Even when it sits empty, the mug is heavy in my hand. This is its first pleasure. To be solid. To be real.
It has a large handle—thicker than my thumb—that curves like an uppercase D. Holding the mug, I experience the pleasure of reciprocity. As much as I encircle the mug with my touch, it also seems to push back against my fingers and palm, as if capable of embracing me in return.
The red-brown clay, iron-rich, is exposed at the lip of the vessel and then again near the base, the piece dipped three-quarters of the way into glaze. The contrast between rough clay and smooth finish is a third pleasure. The glaze comes in many colors, with names like Pollen, Panna Cotta, Utah, Celery, Big Sky, and Night Swim. My favorite is the soft brown of a forest floor, a shade called Morel. Another pleasure: the tiny joy of naming a hue, of saying this color belongs to a spot on a map or to a tenebrous hour.
In an 1877 lecture, the textile designer William Morris argued that when the decorative arts are separated from the fine arts, the division is bad for beautiful things in general:
[T]he lesser ones become trivial, mechanical, unintelligent, incapable of resisting the changes pressed upon them by fashion or dishonesty; while the greater…become nothing but dull adjuncts to unmeaning pomp, or ingenious toys for a few rich and idle men.
Morris, famous for his elaborate patterns—swirls of acanthus leaves, birds stealing strawberries, a trellis twined with roses—believed that an object isn’t finished until it has “some touch or other of decoration about it.” Today, when I study the stoneware mug on the table beside me, I know why Morris wanted a union of the arts. The eye does not distinguish one lovely from another, whether the object has a daily task or its only function is to hang on a wall.
This is a year of global illness, which means I’ve spent months inside my house thinking about the possessions it contains. Most of my conversations are nearly bodiless, conducted over the telephone or on my laptop. In the era of quarantine, I can’t drive to Asheville, North Carolina, to visit the small company that made my mug. Instead, I speak to one of the cofounders of East Fork Pottery, in a place that is not a place, our two faces held within sharp rectangles on a computer screen.
I ask Connie Matisse, “Did you ever imagine the mug would develop such a following?” The mug has its own hashtag, a waitlist, and numerous articles dedicated to how it’s “breaking the internet.”
“Most of the time, to be very honest, most of the time we are still like, why are people so into our products? Why?” Connie sits with her elbow on the table, propping her head against her fist. Her eyebrows draw together in an expression almost of worry.
And then she grins, the graveness of the moment washing from her face. “What I mean to say is, I’m shocked and gladdened by it.”
“When you look at or hold one of the mugs,” I ask, thinking of my own intimate response to the pottery, “do you experience the same kind of connection to them?”
She nods. “Back when I was a softball player, and my glove just felt so familiar…It’s the same thing with my mug, it’s never not at my reach.”
I think about the right now of this time. We’re so virtual, so frightened by physical contact.
“Why do these kinds of objects mean so much in this particular moment?” I ask.
Connie nods again. “The fact that it’s so literally dirt…It’s so easy to feel grounded by ceramics.” Her hands are moving through air. “You can really feel connected to earth with it.” For a moment, I can picture a pot suspended there between her fingers. Then, just as quickly, the vessel evaporates, her hands moving on toward the next idea.
“I really like the way the three-quarter dip shows the raw clay. And the fact that it’s on the bottom shows there’s a sense of rootedness in the mug. And the fact that it’s bottom-weighted—it does feel heavy in your hand.” It’s as if, in our conversation, she has suddenly anticipated the opening lines of this essay. Even when it sits empty, I wrote a few pages ago, the mug is heavy in my hand.
“The mug really does force you to come down a little bit, which is maybe what people are looking for right now.” Connie sits before a brick wall painted white, its plain neutrality a backdrop onto which I can project my imaginings about the life beyond this electronic border. Somewhere there are wide shelves covered with unglazed, drying plates and cups. There’s a pug mill to process the clay. A jigger. A press. There’s a gas-fired kiln.
Our conversation ends with laughter. I ask, to satisfy my own acquisitive cravings, if there will be a pink mug soon. Oh, forgive me for wanting something pink—I know I sound frivolous.
“I love that question,” she tells me. And, yes, there will be. Sometime in the coming year, she says. As she speaks, I can already see the clay dipped in a fuchsia glaze or a blush or the pale rose of late afternoon.
Morris explains that the decorative arts strive “to beautify the familiar matters of everyday life.” They transform the drab moment. A carved mirror frames the face. A set of well-tuned windchimes turns the breeze into a chorus of bronze harmonies. The familiar matters of this year are pieces of cloth covering the mouth and nose. They are bottles of gel to sanitize hands. They are insomnia and the panic of what’s unseen—droplets and particles—pushing more than six feet through the air.
How to beautify such a year?
A piece of pottery may chip or crack. Here is its poignancy: it must be durable because the user will often forget its beauty, see only the service it provides. A mug is lifted from the counter then put down again. It is filled with warm liquid. It is held to the lips over and over, then washed, dried with a rough cloth, shoved in a cabinet.
In the kiln, pieces often break, are shattered by the first or second firing, but many emerge intact. With use, the clay at the rim of each cup darkens and hardens, as if to say, I am made stronger by our contact.
Every morning, the mug is the first thing I reach for. It is my companion in the day. We meet skin to glaze, skin to clay. What could be more intimate?
When I’m sick, I sip a ginger tea. I angle my face over the steam and breathe the heat.
I watch the evening news while holding—while forgetting I hold—this mug. On the television, hundreds of people are banging against a mahogany door. They’re breaking glass and ripping a plaque from the wall. They are carrying nooses, plastic ties for binding the wrists. A man wears a shirt that reads, Camp Auschwitz. A man shouts, “We are storming the Capitol—yeah baby!”
I squeeze the cup until the tips of my fingers turn white with the pressure. I gulp in what I see.
Nearly 150 years ago, Morris declared, “I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” In this way, the availability of art is linked to equality, that each of us should have our little portion of the beautiful, just as we should all have access to books and open spaces and a clear stream of water pouring from the faucet.
On the marble steps, the people’s faces are masks of anger, their features like raw clay, pinched or pressed as if by the fingers of a slapdash potter. Whatever meets their rage is shattered. Of course, I understand no ceramic mug, however beautiful, could stop them from hauling their own bodies against the barricades.
Is beauty trivial? Is it a flaw to want a life full of adornments? I care about the glass dish that holds the bathroom soap. The couch pillows concern me, the tray where I lay my housekeys. I can only control the minor domain of my home, fill every shelf with my meticulous assemblage of objects. The world beyond these rooms—people lifting their lead pipes to strike, people knocking and jabbing and piercing and stabbing, punching and kicking, battering and brawling—does what it wants in all its assaulting ugliness.
And despite all the bad news that comes every day through my television, the mug from which I drink offers one final pleasure. In its modest beauty it asks me to reflect on the power of well-crafted objects. It encourages me to both serious and silly in my philosophy. I’m reminded of Connie’s face shifting from grave to laughter as she talks about the clay and glazes that occupy her days. “The aesthetics of stoneware mugs,” I say to the quiet room. How professorial I am. I pace the length of my house, address my comments to the coffee table or to the orange chair in the corner. Even as I believe a decorative object can matter deeply in this year, I laugh at the solemnity of my voice.
“Let us now praise functional things,” I proclaim, “and the good hands that formed them out of clay.”
I lift my mug, and I drink.