This week’s essay is the first in my series on “Hidden Museum Treasures,” which will be devoted to objects culled from the storage rooms of museums – in this case a bowl made by ceramist Mary Roehm, from the collection of the Newark Museum (www.newarkmuseum.org).
This is also an unusual posting, in that I am featuring a quite contemporary object – Roehm made this bowl in 2002. I feel too close to it in time to be able to interpret its historic significance. But historians are rarely able to discover exactly how artisans felt about the objects they made. I was fortunate enough to get an interview with Mary Roehm, and what she had to say made me realize that this pot exemplifies that timeless artistic drive to push the limits of a medium and arrive at new possibilities.
The bowl is porcelain. It was hand-thrown on a wheel, and measures thirty inches across by approximately nine inches high. I am a woman of medium height: thirty inches equals the length of my arm from the tips of my fingers to the middle of my collarbone. If you’ve never used a potters’ wheel, you probably have no idea how much skill it takes, how exceptionally difficult it is, to throw a pot of that magnitude, let alone a pot with a porcelain clay body.
Unfired potter’s clay is made up of extremely fine mineral particulates (silica, alumina, and various oxides) and water. Only the surface tension between the water and the particles holds the clay together; as a potter manipulates the soft wet clay, the particles slide against one another and take on new forms under the potter’s hands. As the potter draws the walls of his or her pot out thinner and thinner, there is increasing danger of the walls collapsing or tearing. Likewise, the larger the pot, the more likely it is that the walls will simply flop over and collapse. Porcelain clay, which contains a kaolin, a clay with an usual amount of silica, is the least malleable type of clay body.
Roehm’s comments reminded me of the intense bodily connection that exists between object and maker in her (or indeed any) handcraft. The hand woodworker is aware of the grain of the wood under his tools; the needleworker has a tactile sense of the very warp and weft of the cloth he or she labors over. Roehm’s whole body is engaged by the act of throwing a pot. Her hands ‘try to stretch the most out of it [the clay]. To pull the Sucker out as it comes to the thinnest.” “I do feel my work is an extension [of myself],” Roehm says, “especially in raising a pot; it is directly linked to my breath. I breath in and hold [the clay] on the way up. It is difficult to work if I have a cold because my breathing is challenged.” “The work has to be done very quickly,” she adds. “It is through the process that I find Meaning. The Meaning occurs between the Heart and the Hold. The Hold is the touch.” Body, mind and spirit unite in a single, focused effort.
The finished pot is a functional as well as a decorative object. According to curator Ulysses Dietz, until she sold it, Roehm used it to hold salads at large parties. I enjoy the fact that it was used as a salad bowl, because to me it has some of the qualities of a huge lettuce leaf, folding in upon itself organically as it stretched and grew.
Naturally, in challenging the structural limits of clay, Roehm experiences many failures. “I am not a fence-sitter,” she says. “I got off the fence a long time ago and learned to push the work past what to others might seem Safe.” She is interested in the elemental, the bare bones of the creative process. In finishing this pot, she relied upon the firing process to create an ash glaze on the surface of the porcelain.
“Possibilities,” is a word that Roehm used numerous times during our short interview. “I am trying to express the Possibilities,” was her response to my opening question, “What meanings do you see in your bowl?” In other words, for her the act of throwing this pot did not involve thinking in terms of boundaries or even simply with pushing the limitations of her medium (clay), but with trying to achieve its (and through it, her own) greatest potential. And so it has been with the creative drive throughout the centuries.
 Daniel Rhodes explains this phenomenon by comparing clay to wet sand, which can be molded into shapes because of the water holding the fine particles together, versus dry sand, which will not hold a shape. He adds that there can also be a chemical attraction between the clay particles, which helps them adhere and adds greater plasticity. Daniel Rhodes, Clay and Glazes for the Potter (Iola, WI: Krause Publications, 2000), 60.
 Author interview with Mary Roehm (via Facebook messaging), October 2012.
Mary Roehm is a retired faculty member of SUNY New Paltz. Her work appears in numerous collections, including the Smithsonian Institution’s Renwick Gallery, the Detroit Institute of Art, and the Museum of the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in Shigaraki, Japan.