When Sarah Hurt’s marriage ended in 2020, she had a hodgepodge of dishes in her cupboard. Maybe three items left from the original set she and her ex-husband had registered for 20+ years prior, not even enough plates for her and her three kids to eat off.
“What do I want? And what do I think is going to happen around my table and on my plates?” she asked herself. “This is the wallpaper of our lives; we eat off these dishes every single day.
“I started thinking oh, man, I need plates,” Hurt said during a recent phone call.
And while she could’ve quickly sourced plates at a thrift store or picked up a new set at a higher-end shop, the decision felt emotional. Not only had the divorce been a huge change in her life, but it was also at the beginning of the pandemic when the entire world “was just in a panic.” She wanted to take control of something even if it was something small — like her dishware, so she began looking for a ceramicist. Luckily, Hurt owns Seattle Art Source, a gallery that connects designers, developers and architects with Pacific Northwest-based artists and also runs the annual King Street Makers Market in December. She had strong connections in the ceramicist world.
What is it about pottery that feels so personal, intimate and important? The answer — like the explanation for so many personal decisions we are making since the pandemic began two years ago — lies in our ever-present search for joy. For Hurt, choosing new dishware was about remaking her life through specific items that decorate the everyday moments. For the artists crafting these wares, it’s a way to be present at a stranger’s table, be a source of someone’s joy. When these two things come together in the cupboards and on the dinner tables of the families that use them, it’s a literal expression of how — as Hurt says — “mundane elements of life can have such an emotional tether.”
Choosing what to eat off or drink out of is an incredibly personal decision. If you think it isn’t — just go to your cupboard. See what you pull out when you’re making your morning coffee or dishing up anything from popcorn to birthday cake. Chances are, it’s something specific — even if it’s a teacup with a chipped edge, a bowl chosen because it’s the exact right size for our morning yogurt or a wonky plate made by a loved one. And even if it wasn’t before, after two years spending infinitely more time working from and living in our homes, these small choices we make have become much more meaningful.
When Hurt was making choices on what to do about her plates, she felt in her gut she had to go with a local artist. As the owner of Seattle Art Source, she knew firsthand the impact a large sale could make, especially for artists who were struggling during the pandemic. She called Sarah Kaye, a ceramicist she had worked with before at the King Street Makers Market and went to her studio for a consultation.
“This is where I am. I’m sad, I’m in a panic, my life has been dismantled on every single level,” Hurt recalls saying. The next step was figuring out where she wanted to go and what she hoped for her future.
“I want to have parties, have people over for dinner. I want to eat ice cream on the couch out of these things,” Hurt said.
Kaye listened and worked up some samples for Hurt to test out with her family. Glazed edges for aesthetics and comfort. A nice weight for stability and longevity. Dishwasher safe. For Hurt, the process felt “bespoke and luxurious.”
“These dishes have the shadow of the maker on them, and that’s part of our life,” Hurt said.
Marks of a maker
Sarah Woodson, owner of Tacoma-based Downing Pottery, recounts how pre-pandemic customers would often bring a tumbler directly to their mouths while perusing her wares, just to see how it would feel against their lips.
“A mug is very intimate. It’s the only thing you wrap both hands around and bring to your mouth. There’s nothing else pottery-wise like that,” Woodson said.
That mark of the maker can take many forms in ceramics. Subtle rings from a potter’s wheel made when a piece is thrown, traces from fingertips pinching and sealing the clay together, brush strokes of glaze applied. Kristina Batiste, a Tacoma-based potter and owner of Juniper Clay, is convinced there’s a bit of magic in those marks.
“Every single potter will tell you eating off of handmade pottery is a life changing thing. It’s not like being hit over the head, but there’s a subtle difference where it changes the experience of eating. It’s magical,” Batiste said.
The reason why it’s magical is because it is a direct transference of the potter’s energy and concentration, an even more precious resource as the pandemic took its toll on artists.
“The most valuable thing in the universe is someone’s attention. At one time, a potter was 100% focused on that pot. Then you get to be the recipient of someone’s very focused attention. It’s meaningful. That really matters, and really changes your experience,” Batiste says.
Sometimes that attention can take big moments that affect whole communities and make them personal. A large part of Woodson’s business is crafting mugs with city skylines or Mount Rainier summit dates. She has made mugs with orcas on them for years, but in 2018 when Tahlequah, the orca who carried her dead calf for 17 days made global headlines, Woodson felt called to do more. She set up a fundraiser, donating a portion of sales to the Center for Whale Research. Her goal of $1,000 was met in five hours. She still regularly donates proceeds from the orca cups and to date has raised nearly $3,000. She knew people wanted to do something to ease the pain of that horrible event, but what surprised her the most were the stories she heard from people who gifted or received the cups who had lost children or experienced a pregnancy loss.
“I felt really strongly to make something to make an impact and [the mugs] went out into the world and were received by and gifted by people who had a completely different set of meanings. Those cups represented their loss and their grief. It was so moving, I didn’t even know how to respond to it,” Woodson said.
Similarly, Seattle-based Tracy Madison creates deeply personal ceramics. Things started with her mother’s old linens; Madison would press lace into clay to make impressions.
“My mom passed away from cancer in 2015, so she didn’t even know I started creating ceramics. But so many of the linens I inherited from her. The first time I pressed something into clay I pictured her rolling over because it’s pretty much pressing it into mud. I was like, stay with me mom!” Madison said.
She created bowls and cheese stones, making such a personal connection to her pieces she was hesitant to sell them. Then a friend reached out after a death in the family. Their great-grandmother had passed away, leaving bags upon bags of needlework and handmade doilies.
“I was like, let’s make some bowls out of these. People don’t use linens anymore, but to have a big fruit bowl with your great grandmother’s linens? You get to interact with it every day,” Madison said.
It’s the everyday use that separates something like ceramics from other forms of art. These potters don’t want to be locked away in a cabinet or hanging on a wall — they want their artwork to be folded into the user’s life.
Nancy Bohling learned of Madison’s work from a friend after renovating her kitchen. There was custom tilework and a gray quartzite countertop with some movement in the grain. It was minimalist, with only a cutting board and a small fruit bowl on the counters, but her eyes kept catching on the sink and her kitchen sponge, which sat unceremoniously on the counter. It needed a special touch.
“I just didn’t want to go to Target and get a plastic something. I love this space so much, I wanted something special,” Bohling said.
At Madison’s studio, she found something beautiful to put her sponge on and much more. Bohling said that she bought a pile of Madison’s goods as Christmas presents, only to keep almost every piece. She asked Madison to create a stacked set of dessert plates — delicate and thin, with lacy, gold-rimmed edges almost like a potato chip.
“They are stunning and they’re not just a beautiful piece of art, I’m really living with them,” said Bohling, who had proudly snapped a picture of the plates as a central part of her holiday table and sent it to Madison.
“People are collecting ceramics like pieces of art. They can’t afford a couple thousand dollars for a painting, but when you buy a plate or a bowl you can restyle your kitchen table or restyle your party so easily,” Madison said.
That’s not to say handmade pottery can’t fetch a high price. Mugs can start at $35, large platters can be priced up to $200. That price tag pays not only for that special attention and personalization from the artists, but oftentimes, the relationship between artist and customer doesn’t end when the transaction is concluded. Artists love hearing stories of how people are using their pieces.
“I think the importance of having a handmade object in your life is it creates memories, moments you can reflect upon. People come up to us at shows and show us pictures of the work we’ve sold them in the past. It’s a wonderful reminder of what we’ve made,” Shannon Wallack, a Seattle-based artist said.
Wallack likes to think he’s sitting at the table with people when they use his plates.
“How many stories have been told over my plates, or thrown against the wall,” Wallack said.
For Kaye, the ceramicist who made the set of plates for Hurt, hearing those stories and chasing after that joy people feel when using her pieces is her mission.
“That smile when your favorite coffee cup is there in the morning — that’s the joy I’m after. It’s my moment of happy intimacy and comfort to yours,” Kaye says.
Kaye spent three months making the set for Hurt. When they were finished, she brought them over, each individually wrapped and spent time with the family, unveiling each piece — 14 place settings in all.
“I was really optimistic about dinner parties,” Hurt laughs.
The dishes are a soft white; the plates have a deep edge that make them closer to bowls than straightedged plates. The large bowls are “very individually shaped with these wonderful undulating rims.” There are smaller cereal bowls and tiny dipper bowls Hurt uses around the house for everything from dead matches to vitamins.
“Everything looks beautiful in these bowls. They are so special to me,” Hurt said. “They’re way more special to me than the plates I registered for when I was 19 when I got married.”