Marks left over from used cups
Art, Craft

Liberated! How yesterday’s coffee cups have gone to become tomorrow’s art

Artist Michael Strand wants to entice something from the back of your kitchen cupboard. A lingering memory which dithers on the verge of being let go. An episode in life, from all walks of life, represented in one of the most humble utilitarian form. He wants to swap that crappy cup you’d almost gladly throw away for one he had hand-thrown.

The ‘Misfit Cup Liberation’ project travels to ten cities around the world over three years, with the aim of collecting 1000 rejected souls along the way. And I had just the candidate for it.

Your story for a cup

At the point of exchange, everyone had to record the story of their cup – where it came from and why you wanted to swap it. The hand-written note is catalogued with the cup being brought in and can be traced back to the hand-made one being swapped. This will help to re-tell the stories and organise the different fragments into a bigger picture for an exhibition at the end of the project.

Letting go of my cup wasn’t as difficult as I had imagined. I have noticed how pleased many of the recipients seemed to look in photos of past swaps. Sure, who wouldn’t be smiling smugly having dealt with a mug who gave away something of higher monetary value otherwise, right? After all, some of the cups brought in were ugly as hell, had a broken handle or a crack down the side! To see this purely for monetary value would be missing the point. Yet the cups he makes are a form of currency. It’s as if he is using his potter’s wheel as the equivalent of the printing press to print his own banknotes of a different kind – one that is not exchanged primarily for material goods, but for sentiments. The cups he asks for in return are the physical symbols of those emotions, conveyed via the hand-written stories.

And what a collection of stories he had found! One of the more moving ones include an ex-prisoner who swapped the plastic mug he used daily during his sentence, as a way to leave that part of his life behind. The idea of leaving an experience behind is a common theme across many of the stories I have read at the swap. In some way, this is art therapy.

Michael’s skill also adds a psychological nudge which makes parting with a personal object imbued with memory an easy transition. His hand-made cups – turned on the wheel, trimmed, worked and glazed – clearly show the control of an accomplished craftsman, with the sensitivity of an artist-maker. Every set made for a swap location have an unified identity, but each cup also has its own idiosyncratic beauty.

The craft is in the context

Our everyday is full of machine-made, mass-produced, uniform objects. Most people are probably more used to drinking out of a coffee mug ‘slip cast’ ((Slip casting is a production method that uses clay in liquid form. Although not an entirely mechanised process, it is a common way of making identical pieces of ceramic in large numbers for everyday use.)) from a mould. Contemporary craft shops may promote the batch-produced studio objects with hand-made variations as a way to reconnect with our humanity via the hand of the maker. The touch of natural earthy materials; a varied form with a different feel in the hand; that element of differentiation from our experience of everyday uniformity. But this connection comes at a price many people will probably hesitate to pay – a handmade cup at a craft shop could be ten times that of a cheap mass-produced one at retail.

By not selling his own cups, but instead offering to exchange them for any story anyone could have for any cup, he is democratising the commodity of the skilled hand-made object. Interestingly, he also added a different value to it. The key lies in Michael’s ability to pick up on something most of us have experienced but looked past, then bring it out in a poignant way using the craft skills he has – a seemingly unimportant detail made special. That’s not an easy thing to do. Pieces of functional pottery with a shelf price has shifted context into the realm of art, with an indefinable price. If you were to be intellectual about it, this is social anthropology in the form of functional ceramics via participatory art!

On my way out, Michael remarked, “I think I got the better part of the deal.” Ditto. That thing? You can keep it! I left smiling with my new cup. It’s like the kitchen cupboard fairy has visited and replaced a lacklustre past episode with a new experience.


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