Well Behind the Wheel: The Intersection of Ceramics, Wellness, and Feminism

Photo by Chris Lawton

Open Instagram, click the magnifying glass in the lower left hand corner, and scroll. Among the makeup tutorials, recipe videos, baby animals, and memes, you might find a neatly manicured hand cupping an earth-colored mug filled with a matcha latte infused with unpronounceable adaptogenic herbs that, the caption claims, will lower stress hormones, ease menstrual cramps, and “restore balance.” Whatever that means.


These are the pictures of wellness influencers, who take to Instagram to tout the benefits of slowing down, eating nutritious food, exercising, and meditating—all in an aesthetically pleasing way. And if their hefty follower counts and numerous (and presumably lucrative) sponsorship deals are any indication, their work is absolutely engrossing to a huge portion of Instagram users, primarily young women, who yearn for more balance, health and beauty in their own lives.


With so much focus on what’s on their plates or in their cups, it’s easy to forget that the object in the influencer’s hands is a key ingredient in the promotion of the lifestyle they’re evangelizing. Often, these self-care influencers serve up post-worthy smoothie bowls and paleo-friendly breakfasts on handmade dishes from local ceramicists, who often have devoted followers of their own.


Lee Tilghman, the creator behind @LeeFromAmerica, pours her daily green lattes into ceramics from A Question of Eagles (@aquestionofeagles). She recently partnered with the Los Angeles-based homewares brand, started by artists Melissa Tolar and Jonathan Ballack, for a cooking and wellness workshop in Los Angeles.


“Eating from a beautiful hand-thrown ceramic dish gives you a very similar feeling to eating a homemade meal,” Tilghman said. “It's made with love and tenderness, and you can feel it and see it with your own eyes. So when you combine the two, it feels very personal and loving.”

Tolar and Ballak aren’t the only ceramics artists who have gotten the wellness-influencer boost on Instagram. Kelsey Cheng (@kelseychengceramics), a burgeoning ceramicist in Chicago, has a growing following, thanks in part to her friend and roommate, wellness influencer Addie Martanovic of @chickpeainthecity.


“Her promotion is priceless!” Cheng says. “I’ve definitely been able to connect with wellness-loving people...I think this connection between wellness and handmade ceramics lies in a desire for a simpler life. They want to live with some intention and celebrate beautiful things.”

A complex history

A desire to simplify one’s life may motivate the creation and purchase of these beautiful handmade goods, but the history and tradition that these artists are a continuation of is anything but simple.


For 20,000 years, people, often women, in many parts of the world—have created handmade ceramic objects to fulfill both function and ritual. The world of fine arts has often looked down at these functional objects, viewing them as antithetical to the idea of “disinterested contemplation,” a concept developed by Immanuel Kant to discourage people from considering their own feelings and needs while viewing fine arts.


“That principle of disinterested contemplation tends to place a lot of emphasis on the visual, and to deemphasize and, in fact, sort of demonize the idea of physical engagements with art objects—whether you’re wearing a coat or using a tablecloth or eating out of a dish,” said Jane Blocker, an art history professor at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. “So, the decorative arts have always been seen as merely decorative and merely things people use and not that they contemplate.”


For many women artists interested in handmade crafts, the reign of disinterested contemplation as the gold standard for viewing, critiquing, and even defining art has been a barrier to success in the western art world. As Blocker points out, you can’t “disinterestedly contemplate” a mug you’re going to use to make beautiful Moon Dust lattes or a vase you’ll use to display flowers from your lover.


The late Art Historian Linda Nochlin considered these questions in her seminal essay, “Why Are There No Great Women Artists?” and concluded that the definition of “success” in the art world had been crafted by a patriarchal tradition that often disregards women’s work. Women artists, responding to the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s, embraced the applied arts as a way to celebrate the women’s work that had been rejected by the art world for much of western art history.


“One answer to [Nochlin’s] charge was to say, well...let’s develop what women have always been doing—that is textiles, decorative arts, ceramics, etc.—and make fine arts, elevate those things to fine arts in a contemporary sense,” Blocker said.


Artists like Judy Chicago, Miriam Shapiro, and Faith Ringgold embraced these domestic, functional arts, elevating them to something that can be displayed and contemplated in a gallery. Chicago’s most famous installation, “The Dinner Party,” is a large triangular table featuring unique vulva-inspired place settings for 39 famous women, from Sacajawea to Virginia Woolf.  


In the 1970s, Chicago and her contemporaries viewed the gallery space as a key element in elevating the applied arts and gaining due respect for women’s work. Nearly 50 years later, today’s ceramicists seem to be more comfortable with the idea of using the functional arts for the functions they were designed to fulfill.


“The object is never complete until it’s used,” said Kate Fisher, a studio artist at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. “Like I can make a mug. I can fire it, and I can love the surface and love the glaze and the color, but until somebody actually takes that from my studio and puts it in their own house and drinks coffee from it, it’s not complete.”

Ritual as self-care

While second wave feminism reclaimed the applied arts to celebrate women’s achievements in often male-dominated realms, today’s feminist ceramicists are often more interested in how their work supports self-care. In a world that values expedience over quality, the act of grounding one’s self by creating or using a handmade bowl can serve as  “self-preservation” and “an act of political warfare,” to quote the oft-repeated words of poet Audre Lorde.


Alexandra Barao (@alexandrabarao), a Bay Area ceramicist who makes dishware inspired by landscapes, said that a friend of hers recently purchased one of her mugs at a San Francisco record store.


“She said, ‘You know...my morning coffee, I never felt it was ritualized. And drinking my coffee out of your mug every morning since getting it, it’s like this beautiful ritual, and I like the feeling of it in my hands,’” Barao said. It is, she added, “as if the object, brings her into the present.”


In Fisher’s words: “When you embed this handmade object into someone’s daily life, their hands don’t know it. It feels really foreign and strange. It’s different colors. All the cups hold a different amount... So I think it is like self care, because every time you use that thing, you find something else about it. It’s more human to me.”


Tolar of A Question of Eagles also noticed this shift towards ritual when she and her husband, Ballak, began replacing their own mass-produced dishware with homemade goods.  


“After we transformed our own kitchen from machine-made dishes into handmade ones, and we started collecting other handmade pieces from our other colleagues, it really was a subtle but super powerful change in our lives,” Tolar said. “If you’re going to make a beautiful latte with adaptogens and all this stuff to have it in a handmade mug sort of completes the circle in a way.”

Ethical Consumption

Purchasing handmade homewares--which Fisher describes as touching the most “intimate” part of one’s body: the lips--is a way to rebel against the political forces that are causing turmoil for many. Using handmade goods is an act of caring, not just for one’s self, but for the world.

As capitalism shows its “ugly face,” it’s important to understand the origins of the objects one purchases, Barao said. Since no one can completely escape the need to buy goods and make money, being intentional about purchases is key to being an ethical consumer, she added.


“I think there is a role for the traditional arts, and maybe people are coming back to this understanding that there is value in things that are handmade and made on a smaller scale and in smaller batches,” Barao said. “There’s something powerful about that, I think.”


Cheng, who makes vulva pinch pots and decorates her planters with yonic shapes, said that her work creates a way to both talk about feminism and support women artists.


“I want to use my work to bring women together,” Cheng said. “Whether that is a fun conversation piece, like the vulva pinch pots, or ensuring I support woman makers in my consumption of goods. I think it’s a pretty radical act to work alongside other women, support their work and share with your friends. It’s simple, but important.”


These handmade ceramic pieces do bring women together through the influencers who share them. Through the glowing screens of their phones, influencers create communities of women who are empowered, maybe for the first time, to care for themselves, to rebel against a world that encourages women to work too hard for too little, and to surround themselves with beautiful objects while their political environment grows uglier every day.


The ceramicists that craft these beautiful vessels are a key part of that exchange, connecting in an intimate way with all who use their works of art. “Whatever I make, if you use it, it’s a handshake,” Fisher said. “My hands made it, your hands are using it. We’re shaking hands every time you drink coffee out of the cup I made. And that, to me, was a connection between two people that didn’t use words but was so meaningful.”


Did You Know?

  • 63% of companies have increased their influencer marketing budgets this year. (source)

  • Americans purchase twice as many material goods as they did 50 years ago. (source)

  • Just following the 2016 election, Americans Googled “self-care” nearly twice as often as in years past. (source)

  • A quick search for “ceramics” on meetup dot com shows 75+ ways to get your hands dirty.


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