This Plan was a meditation on home, memory, and loss conducted through ceramic art and literary analysis, including a body of functional ceramics and criticism of the work of Marilynne Robinson and Emily Dickinson. A gallery exhibition, titled “Commonplace,” presented a functional ceramic work exploring themes of memory, household structures, and attachment to objects to evoke emotions of curiosity and discovery. Throughout the yearlong process of making and then arranging those objects, Maya’s projects on Emily Dickinson and the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson became more and more about the spaces in the texts and the objects within them. She chose the Dickinson poems because of their odd, beautiful and jarring relationships with space, because of her interest in the spaces that people—particularly solitary people—choose for themselves. Maya finds that in Housekeeping, Robinson’s women are each defined by the circumstances under which they depart from and return to the family house, just as passengers on trains are defined by their departures and destinations.
Ceramic is a particularly meaningful material to work with when creating objects that are, if nothing else, mimicking heirlooms. It has all the properties human bodies do not: cold, hard, unmutable, and more or less eternal. That is, the fired and glazed objects have those attributes. Raw clay is more relatable—just earth and water. But it does feel appropriate to explore heirlooms and memory through a medium used for millennia to create just that: objects that outlive and outlast. It’s as true of the Venus of Willendorf as is it of Wedgwood china, which speaks to the incredible diversity of the material as well as our everlasting predilection, as a species, for self-commemoration and preservation of the non-physical.
Language, particularly in Dickinson’s hands, is an object, made to be manipulated and pushed against. Like wood, it has resistance, strength, and a certain amount of give. Dickinson has much in common with both the architect and the carpenter: she tests, sketches, and envisions her work from a distance that has a certain neatness and purity to it, in the way that blueprints look like crystalline structures with clean lines and neat instructions. But she is the laborer also; she does the heavier, close-up work of pulling structures up from paper into something linguistically habitable, a structured piece with a wholeness that is difficult to conceive of and envision from the half-constructed center.
Travelers on trains, women in houses, blood in the heart: Robinson carefully layers the text of Housekeeping with these recurring motifs and thereby allows flow into static places, and stillness into centers of motion. Past becomes present through the power of memory, and “need can blossom into all the compensations it requires.”31 Trains do not create the illusion of stasis. Looking out the window one sees people going about their lives and we know that we will never see those people again. There are new buildings, rotting ones, overgrown gardens and flooded, marshy woodlands that no one except train passengers ever see. Trains do not allow us the comfort of pretending that anything is endless: bridges end, lakes have shores, and each passenger has a destination. They know they are moving, that time is passing, and that the rails are taking them both closer and further away from known places. The space in between is just that: transient. They let it go by.
The inspirations for my Plan were the mountains and ocean of the Northwest and the poetic traditions of the Northeast. One of the things I remember most was thinking about my Plan in the shower. As one of my Plan-related tutorials, I learned about creating the ideal place settings for my ceramics exhibit. It’s a huge undertaking and amazingly rewarding as a process.
Explore More Plans
Pictorial embroidery in the Early Republican female academy
The Keeping House: Poems, short fiction, and an essay on the travel poems of Elizabeth Bishop
The indigestible narratives of the American past
Using paint: Abstraction of realism and representation in works by Robert Ryman and Susan Rothenberg