Bowl Showdown at Torner Pottery

On one side, the irascible Dick Hay. On the other, the introspective Ray Chen.

On January 17, at Torner Center in Deming Park, they will face off, not with dueling pistols or swords, but by throwing bowls.

Both men are former chairs of the art department at Indiana State University. Both are respected artists, as shown by the extensive lists of exhibits they’ve been in, lectures they’ve given and museum collections that hold their work. Both say they are sculptors, not potters.

Hay is the one who framed the charity related event as a kind of duel. Whether it is just a part of his natural personality, or a kind of performance art, Hay comes across as strikingly confrontational. In a brief telephone interview, I perceived that his attitude toward my questions about bowls ranged from dismissive to angry.

“There’s no imagination in bowl making,” Hay said. “I can make 50 bowls in a hour.”

Hay compared making bowls to the situation of a writer (such as myself) having to sit and describe a rose over and over. He gave some examples of the kind of clichéd phrases he thought would result. Hay’s belief is that plenty of people can make bowls and cups because “the easiest thing is to copy what there is out there.”

“Clay is a little chunk of the earth,” Hay said. “You can do all sorts of things with a little ball of clay.”

As an example of what he could do, Hay suggested that I attend the bowl event and become a participant of sorts.

“I’ll do what the Native Americans did,” Hay told me. “Take a ball of clay and put it on your head and then I can press the clay around it and make a bowl… I can do knees, I can do your butt…”

I may take him up on this offer, although I’m pretty sure that using my butt as a model would result in a platter rather than a bowl.

Ray Chen agreed with my best guest that this method of bowl making was probably faux Native American lore. I spoke to Chen in person at Halcyon Gallery where he is director. His demeanor was polite, and he responded thoughtfully to my attempts to find out how he hoped to raise bowl awareness in Terre Haute, which is a goal of the event at Torner in addition to creating bowls that will be donated to the Soup Bowl Benefit sponsored by Catholic Charities.

“We don’t notice the importance of a bowl,” Chen said, “but if we don’t appreciate what we do in daily life, we can’t go beyond ourselves.”

Chen believes that for a sculptor, training in ceramics is important and learning to make a good bowl is an essential primary practice.

“Everything starts from the bowl,” Chen explained. “When we start to teach, we teach a bowl.”

According to Chen, a good bowl has to be comfortable to use, and this is related to its weight and how it fits in your hand. Also, the touching point to the lip has to feel nice.

This last requirement seems to relate more to an Asian style bowl than to the kind Americans fill with cornflakes and milk, but even a cereal bowl might be brought to the lip to get the last drop.

Chen thinks that how the creator of the bowl incorporates beauty causes the user to pay more attention and take more care, and this is a how functional piece becomes ceremonial.

The theme in Chen’s sculpture is “mother and child” and he looks at the bowl in that context.

“The bowl is mother because mother contains,” Chen said.

I haven’t run any odds, but I’m betting that Chen’s respect for the bowl and desire to educate rather than agitate should carry the day. Go see for yourself.

January 17, from 4 to 8 pm at Torner Center Pottery, Deming Park, 500 Fruitridge in Terre Haute.

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