In her 2015 story about a ceramics studio in Portland, writer Katherine Cole makes a great case for cups. Conventional wisdom from serious wine drinkers states that the stemmed, cut-glass vessels are best, she says. “And yet, in rural old-world grape-producing regions, where wine is essential to timeless social rituals, no value is placed in one’s ability to parse the subtleties of a wine’s aroma, acid-tannin balance or finish. High scores and luxury price tags, too, are immaterial. Here’s what does matter: pouring with the proper hand, always making sure your neighbor’s cup is full or never placing an empty cup on the table. Notice that the word here is ‘cup.’”
Go to any dinner party hosted by a ceramicist or ceramics collector and you’ll experience the culture of the cup. Ceramic artists make cups to give away to friends and often collect cups from their favorite artists. The making and exchange of cups creates something like a breeding ground. The insides of their cupboards are full of clay vessels, often of many shapes and sizes—speckled, painted, wood-fired, soda-fired. Some are like sculptural works of art that are still functional, others are simple vessels with exquisite flaws such as a lopsided rim or an asymmetrical indentation. The coffee mugs are often equally intriguing: pear-shaped or glittered from kiln-ash or garishly decorated.
The cup is rudimentary and beloved, which is why the Clay Studio of Missoula hosts a juried exhibit of cups called the International Cup every other year. The cup show takes artists back to a standard form and allows them to reimagine it, and it pulls in work from across the globe. (This year features work from the U.S., Denmark and Canada.)
“There are so many approaches just in this show,” says Shalene Valenzuela, the Clay Studio of Missoula’s executive director. “There’s the traditional standard coffee mug and tumbler and sake cup, but also some people work in more of a sculptural vein in approaching the vessel. So it might be something that people wouldn’t initially think of as a cup at first glance, but when they approach it, they find that it is.”
Robert LaWarre III’s “Often the Perfect Target,” for instance, features what looks like a stoneware clown. Look closer, and you’ll see the hat comes off and the clown’s head becomes a vessel to drink from. Canadian artist Lin Xu has created an untitled sculpture that you couldn’t drink from, but still riffs on the idea of cup.
“It looks like a folded over slab,” Valenzuela says, “like the idea of a vessel. It is a deconstructed cup.”
Valenzuela is known for her slip-cast pieces that play with 1950s and ’60s imagery in a way that critiques domestic stereotypes. She half-jokingly calls her work “dysfunctional,” but even she sometimes goes back to the basic cup.
“Even when you don’t start out making functional things, you end up making functional things at particular times,” she says. “You sort of get led into it. And then you do end up with cups — it’s the largest thing around our house — and you just end up accommodating them.”
This year, Pray, Montana-based potter Sue Tirrell served as juror, selecting 40 cups out of 135 entries. She calls ceramic cups the “gateway object” for ceramic collectors. And for students working in clay, she says, the cup is often the first form attempted by hand or by wheel. To judge the cups, Tirrell asked several questions, including: Is the piece presented as functional? If so, is it well-crafted? Is the surface inviting to the lips and hands? If the cup is decorated or embellished, does it enhance or undermine the form? If the piece does not have function at its core, is it saying something interesting about the idea of a cup?
“Finally, I ask myself if the piece has something — or the seed of something — distinctive; something I haven’t seen before,” she says.
And that is a tough question, Tirrell says, because it’s so subjective.
“It is a little uncomfortable,” she says. “I’m not a teacher and I don’t like to be super judgmental about people’s work. I know how hard working with clay is and getting to a point where you feel you are expressing yourself in a way that works. My immediate thought is to welcome everybody into the show — but that’s not what it’s about. A juried show is juried for a reason. And so I think about it as a way of being instructive, peer to peer, which is something we can all do for each other in this community of artists.”
Tirrell makes ceramic sculptures, but also functional items such as plates, bowls and cups. She started out wanting to go into illustration or graphic design, but she took a clay class and became a convert.
“A cupboard full of handmade cups belonging to my first ceramics professor was a catalyst for me becoming a potter and collector,” she says. “Taking this clay class I could see how you could combine drawing and painting and narrative work with something functional or three-dimensional — and I really like the tactile quality of it. And it’s where I began forming my own opinions about what makes an appealing cup.”
Tirrell says the magic of taking an “ugly, dirty ball of clay” and turning it into something you use is appealing to people across cultures and ages.
“To use something you made for coffee or tea or give it to somebody else to use, is a really powerful experience,” she says. “Part of that is mysterious.”
And she says the cup is often one of the best forms to see an artist for who they are.
“Cups are interesting as social objects,” she says. “But they’re also very expressive of the maker. I put a little of everything I do into cups. It’s like a business card or a calling card. And that’s where it gets hard for me. When I was asked to jury this show, I felt like when I looked at a group of 150 cups, I saw 150 different people. They’re that individual.”
The Clay Studio of Missoula hosts a reception for the International Cup 2018 juried show Fri., Feb. 2, from 5:30 to 9 PM.