As the editorial staff was planning and building this issue, which focuses on balancing form and function, I started to think about the various ways I see artwork operating in the world, and almost immediately wanted to organize those myriad functions into groups. I started reading articles and book chapters focused on the purpose of art, to see how others categorized them. One, by the artist and writer Shelly Esaak on the ThoughtCo website, struck me as having a simple, accessible approach. Esaak lists three main categories of the functions of art: physical (such as the utility of pots, architecture, musical instruments, etc.), social, and personal. She expands on each of these, and also explains the way that context informs our understanding of artwork.1
A second source that took a broader view was also useful. In her book, What is Art For, Ellen Dissanayake takes a deep dive into the essential biological and behavioral functions of art throughout history.2 The book takes an anthropological perspective on art’s evolutionary and cultural purpose, and it is a valuable resource for anyone interested in both the impetus to make art and the ways it serves individuals and societies.
No matter what type of work we make in the studio, ceramic artists balance form and function. The form, scale, and design of utilitarian works are often related to the intended physical purpose—to contain and serve food and beverages, display flowers, or store household items, etc. Ceramic artists making utilitarian and non-utilitarian objects and installations alike consider form as it relates to social and personal functions. These include adorning or activating a space to create a specific environment; bringing people together; conveying complex ideas, emotions, and experiences; exploring trauma to raise awareness and allow for healing; encouraging growth; amplifying the voices of those who lack power; giving people space and a focus to mediate and reflect; and creating and sharing beauty in the world.
In this issue, we feature artists making utilitarian and sculptural vessel work that they design to function in specific ways. Florian Gadsby and Maya Rumsey infuse the utilitarian pots they each make with their individual aesthetic interests and backgrounds. They deftly blend design choices about the character and personality of the work with decisions focused on ensuring that the vessel is enjoyable to use as a mug, vase, teapot, or platter.
Several of the featured artists—including Sandile Cele, Luis and Irma Cortez, Susan Dewsnap, Paola Paronetto, and Brad Schwieger—look to art-historical sources for inspiration, adapting and synthesizing them into contemporary practice. The artists employ this connection with the past to add meaning to their work—communicating emotions and stories, and influencing a viewer’s perception of their surroundings.
Thinking about the ways in which our work functions, both for us as makers and for those who view it can be instructive and generative, leading to new insights to explore in the studio.