Forbidden Ceramics

ceramic vase with sgraffio
Dude, how’d ya make that sick bong?


At the turn of the millennium in my Beginning Ceramic Handbuilding Class, I met my first artistic censorship. As it was explained: “This is a College Art Course, not Grade School, a Rec Craft Program or Summer Camp, therefore we will not encourage, fire or grade your ashtrays. Or your pipes and bongs.”  Often those sorts of pieces would mysteriously break or disappear.  I have some observations about that.  After this, you probably will too.

I grew up when kids made lots of ashtrays. They were wobbly lumps of garishly glazed clay, or tuna cans wrapped in gluey yarn, or vacu-formed plastic squares. Lovable, but really, ever so hideous. That’s probably why I can’t find even one Kid-made Vintage Ceramic Handmade Ashtray on Etsy or Ebay; either no-one kept them or no-one thinks they’re saleable. Probably a bit of both.

As we know, the poshness of cigarette smoking was eventually designated a public health hazard and the common ashtray attained the status of hinktybobble. “Just Say No” and the D.A.R.E. Programs also stopped kids from making accessories for socially toxic adult addictions.

The real problem in my ceramics class wasn’t with cigarettes and rec program projects, though, or even with higher aesthetics. The reason college kids made ashtrays, pipes and bongs in 2001 was for marijuana, plain and simple. That wasn’t mentioned in the censorship announcement. It didn’t need to be.

It wasn’t mentioned, either, each time an obvious bong or pipe found its way into the kiln shed and the kiln tech’s hands bobbled it. It wasn’t mentioned when my mentor shook her head over a gorgeously elaborate clay pipe waiting to get bisque-fired, and she quietly rued, “They don’t even know that if they just started using it right now, at bone dry, that it would fire itself over time.” (Gives new meaning to “fire up a bowl,” right?) Then she snapped it apart.

That piece in the photo above, rocking the most psychedelic Photoshop Elements color editing I could quickly manage? It’s not a bong. Never was gonna be. I just found that vase shape compelling back in the day and did some serious sgraffito work on it. Our kiln tech told me he did a double-take when he saw it, checked for a not-so-cleverly-disguised hole in the side and, finding none, noticed the signature and then loaded it in the kiln because of the sober ceramicista that I am. Glad he looked and saved it, but geez, it would make an artful accessory!

The times are always a-changin’ and marijuana usage, both recreational and medicinal, is definitely more accepted and even legal in some states. Starting Jan 1, 2018 in California, if I choose to, I can buy and grow and use this age-old no-one-has-ever-died-from-it herb without obtaining further permission – following my state, county and municipality’s specific code regulations, of course. It won’t be illegal and neither will the paraphernalia needed to partake of it. But that’s the thing, ashtrays, pipes and even bongs have never been illegal, just sidelined by association.

Recently I attended the local Parkinson’s Support Group meeting at the invitation of a friend and listened to the expert presenter describe marijuana usage choices for the constellation of challenges Parkinson’s folks face, from balance to REM Sleep Behavior Disorder. Since cannabis use and its effects have not been diligently and rigorously studied (no approval or funding,) and it still carries unproved stigmas, each person is left to experiment on their own to determine which strain, formulation, and which method of use – smoking, ingesting, topical application – best addresses their concerns. Smoking is only one method, and if my friend chooses to, I will gladly make him beautiful ceramic pieces to aid him.

–Liz Crain, who finds the cultural customs and values merry-go-round fascinating. In a bit of research for this post, she asked “the crowd” about practices and policies that they know of in college ceramics classes. It appears that ashtrays and their smoking apparatus cousins are still not welcome. Maybe that will change so that they raise no more eyebrows than, say, the currently fashionable whiskey set. She would love to attend a workshop dedicated to the intricacies of their creation. Maybe title it “Forbidden Ceramics?” (That said, she agrees it’s still better to leave them out of the grade school arts and crafts curriculum. ;))







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4 thoughts on “Forbidden Ceramics

  1. I am going to ask the pottery instructor’s if it’s okay to make marijuana pipes now that the state law is changing.

    1. Hey Paul, Let me know what the answer is!!!!

  2. I still have a collection, and use my Heath ashtrays of varying size, scattering them on tables when I entertain. Considering that cigarette smoking has made pariahs of many Californians, I find it amusing that the receptacles are never filled with spent doobies…don’t we tend to ingest that last ort?…but overflowing with the butts of reformed smokers who almost always say, “I quit buying years ago, but could I bum one now?” BTW, it was Mary Heath who made and patented the first cutouts in clay to conveniently hold the cigarettes, and there is an example in The Smithsonian.

    1. Yes! You keep those Heaths. For parties! I would love to see photos of them in all their Heath-an wonderfulness.

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