Jane Herold. Dinner Plate, 2015. Stoneware with white glaze, 0.5 x 11 in. Photograph by Signe Birck. Food by Bryce Shuman of Betony.My definition of “useful” keeps evolving. I’ve long believed that a pot’s true usefulness lies in its ability to generate caring, to inspire a cook to greater effort, to offer comfort and company in a cup of tea, to cause someone to pause and take note of a particular moment on a particular day. In other words, to alter people’s consciousness, however subtly.

Over the last three years, however, I’ve been making dishes for restaurants in collaboration with chefs, and my point of view has changed. And left me with a dilemma.

Pots occupy space in the same way sculpture does, and I’ve always wanted my work to have a strong, commanding, sculptural “rightness” and presence. Chefs are not looking for that. They are looking for canvases and frames for their artwork: the food they create. The pots that best serve them are simple and mostly undecorated.

Working with chefs has been a process of distillation to the bare essentials, which in pottery turns out to be primarily form (with a touch of color and texture). Form is the essence of all pots, of course, as any potter knows; in making dishes for chefs, there has been a paring away of the individual, the ego, and the specific, which comes across so strongly through decoration. The pots are less individually lovable to me, but in the sense of attractively serving food, they are more useful.

This interchangeability of pots goes against everything I’ve known and loved and worked toward for thirty-five years. Unloading a kiln has always been a pleasure, sorting through the pots, picking out favorites in which form, firing, and intent have all come together just so. Unloading a whole kiln of undecorated plates doesn’t invite that same scrutiny and celebration.

Is there a way to make each plate compellingly beautiful, even if it is undecorated or even “plain” white? There must be. Wood firing, with its nuances of color and surface would help; there are no plain pots in a good wood firing. The thing is, my restaurant pots are “whole” and finished only with food on them; it is then that they are beautiful. After experiencing a meal on one of my plates, one chef said, “The same food on a commercial plate would look like a mistake.” 

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