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A “Tabletop” Roundtable: Function in Ceramics


Tabletop ceramics

“Tabletop” is a little different from your typical Art League exhibit. For one, it’s open to artists from all over, not just Art League members. The other difference is in the name: as beautiful as they are, these objects aren’t (just) for looking at — they’re also meant to be used, at least some of the time. That purpose can be as specific as a guacamole bowl or as open-ended as a plate.

So what does it mean to make art for eating and drinking? We asked some of the ceramics artists of “Tabletop” to tell us more about what they do and why, then compiled their responses here.

How did you decide to make a [mojito cup/coffeepot/etc.], specifically?
Mike Stumbras (Baton Rouge, IL): The Skulls and Flowers Coffee Pot I submitted to “Tabletop” was heavily inspired in form and color palette by enlightenment-era English ceramic coffee pots. English coffeehouses in the 17th and 18th centuries served a similar function as contemporary chatrooms and blogs do: they were a public, unregulated meeting place that fostered discussions about science, politics, philosophy, and art. It is inspiring to me that many of humanity’s greatest thoughts from Newton, Descartes, Kant, Locke and the like were probably fleshed out over a cup of coffee. I wanted to make an object that had the ability to enrich personal conversation, community, and critical thought in a digital age. In addition, I prefer to make coffee pots over tea pots because I am a coffee drinker; so the coffee drinking ritual has much more of a personal significance to me.

Skull and Flowers Coffee Pot, porcelain, by Mike Stumbras.
Skull and Flowers Coffee Pot, porcelain, by Mike Stumbras.

Sean Fitzgerald (Lexington, KY): While I worked in Florida, I was director of an art center in a very Cuban part of Tampa. All the cafes served mojitos. I was making work and showing in galleries in the region, and that’s where the forms started. The curves remind me of the dresses the women wore at the traditional dances. The weight, the heaviness of the Florida nights. The lack of handle and the way you hand has to hold the form implies intimacy — like the dances I saw at night in Ybor City.

Mojito Cup Copper Matte by Sean Fitzgerald.
Mojito Cup Copper Matte by Sean Fitzgerald.

How does a piece’s eventual use inform the creation process?
Scott McClellan (Erie, PA): I do make decisions to keep my pieces functional but the utilitarian aspects are usually subverted for aesthetic decisions. The end product becomes an object that references utility, or is functional in specific ways. You could serve snacks off my plate, but mashed potatoes and gravy would probably be a nightmare to clean off of it. I tend to make decisions on how my objects will be displayed more so than choices regarding the functionality of the piece. For example, I attach wire through holes in the feet so they can be hung on the wall. The object acts as a display first and the functional aspects come secondary.

Plate, wood-fired stoneware, by Scott McClellan.
Plate, wood-fired stoneware, by Scott McClellan.

Sean Fitzgerald: When developing a new form, I often try to think of a task — how can I create some object that will make performing it somehow more enjoyable? For instance, I make wine buckets. The form came out of entertaining in hot climates and having wine sitting out at a dinner party getting warm. Or now with my twin 2-year-old sons, I make a lot of pancakes for them, so I am now making large mixing bowls to help pour the batter into the skillet. I have never been one for ornamenting my spaces with just static objects, like things you would pick up at a home decor store. But if that object has or had an intended purpose and it is aesthetically pleasing then I don’t mind dusting it off every time I sweep the house.

“I make objects for the table in the same way that a painter would make objects for the wall.”

Mike Stumbras: I do make both functional and nonfunctional works, but the goal for everything I make is the same: to be considered as works of art in terms of craftsmanship, concept, and as unique objects that celebrate idiosyncrasy. For me, the decision to make a functional object is fundamentally a conceptual decision. Objects gain power and momentum through repeated use in an intimate way, and function facilitates this. However, I’m not so certain that these objects should be defined by their function alone. I make objects for the table in the same way that a painter would make objects for the wall. In order for this concept to be successful, though, of course these objects need to function well. In this Skulls and Flowers Coffee Pot, I use a neutral color palette to fit in well with a number of decor styles, an elongated handle to prevent hand contact with a hot pot, and a spout with an open droop at the end to avoid dripping, and to introduce turbulence to slightly cool and aerate the coffee.

Cake stand, white earthenware, by Elizabeth Ruskin.
Cake stand, white earthenware, by Elizabeth Ruskin.

What’s your hope for this piece once it leaves your hands?
Mike Stumbras: On some days, I have strong feelings about how these objects will fare in the world outside of my control. Will they be cherished and considered as I hope, or resold as junk? Will they survive unchanged for a thousand years, or break in shipping on the way to the show? On other days, the outside world might not even exist, because the joy found in the compulsion to make and think about pottery is enough for me.

Scott McClellan: Knowing my pieces will spend most of their lives on display rather than being used, I intend for them to make it on the wall to be displayed as a two dimensional piece of art would be hung. However, I do hope they make their way off the wall to be used from time to time.

Sean Fitzgerald: What I want from all of my work: to bring a little joy to someone. I realize that my implied notion of purpose when creating, say, the Mojito Cup, isn’t necessarily going to be used as a cup that delivers a yummy adult beverage. But if it makes the user happy, then I feel it’s an object worth making. Now if one of my serving bowls makes the rounds filled with steaming goodness at the family dinner table — even better.


Is there a particular form that’s your favorite to make?
Sean Fitzgerald: Good question. There are forms that, when I’m making them on the pottery wheel, just feel right. The act of the wheel turning and the laws of physics makes throwing bowls just fun. The weight of the clay and centripetal force = fun. However, I love making mugs. I really enjoy my coffee time and I really enjoy making good handles. My house and my Art Centers are filled with mugs.

Mike Stumbras: Coffee pots and mugs are definitely my favorite forms to make. Coffee pots have so many separate pieces to consider, it feels like a puzzle to find a way to make all of the pieces feel integrated. With all of those pieces, It seems like there can be endless variations of combinations of form, handle, spout, lid, etc. This makes coffeepots and other complex forms a great way to make unique work that can showcase both technical skill and personal identity. Mugs are fun too because they can be produced quickly and can serve as “sketches” that allow for experimentation.

Scott McClellan: Tea bowls are the most fun for me to make. I feel I can really exploit the basic nature of clay through tea bowls by pushing a gestural posture into a small vessel.

“Tabletop” is open through Monday, July 6. For more from these artists, see their websites: seanfitzgeraldpottery.com, mikestumbras.com, and mcclellanpottery.com.

Teapot by Stephen Heywood
Teapot by Stephen Heywood

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