Setting the Table: Completing the Story

Pick Mix/All Sorts Collection, to 9.5 in. (24 cm) in length, porcelain, slip cast from plaster models and molds, underglaze, glaze, various pieces fired in oxidation, wood, and salt kilns to cone 6, 8 and 10, 2014. Photo: Wes Magyar.

My sculptural installations basically begin as a game I get to play—one that continues through to the composition of objects on the table, shelf, tray, or pedestal in a space—that follows rules and objectives corresponding to the story and concepts. The individual parts are important players in making the piece come together. You can own and enjoy using one object from the arrangement, but as the maker I find the narrative  complete when the table is set, the composition is finished, or in some cases when the objects are in use.

To complete an installation, I use visual and formal cues including dealing with specifics of negative space; juxtaposition; and variations in form, surface, color, or pattern. This allows the viewer’s eyes and mind to dance between an event that is about to take place or is in progress. I try to add levels of concept to the work through the way that it is made, the materials used, the aesthetics and functions of the individual units, and the dialog between the elements in the presentation. Concepts I have focused on throughout these works vary from expectations of what is considered handmade, making multiples that become individual or special, letting shape dictate form, confusing expectations of what an object is for or supposed to be called, using industrial processes while leaving the mark of the hand, upcycling, appropriating found objects to give them a new future, and letting process determine the look of an object.

The Planning Process

I typically use a large staging ground or table that is larger than the final piece will be when creating a new composition. I play with the arrangement of bisque-fired or glaze-fired works and take snapshots from different vantage points. After I leave the studio, I study the images and go back and recompose many times before I feel comfortable with the layout. I then decide how big the display piece needs to be and design the table, tray, or shelf around the composition.

When it comes down to an installation for an event, exhibition, or meal, the specificity of surfaces, designs, and numbers depends explicitly on the project. Knowing the allotted installation area and plinth (if I do not create the display device) beforehand makes it easier for me to plan out how the conversation will go between the forms, colors and more recently the surface patterning. Once the specifics of the site are known, it takes me hours or days of milling over and contemplating the placement of the wares in any given space before I feel that a composition is complete. Questions I ask myself as I work include how many people will be dining in the situation, how many pieces are needed to make the composition complete, how the display device can best frame the wares, and where the spaces are for the eye to rest amongst the busy patterns or stacked forms. Ultimately, I go with what my gut feeling as to what looks right. A lot of the time there are objects that were created as smaller groupings in a composition or a set. This makes for some predetermination of where place settings will be situated, but not necessarily supplementary pieces. I find the composing the most fulfilling part of these projects. It is when I finally get to see (usually) a year’s worth of process and work come to fruition.

Pick Mix/All Sorts Collection featured at BMoCA’s Night at the Museum event, various dimensions, slip-cast porcelain, 2014. Courtesy of the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art. Photo: Ashleigh Miller Photography.

I try to use the site of the exhibition to aid in the telling of the story. With the “Rituals of the Maker” exhibition at Alfred University in Alfred, New York, I was dealing with a gallery that is in a house. This made for a perfect cozy feel for the installation. I was dealing with elements such as multiple rooms, doors, windows, venetian blinds, a staircase, and carpet. Making decisions that consider these circumstances led to a more complete narrative and focused whole. As one example, the view outside the window was not pleasing so I chose to open the shades for natural light but not raise them completely. In my MFA thesis piece, Elegance, I choose to place the table adjacent to a tall narrow window without a scrim or shade that mimicked the length of the 11-foot-long dining room table. It allowed for natural light in the daytime, which played off the gold and platinum lusters on the edges of the cups. When I was planning an event for the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art (BMoCA), I was able to design the entire exhibition and event. The upstairs gallery where the event was held is an open space of brick and wooden floors with intermingled columns. You enter into the space though a curtain after climbing a small flight of stairs. I wanted there to be an element of drama when the guests entered into the space and approached the table. I chose to align a length of tables about 80 feet long from one side of the room to the other, centered between the curtained doorway and ending with a centered long window at the other end of the room. To add to the theatricality, I aligned the chairs approximately five feet from the table so the visitors would be able to walk up close and not have the chair in visual or actual competition with viewing the wares.

Elegance: 2004

While in graduate school at Cranbrook Academy of Art, I became interested in dealing with where my work was to go or be displayed. I played with perceptions, whether in a home, collection, gallery, shop, or museum. Before my thesis piece, I began to design specific pedestals and shelves and I appropriated tables. The visual language between the borrowed tables and the work did not mesh. After I finished the ceramic wares for my thesis, I decided I needed to design a table specifically to suit the work.

Elegance, various dimensions, wheel-thrown and altered porcelain, fired to cone 10 in oxidation, 2004. Photo: Tim Thayer.

Rail and Track: Table Talk, various dimensions, slip-cast porcelain, ash wood. Photo: Brian Oglesbee.

Rituals of the Maker: 2012

The “Rituals of the Maker” was the culmination exhibition from my studio work and research at Alfred University as the Robert Chapman Turner Teaching Fellow in Ceramic Art. Before starting the work, I imagined the exhibition and formulated all of titles and stories behind the pieces. I started by recalling snapshots in my mind of people, meals, colors, scents, moments, events, discussions, and stories from my past.

The individual units, shapes, and forms of the objects were all designed with specific jobs in mind. After creating scale drawings, I began making the plaster prototypes of each functional object. I used various industrial techniques to form the plaster such as sledging, plaster turning, and hand carving.

The place settings were fully mapped out before making, but for the most part, the three individual tables in the series were not all totally composed until I began to bisque fire the slip-cast pieces and view different arrangements with the physical objects. Greens for glazes were chosen for the piece titled Vince: Holidays In South West Philly, 2102 Gould Street, because I remembered the light green flocked wallpaper from the row home. To accentuate the greens, I choose poplar wood. And to give the feeling that it was a large dinner party experienced by a child, I made the table extremely oversized for a row home (townhouse) even in comparison a conventional dining room table.

To add to the narrative, it was essential to make the kids’ table that I remembered from holiday gatherings. Some of the other colors in the exhibition were chosen because of the symbols I was referencing such as in the Masonic-inspired pedestal pieces situated around the Vince piece. The colors were needed to translate  each symbol. All of the woods used were chosen to accentuate the specific story and the color palette, as well as to heighten the framing effect for the ceramic components.

Vince, various dimensions, slip-cast porcelain, poplar wood, 2012. Photo: Brian Oglesbee.

Fujimoto Japanese American Family, various dimensions, slip-cast porcelain, black walnut, 2012. Photo: Brian Oglesbee.

Pick Mix/All Sorts Collection: 2014

BMoCA invited me to be the featured artist for their May 2014 event “Nights at the Museum.” These dinners bring together a select group of around 45 people consisting of museum members and friends to enjoy a meal at the museum. Each event is a collaboration between an artist and a chef. In my case I worked with Chef De Cuisine Alex Krill of Jax Fish House, in Boulder, Colorado.

Since I was in the middle of designing the body of work, Pick Mix/All Sorts Collection when I was selected as the featured artist and did not yet have a specific goal in mind, the collection and its versatility became the concept for the dinner. This was the first time the guest artist has made the dinnerware for the meal, which made for an extra special experience.

I tried to produce more than double the amount of work needed for Pick Mix so there were plenty of objects to choose from for the composition at the museum. The question central to creating a dynamic composition with Pick Mix was how much the surfaces of the pieces could vary and still work with one another.

I.O.R.G., slip-cast porcelain, glaze, 2012. Photos: Brian Oglesbee.

Cups of Color, slip-cast porcelain, glaze, ash wood, 2012. Photos: Brian Oglesbee.

Pros and Cons of Making Compositions with Functional Work

In the past it has been frustrating when my work is recomposed when I am not the one to set it up or install. I am beginning to realize how careful and direct I need to be when sending specific works to exhibitions so the finished composition of pieces looks and reads as I had intended. When the objects are rearranged it feels to me as if you took the elements in a painting and rearranged them at will. For the exhibition or event, I need them to be just so. The balance, proportion, configuration, and dialog between the objects in the composition changes when I notice a piece is not where I meant it to be. Sometimes the change is positive, which teaches me to open up a bit, but not always, and I find that problematic when viewing these as unified sculptural works. After the event begins or when the pieces are owned the configuration may change depending on the user. I am totally okay with the rearrangement at this point in time.

When I have created totally free-standing table arrangements, most of the time the installation has been as exact as originally designed, but with compositions of many multiples and no specifically made display unit, this is difficult to achieve. An example of this would be Pick Mix/All Sorts Collection: Compositions 1 and 2. Ultimately, these freestanding sculptural tables, shelves, trays, and plinths are the ones that I find most successful even if I am not present to compose the work because the space is defined.

The viewers’ reactions are greater when they see the compositions because the experience is grander than responding to one object of desire. In a shop they may imagine owning or using a place setting, a cup or set, but as the maker, I am allowing them to imagine the total event that takes place when the food and guests come into play.

Detail of pieces from the Pick Mix/All Sorts Collection featured at BMoCA Night at the Museum, slip-cast porcelain, 2014. Photo: Ashleigh Miller Photography.

Tony and Pauline Breakfast in Bed, slip-cast porcelain, glaze, oak wood, 2012. Photos: Brian Oglesbee.

It is difficult to alert the audience that they are not supposed to pick up the pieces in a functional yet sculptural installation. Presenting the objects as part of a larger sculptural whole sometimes helps to convey this idea, but it is not a fail-safe solution. We are accustomed to and encouraged to handle utilitarian objects in places such as a craft gallery or design shop. In the compositions I create, if a piece is picked up and moved, the relationships of all of the objects changes and does not flow properly, visually speaking. The sense of whether pieces form part of one unit or another can also be clouded. I am interested in the lines between gallery and shop because my work is displayed in both types of venues, but usually in different contexts.

When I am able to see the objects in use, as I did in the  event at BMoCA, the work comes alive in a whole new way. The fabrics from clothing and the personas of the guests bounce off of the work, food, and surrounding and create a total work of art.

the author Heather Mae Erickson is an assistant professor of ceramics and studio art at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina. To learn more about her work, visit


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