Your Story for a Mug

by Neil Caudle


Patricia Fancher and Brent Pafford in the Acorn Gallery, with their handiwork. Photo by Benjamin Hines.

Would you swap a story for a mug? So far, several hundred people have taken the deal. What happens next is anybody’s guess, which is sort of the point.

Patricia Fancher, a Ph.D. candidate in rhetorics, communication, and information design, got together with Brent Pafford, a potter and master’s candidate in fine arts, to test the notion that a mug can hold more than your coffee, hot tea, or a motley bouquet of pencils and pens. A mug, they thought, could also hold meaning. We grow attached to our mugs and include them in our everyday rituals, at work and at home. If we share a mug, or borrow one, or spill our secrets while we cling to one, the mug is also a conduit between people, Fancher says. So the mugs become, as Fancher and Pafford put it, “potent objects.”

“With use and time they gather significance,” Fancher says. “Everybody who touches them makes them different.”

Four hundred takers

The Potent Objects Project, which debuted at the end of January with an opening at the Acorn Gallery in Lee Hall, involves trading a handcrafted mug to anyone willing to pony up a story. Fancher estimates four hundred takers. And the project is already out of control because Fancher and Pafford planned it that way.

“We want to expand the notion of what it is to be an author,” Fancher says. “Authorship is not always about one individual controlling the work. Rhetoric and art are both inherently social. With this project, we are deliberately choosing to give up our authorial intent to four hundred participants. Which makes it far more interesting, I think, because it’s so massive.”

So the mugs go out, the stories come in, and Fancher and Pafford explore the connections. They are recording the stories as audio, to play in a gallery, and are using a website to follow the fate of their mugs. Each mug has been tattooed, on its bottom, with a QR code, which a smart phone can use to open the Potent Objects Project website. On the site, participants can log their locations, post photos, add stories, and describe what the mug has been up to lately. Fancher and Pafford hope that each participant will bond with a mug for a couple of weeks and then pass it along, to gather more stories and steep new connections. The mugs, they say, could go global.


Over his holiday break, Pafford throws another mug on the potter’s wheel as ranks of unfired vessels wait for handles. Photo by Jessica Hilvitz.

Babysitting five hundred mugs

All of this sounds a lot simpler than it was. For one thing, the team didn’t just go out and buy a few crates of cheap mugs. Fancher and Pafford supposed that a mug made by hand, by a potter with artistic intention, might conceivably elevate the potency of a potent object. Pafford isn’t making any philosophical pronouncements on that point, but his basic design for the mugs is meant to suggest human touch and to stir up personal associations. He began with a basic mug form and added a slight bell curve to the top, to hold heat. “We made them fairly thick,” he says, “like the mugs from a diner, and heavy, so you can feel some weight in your hand.”

Handcrafted potency came at a price. First, the team had to mix the four ingredients of white porcelain clay, eight hundred pounds of it in fifty- to seventy-five pound batches. They used a pug, a heavy-duty mixer of sorts, to extract air and align the particles. After the clay rested for a week, Pafford spent several days throwing mugs on the wheel. He “pinched off” the mugs to shape them and leave his fingerprints in the clay. When they were firm enough, he put the mugs back on the wheel, one by one, upside down, and trimmed the bottoms. Throughout, he had to keep checking each mug for dampness, to keep it from cracking.

“It was like babysitting five hundred little mugs,” Pafford laughs, “which is wonderful, and a disaster at the same time.” The endless repetition didn’t bother him, he says, because “I became aware of each detail and what it could mean to someone else.”

Fancher helped him attach the handles. “The worst day we had was the day we put handles on everything,” she says. “That took about thirteen hours. We call it The Day We Shall Not Mention. The clay was cold, so our hands got cold and dry, and it was the same repetitive motion, over and over. It was like a long car trip that’s fun at first, because you’re laughing and talking about bands you like, and that kind of thing. But then it gets tiring, and you’re saying, ‘Are we there yet?’”

As any potter can tell you, not every mug survives the kiln. For the initial firing, the team loaded mugs into all five of the art department’s electric bisque kilns. Thirty-six hours later, they opened the kilns and found what the firing had wrought. “We made five hundred mugs, and in the process we lost about a hundred,” Fancher says. “They cracked or fell off the shelf.”

The losses were especially poignant because of what Fancher and Pafford had invested to create the mugs. “We spent our Christmas break,” Fancher says. “We gave our participants our Christmas break.”

They unloaded the kilns and applied a clear glaze to the interiors and lips of each of the four hundred intact mugs. They left most of the exterior surfaces unglazed, not only to let the mugs acquire a natural patina but also to allow users to write messages directly on the porcelain. To prompt such writing, the team laboriously inscribed, by hand, three blank lines on the side of each mug.

The team’s debut at the Acorn included fifty stories and one hundred mugs reserved for the event. The culminating exhibit, planned for April 22 to May 2, will make use of digital media in the recently renovated Edgar Brown Digital Resources Laboratory, part of Clemson University Libraries.

How good are the stories, so far? Fancher laughs about a crazy party where a mug made a storied appearance. But as of this writing, her favorite story is the one she received first, from Greg Shelnutt, chair of the Department of Art. Here, with his permission, is what he wrote:

One of the most potent objects I own is an image. It is an image of an apple. It is a photograph made by my father. He made it the summer I became ill with a nerve virus that kept me from being able to walk for the entire summer. He had come early home from a large-format camera workshop with Ansel Adams to make sure I was all right.

My recovery was a slow process, and in addition to listening to Monty Python albums, we spent a lot of time talking and just being. My father was still in the mindset of Adams’ concept of “making” a photograph and giving the viewer the “equivalent” of what he felt. Thusly, one day he pulled a Granny Smith apple out of the refrigerator and put it on the dining room table to photograph. He ducked under the cloth hood, studying the light as it changed, watching the moisture condense, form droplets, and roll down its shiny surface, finally clicking the shutter at the appropriate moment.

He then sat down and contemplated the changing light through the dining room window, waiting for it to change in a way that might reveal another aspect of the apple. When he judged that the light seemed just right, he ducked under the hood again.

To his consternation, the apple was gone. He began to search the room, but to no avail…Until he looked down, and in his hand (I don’t recall which one), there was the apple core. The consumed apple was thus the subject of only the singular image, the singular moment.

My father died of cancer on January 7, 2003. At his eulogy, I talked about that apple, that moment, and that photograph, and how I wished that I knew where it was, since I did not have a copy.

On November 5, a package arrived from a longtime friend of the family, John Baskin, Jr. In that package was a framed copy of the photograph of the apple. When I called John to thank him for the meaningful gift, he was saddened to learn of my father’s passing; in my grief, I had failed to inform him. My father’s birthday was November 5.

In exchanging this story for Brent’s mug, I knew from the start that I wanted to pass the mug along to my daughter, Emily. It was both a chance to share this story with her again, and an opportunity to ask her what objects, stories, what moments are important to her. I have no expectations about what she will say, or to whom she will give the mug.

I am, however, thankful to The Potent Object Project for sparking this dialogue and future exchange. Ultimately, it made me think of a favorite quote from Claes Oldenburg: “I am for an art that imitates the human, that is comic, if necessary, or violent, or whatever is necessary. I am for an art that takes its form from the lines of life itself, that twists and extends and accumulates and spits and drips, and is heavy and coarse and blunt and sweet and stupid as life itself.”

Story by Greg Shelnutt

The Potent Object Project was funded through a grant from the College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities.

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