layers that the stacks have. They are very complex puzzles that require photographing and coding so that I can reassemble them once they are out of the glaze firing.

The stacks are challenging. When I am assembling them as bisqueware they easily fit together and stay in place. The surface has a tooth to it that allows them to stay right where I want them. Once they’re glazed they are slick and shift easily when stacked, not to mention if one bowl warps it can throw off the entire piece.

5–6 Breakfast in Bed, detail from the “Mise en Place” exhibition, wheel-thrown and altered porcelain, mixed media, 2009.

Creating Installations

I have memories of seeing my grandparents china neatly displayed in their china cabinet. Everything was so beautiful and precise. From the way that all the plates stacked and seeing the aligned columns of lustered rims to the cups hanging on hooks perfectly spaced so that they would all fit without touching. I have always been conscious of these objects in peoples’ homes; the family heirlooms that are locked away and only rarely used. I wanted to capture that sense of intended storage with the stacked cups and saucers, but without having it feel as contained as it would in a traditional china cabinet. When pieces are placed into formal china cabinets, there’s a sense that the space, and therefore the objects in it, are off limits. That, in many ways, is contradictory to what my philosophy is when approaching handmade pottery. I make every effort to make my work both elegant and accessible.

7 Cup and saucer stack, wheel-thrown and altered porcelain, glaze.

8 Buffet bowl dispenser, wheel-thrown porcelain, glaze.

9 An arrangement of bisque-fired, wheel-thrown bowls and a vase in Tonsgard's studio.

Designing a piece such as my cup and saucer installation required a lot of planning. While I do sketch, I find that the best way to plan out a layout is to work with the actual pieces. For this composition, I planned and arranged the cups precisely—both after the bisque firing to determine the stacking and after the glaze firing to make sure the color contrast was correct. I have found that people do not typically use cups and saucers on a regular basis; they are more formal objects. The precise display of my cups and saucers echoes this more formal use of these pieces.

the author Christian S. Tonsgard is an artist and instructor at Buckinham Browne and Nichols School. To see more of his work, visit www.christiantonsgard.com.

featured image: Open, 6 in. (15 cm) in diameter, wheel-thrown porcelain, glaze, 2011.

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