Horizon at Sandy Point

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Art in a bowl

Image on a square plate by Bunty O'Connor
Pat Bishop used to say that art is the well-making of what needs to be made. Perhaps it was not the most complete definition, because it leads you to wonder about a lot of things that are efficiently well-made and mass produced. It also makes you wonder about what passes for art - is "needs to be made" a criterion? I dare you to ask that of the Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, Picasso's Guernica, or the work of Bach or Mozart, Boogsie or Bishop herself. To begin to understand Bishop's definition, I use as a starting point the humblest most utilitarian objects - bowls! Their essence is containment - to hold water so to speak. Bowls have evolved as symbols of fullness (or emptiness), abundance, completeness. A bowl - its roundness, circularity, waiting to be filled - is a starting point.

Bunty O'Connor of Ajoupa Pottery fell into pottery as a young mother of three living in Santa Cruz. And I wish I still had one of the little pots that she sold at Dina's art shop in Maraval. It was at Dina's too that I acquired bowls made of native clay by Vanessa Urich. In those years - mid to late 1970s - Gloria Harewood made elegantly symmetrical stoneware bowls. Linda Bower's hands formed more organic shapes and finishes. But it is Bunty who has made the longest journey in the well-making of bowls, establishing a contemporary tale of pottery in Trinidad and Tobago.

Even as she was developing her trade, it was inevitable that Chinese cups and bowls would naturally outsell and outnumber the elegant Ajoupa Pottery ware - patiently hand-glazed at an open air bench and depicting the birds and flora of our tropical islands.  China after all has a centuries older tradition in ceramics, and has given its name to fine porcelain and ceramic ware. It is that country's sustained attention to the craft and art of ancient pot-makers that has built its dominance in the manufacture of household and art wares. But it was appropriate that a potter like Bunty should arise in Trinidad where shards of ancient Amerindian pots - made from native clay - are still found; where others still carry on the traditions of Indian ancestors. It was to be hoped that many here would recognize and appreciate skill, craftsmanship and art -don't we all need bowls!

Bunty was ever the artist in her exploration. Not content with shape and utility, she used her pots as vessels of expression. Flowers, birds, forests and fish, villages of ajoupa houses flowed from her imagination. Knowledge of the clay, and shaping and firing techniques combined to produce exciting forms, textures and color.  Bowls, platters, table tops, mosaics and sculptures emerged from the potter's hands. Then, after decades of the craft that provided the artist's bread and butter, Ajoupa Pottery the business closed.
Quartet of Sea Sponge bowls

What remains though, is Bunty's impulse to continue to make well what is to be made. She recently started experiments with raku, the Japanese technique of hand-shaped, open air (low temperature) firing of vessels.  Her exploration is shared with classes of weekend students. The result is a line of calabash bowls - small, medium and large - and "sea sponge" bowls (inspired by underwater sponges). She has also created a flock of miniature chickens. These palm-sized creatures were easily shaped in the sitting room in the company of her 95-year old mother - "so she could see me nearby for the whole day." They have the feel of volcanic rock colored by fire, in shades of copper, slate and deep green.
Chickens by Bunty

Rooster with a ruddy copper based wing

In the store room, however, Bunty's art project grows. There's a turtle, elegant elongated heron vases, more calabashes filled like arks. There's also a group of macabre creatures that are the stuff of nightmare - misguided mutations, Bunty says, the result of man's inhumanity to the earth. She is worried that the collection "doesn't hang together." Life is the link. But we who have grown so accustomed to themes - in parks and entertainment and art - must resist the easy theme. After all, it is a lifetime of surviving, rearing children, minding parents, seeing the world, growing hands that are thickened and knotted by one's craft that are being poured into Bunty's new bowls. Art in a bowl, life in a calabash.

Medium calabash bowl

Medium calabash bowl

Calabash cut outs

Trio of calabash bowls

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