Kitchen Table Politics

Obamaware Campaigns for Change One Mug at a Time

As published in American Craft Council on January 7, 2009

Pots in Action photo of Julia Galloway’s Obamaware cup with the historic front page of  The Washington Post.

Pots in Action photo of Julia Galloway’s Obamaware cup with the historic front page of The Washington Post.

On October 15, 2008, 27 prominent American ceramic artists unveiled a diverse group of cups, plates and other pots called "Obamaware" as a fund-raiser for Barack Obama's presidential campaign [figure 1]. It was a great idea-a convergence of the handmade aesthetic beloved by progressive Americans, a "green" object you can use over and over, and a way to support the arts during difficult economic times. What better way to support the candidate for change? It even turns out that the Obamaware makers are in good company: many fascinating episodes in ceramic history attest to the subtle but enduring power of pots to convey both food and ideas. Ancient Greek potters used scenes from well-known myths to comment on Athenian politics. A 16th-century German potter decorated a jar with imagery that promoted controversial new Protestant beliefs-and went to jail for it. Pots have long played an important supporting role in conversations about politics in the domestic realm, or as politicians like to say, "around the kitchen table." The Obamaware project represents an information-age twist on the old-fashioned pottery sale. Like many potters before them, these artists used ceramic surfaces to express their ideas and comment on current events. They also did what potters as recently as the early 1990s could not have done: they sold pots online and blogged about it.

With the presidential race still close as of September 2008, Ayumi Horie [figure 2], a New York-based studio potter, felt compelled to contribute something of value to the Obama campaign and quickly organized the group of 27 artists from around the country. The entire project, from initial idea to the end of the auction, took only five weeks. Meanwhile, Obama-related art and craft projects were popping up all over the internet. Two blogs, the Obama Art Report and the Obama Craft Project, tracked and highlighted compelling fund-raisers in every medium imaginable-prints, posters and graffiti, all photographed in situ, where they could presumably be seen by hundreds of passersby, drew attention wherever they were installed. The Obamaware pots, on the other hand, represented a different strategy; they both were and were not public art. Notice of the pots reached clay enthusiasts and Obama supporters online, a place without geographical boundaries, but once purchased they ultimately did their campaigning on a more intimate scale, and that intimacy (a quality derived from the functional pottery format) is what gave the project its narrative power. The ability to share images of Obamaware pots on websites, blogs like Design*Sponge and Daily Kos, or social networking sites like Facebook meant that the project had the potential to circulate widely in the digital sphere. This visual circulation occurred in advance of an object's journey to its new home, where it would be used, admired and shared with guests to spark con­versation. Of course, seeing images of a pot is not a substitute for holding
it in one's hands or seeing it in person. But the ability to view the imagery on a pot and to understand its intended function served the purposes of a project like Obamaware. It was a means of portraying Obama as an appealing candidate and conveying the grassroots passion of the artists involved while supporting a cause greater than themselves and displaying their own values.

One Obamaware artist, Donna Flanery [figure 3], summed it up well when she said of her pieces, echoing Garth Clark's comment on narrative teapots: "The idea is to portray Obama as friendly and personable. Having tea with someone is an act of giving them your attention. The cups are intended to be functional and to provide the viewer with the feeling that they are attending a tea party-that they can have tea with the president." By purchasing a piece of Obamaware, a person engages in this kind of metaphorical intimacy (combined, perhaps, with the feeling that the mug or bowl is akin to a piece of fantasy White House china). Buyers are
figuratively opening their home to a candidate who is still relatively new to the public eye. Who is Barack Obama and what can we expect from an Obama-Biden administration? The Obamaware artists sought to answer that question for the few remaining undecided voters by expressing in their pots the best arguments in favor of his candidacy.

The reading and interpretation of signs and symbols, from coats of arms, insignia and initials to specific plants or animals, is one of the most basic tools for situating decorative arts in time, place and social context. We are surrounded by objects that have been designed and crafted or manufactured, their creation informed by hundreds of decisions at every stage about form, color, texture, decoration and function. So much can be read from the objects we live with that an academic discipline has emerged to investigate the meanings of things: material culture studies. Decorative arts and design communicate with us even as they meet basic domestic needs like seating or coffee service. Communication through objects works in multiple directions. Consumers choose things that send the right message about who they are or want to be. Designers try to harness that desire to sell their products. And, in some cases, makers (and regimes) produce objects with the hope that consumers or viewers will adopt
the ideas that the objects express. It is this last type that sets the stage for Obamaware.

Ceramic works have an almost limitless capacity to serve as a canvas and thus are a natural outlet for narrative. Political ceramics in the context of contemporary sculpture today is well situated in the art world. Mid-century functional ceramic masterpieces of lyric simplicity by such potters as Hans Coper, Lucie Rie, Gertrude and Otto Natzler, or Eva Zeisel
(a ceramic designer), are well represented in important collections. But when more recently created ceramic objects enter a contemporary museum or a gallery today, their functionality is usually symbolic. Utility is the message, rather than the actual purpose of the piece. Works ranging from Cindy Sherman's Madame de Pompadour (née Poisson) porcelain service [figure 4], to Meret Oppenheim's Object – Le Déjeuner en fourrure (the famous fur-lined teacup) and Judy Chicago's Dinner Party use the utilitarian forms of tableware to convey a message to the viewer. The Yixing revival teapots of Richard Notkin address serious topics, from nuclear war to homelessness [figure 5]. His pots are created in the hyperrealistic mode of traditional Yixing teapots that were carefully sculpted to resemble bamboo and other natural forms. Functional they are, though Notkin's pots are so highly esteemed and collectible, it is doubtful they'd get much everyday use. Obamaware, conversely, is functional in a rhetorical sense: its aim is to bring a political message into the kitchen or the dining room rather than a museum or a gallery.

Though nothing in ceramic history has been exactly like this project, there are many historical examples of ceramics that bear imagery with political messages and, like Obamaware, most of that imagery comes from other media-prints, drawings, oral history or myth. The 27 artists who created work for this project drew from the existing repertoire of imagery and words that are understood to signify the Obama-Biden campaign: images of the candidate himself, the blue and red campaign logo, words like "hope" and "change," and countervailing imagery from the McCain-Palin camp, which was uniformly presented in a satirical vein [figure 6]. Many of the historical examples discussed here are commemorative or represent the views of artists responding to events in their own time. Obamaware, by contrast, was anticipatory.

One intriguing ceramic parallel to the Obamaware project occurred nearly 500 years ago in Europe. Andrew Morrall, an art historian, demonstrates that in Reformation-era Germany, the home was becoming the site of moral education, as the authority of the Catholic Church was being challenged. This cultural shift breathed new life into the narrative power of household objects, which could now be put to work, illustrating events or concepts visually so that children could be made aware of their meaning. Morrall tells the story of a Nuremberg potter, Paul Preuning [figure 7], who was actually jailed in 1548 for creating a jug featuring a crucifix accompanied by a piper, a drummer and a peasants' dance (instead of the traditional St. John and Virgin Mary). The depiction of this scene evoked the Peasants' War of 1525, an uprising that had been sparked by economic and religious unrest during the Reformation. Morrall demonstrates that the social acts of eating and drinking together reinforce the narrative content on a decorated vessel as a shared belief, further bonding members of a community-in this case, fellow Protestants. Vessels bearing religious imagery would have dovetailed perfectly with what he describes as the almost "sacramental" nature of food and drink, and the saying of grace before a meal. Shared drinking vessels known as tygs played a similar role in British taverns. One example dating from the puritanical rule of Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (1653 – 1658) bears the message: "Pitty the poor amend thy life / and senne no more."

Centuries later, factories produced numerous examples of politically charged china. A large-scale Etruscan scrolled vase, L'Entrée à Paris des oeuvres destinées au musée Napoléon, made at the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres, is decorated with a propaganda scene glorifying Napoleon as a patron of the arts on the scale of the Medici-a signal that he was worthy of his new power, even if he lacked the "divine right" of the Bourbon monarchs he replaced. Soviet china painters in the early 1920s took porcelain blanks from the former Imperial Porcelain factory, blotted out the double-headed eagle signifying the Tsars, and decorated the plates with pro-Soviet imagery and text, thus putting a luxury object to work as a vehicle for Soviet propaganda on the domestic front.

The parallel between ceramics and print is further evidenced by the decorations on English and Chinese export porcelain made for the American market. Numerous examples from the 18th and 19th century depicted patriotic portraits of George Washington or the French-born Revolutionary War hero Lafayette. The bald eagle was prominently featured in china decorated with the emblem of the Order of Cincinnatus, a patriotic fraternal organization named for an ancient Roman hero, of which George Washington was the first president. World's fairs offered unprecedented exposure for large-scale ceramic showpieces like the iconic Century Vase, which Karl Müller designed for the Union Porcelain Works booth at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 [figure 8]. The vase features a relief bust of Washington along with imagery of North American flora and fauna, as well as scenes of progress from the nation's first 100 years. The so-called Trenton Vase was made for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 and bears a rendering of Emanuel Leutze's Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851). The Leutze image was widely circulated in the second half of the 19th century in the form of lithographs and became retrospectively an icon of the revolution.

These examples were conceived of, designed and produced to communicate to a particular audience; the fact that they still exist and that most are in museums attests that they found favor with their intended audience (except Preuning's jar, which did not survive.) In each case, the imagery chosen to decorate the ceramics came from another medium. There was a connection between the imagery on the pot and another source of visual information. The pot thus reinforced an existing image or idea, and this was the source of the decoration's narrative power.

The Obamaware project elicited a range of responses from the participating artists, from earnestly hopeful to cheeky and irreverent. The element of kitsch in the work of John Byrd, Peter Morgan [figure 9] and Garth Johnson provides comic relief, while the more celebratory offerings of Diana Fayt [figure 10], Donna Flanery and Janice Jakielski [figure 11] are joyous mementoes of a campaign that, relatively speaking, eschewed negativity and inspired so many first-time voters. The Montana-based artist Beth Lo, whose pieces feature images of children cheering for Obama (as well as satirical renderings of a nude McCain and Palin with the caption Republicans' New Clothes) hopes that her contributions will become reminders of "a time when all worked so hard and celebrated a good cause for a good man, for the good of the country." The Obama-Biden campaign has inspired 27 artists to produce work that expresses their hopes, and in some cases their fears, in an intimate medium that has a unique ability to commemorate events and instill values.

As a fitting coda to the project, Ayumi Horie has now posted over 30 "Pots in Action" photographs on her website, showing Obamaware in domestic settings all over the country. Teacups accompany now-historic newspaper headlines proclaiming Obama's victory, champagne flows from a Moët bottle into an Obama mug, and many cheerful voters pose with their handmade souvenirs. The internet makes possible a rapid, dynamic and almost instantaneous dialogue between potter and consumer that has never been possible before. It allows objects formerly confined to the kitchen or the dining room to transcend geographical boundaries and become vehicles for narrative on a grander scale, responding to events in real time. It is heartening that the digital universe enthusiastically embraced these political pots even as they embodied a narrative tradition as ancient as fired clay itself.

View the original article in American Craft Council→