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Focus: oatmeal bowl


Focus: oatmeal bowl

miro chun

Thought I would use this space to write a little bit about pieces that I make—as a way to offer some insight into my ceramics practice. I'm also hoping to share influences and things I find interesting, but this "Focus" series will be about individual pieces that are the mainstays of my core collection.

Breakfast for us, on the weekends, is something of a sacred ritual. There isn't time during the week, and truthfully, I'm not much of a morning person, so weekend breakfasts are always a chance to relax and reconnect. We usually try to spend at least one of those weekend mornings at home. Breakfast is usually three simple and small courses, setting a leisurely pace that allows me time to prepare between the courses, but also have the chance to sit and enjoy each one. First is fruit (and it's best when it's our own—we grow everything from apricots and peaches to grapes and citrus), and a little yogurt with local honey. The second course is eggs (from our little flock of hens) and sometimes vegetables (also from the garden). And the third course is something a little sweet—either a piece of toast (locally made by one of our baker friends) with some homemade jam, or a little oatmeal.

The oatmeal, of course, is served in an oatmeal bowl. As a matter of fact, almost everything we use on those weekend breakfasts are pieces that I've made over the years—cups (tea for me, espresso for B.), sugar bowls, creamers, salt cellars, plates, small dishes, and bowls.

I seem to (and I suspect most ceramicists also have this) default to a certain size and shape. If I was handed a ball of clay, with no instructions other than to make something, this is the form I would throw. The size and curves would be surprisingly consistent between the pieces, even without the use of a measuring device or guide. I made the first ones long before I had thought about possibly pursing ceramics as a career—at the time it was just a hobby, and a chance to be able to make something fun, that would be both functional and tactile.

There is something very satisfying about holding a small bowl, with an easy curve, in your hands and being able to feel the warmth of the oatmeal through the textured surface of the exposed clay. It's the same curve that comes naturally to the shape of my hands when I'm throwing the bowl on the wheel—a little curved, not so straight and stark, but still as perfect as I can make it.

The bowls actually started out as straight-sided pieces. Back when I was making the first iterations of these, I was obsessed with trying to mimic the straight lines of industrially-machined pieces and get as far away from the "handmade look" as possible. This was indubitably an effect of my perfectionist tendencies, and my architectural training. But handmade pieces aren't really meant to do that. You can force and bully it into straight lines, but the material and the process doesn't work best that way—the material wants to curve and warp and bend throughout the throwing and firing process. And beyond that, even if something does end up straight and perfectly perpendicular to the ground plane, it doesn't necessarily look that way—bowls would look as though they were either flaring out, or angling in. There's a term that everyone learns in architectural history classes—entasis. It refers to the way that Classical greek columns would curve a little—just enough to appear straight. I think there's a little bit of that in the oatmeal bowls. But also curves are more forgiving, a little more organic, and for something like oatmeal, or soup, or whatever you choose to use them for—there's something appealing about how the slight curvature emphasizes the way you want to cup something tasty that you're about to consume. The same process of refining the angle where the bowl closes in to the finish of the foot also developed that way—through use, observation, and refinement over the years as the pieces were folded into our daily lives. 

Of course, you can use the bowl for other things. I have a friend that drinks vast amounts of tea, and he feels that this size and proportion is closer to what he wants to be able to drink his tea in. I'm working on another variation that's a little more angled and a little more rounded to use as a proper teabowl, since the shape is close. I've also made a range of lids for the bowls, to let them stack in another way, and be used for other things. I've made panna cotta in them, and filled the shallow indent of the lid with fresh berries or placed a small crumbly cookie on top to have with the unctuous smoothness of the dessert. If I'm serving soup, the lid is helpful for keeping things warm and steaming inside, or alternatively, to protect the contents from pesky insects (or curious chickens) when we choose to eat outside at the picnic table. I store things in them—cough drops by my bedside when I'm sick, or one of multiple headphones in the studio. I have friends that use them as sugar jars for the table, or to store garlic and shallots on the kitchen counter. The list goes on. It is always nice to hear how the pieces are being used—what maker doesn't want to know that their creations have become cherished pieces in other people's daily rituals?

I think one of the key reasons that the oatmeal bowl is a favorite is because I've lived with it for a long time—it's one of the pieces that we use at home, and that will continue to live in our cupboards and on the dining table. My process is not fast—I like to think through things, make pieces, and then live with them for a while. The long history allows for changes and refinements, as only years of use and handling and "looking at" will provide the opportunity to happen. It is a chance to make and remake, and is one of the best parts of doing what I do—the ceramics process doesn't stop just when the piece is glazed and fired, it continues through the life of the pieces and those that use it.

Various lid variations, and older, straight sided piece second from the right.

Various lid variations, and older, straight sided piece second from the right.

Oatmeal bowl lids that double as small dishes

Oatmeal bowl lids that double as small dishes

oatmeal bowls current.jpg