I purchased these three clay souvenir tokens outside a religious shrine in Thailand. I’ve seen similar clay souvenirs in other Asian countries and in Latin America. I’ve used them as press molds in larger ceramic pieces that I’ve built.
They exude a certain aura of the divine, subtle yet unmistakable.
When using one of these tokens (actually, a reverse-impression of the clay token) as a press mold recently, I started thinking about the origin of clay tokens, especially as souvenirs of religious or spiritual sites around the world.
Religious-themed clay tokens have been found dating back to early Mesopotamian times, 8,000-9,000 years ago.
Archeolologist Joel Palka notes that:
In the ancient Near East, clay tokens were used in temples, human burials, pilgrimage shrines, and ritual caches… Cross-culturally, worshipers utilize small clay objects for ceremonial purposes, such as pilgrims’ tokens. Clay absorbs spiritual power at shrines in many cultures, making it a significant material for ritual offerings, blessings, or protection. Worshipers place clay tokens at shrines or take them home for family members and sick persons to touch or consume. Similar material contexts suggest that ancient people in the Near East used some clay tokens to gain merit from deities for prosperity, health, and religious devotion.“ (Palka, J.W. “Not Just Counters: Clay Tokens and Ritual Materiality in the Ancient Near East.” J Archaeol Method Theory (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10816-020-09457-8)
Illustrating Palka’s observation that small clay souvenirs are widespread across the world, clay tokens serving as religious icons were manufactured in the early Christian world. These two souvenir tokens celebrating the life of Saint Symeon the Elder date back to the 6th-7th century.
Saint Symeon was an ascetic, one of a group of Stylite “pillar dwellers” known for living alone & unsheltered atop high stone columns for 47 years of his life, practicing self-mortification in religious devotion. Apparently this drew a crowd. Ultimately, a group of followers settled around Saint Symeon’s column, eventually growing into a large pilgrimage complex along the major crusader route from Europe to the Holy Land. Souvenir tokens, purportedly created from the dust surrounding the columns on which Symeon stood, were sold to passing pilgrims. The tokens, stamped with the image of Symeon, were believed to hold great curative powers, as if the pilgrim were touching the hand of Saint Symeon himself. (See: Lived Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World: Approaching Religious Transformations from Archaeology, History and Classics, Valentino Gasparini, Maik Patzelt, et al.)
[One odd thing to note: there was a Saint Symeon the Elder and a Saint Symeon the Younger – presumably father and son. Clearly living in isolation on top of a stone pillar for 47 years was somehow attractive to the ladies. Go figure.]
Other examples of clay religious-themed souvenirs are these these two pilgrim flask mementos of St. Menas, pictured in both instances with his arms outstretched in a blessing. Both are ceramic ampullae (small holy-water flasks brought from pilgrimage places as a souvenir, and mass-produced in Early Byzantine times). They were found at Abu Mena, near Alexandria in Egypt.
The first example is held in the British Museum (item number EA69839). It is dated as late Roman, apx. 480-650. It was made from a mold and is stamped in Greek “O ΑΓIOC ΜΗΝΑC,” translated as Saint Menas.
The second example is held in the Louvre Museum.
These small religious tokens made of clay represent a continued tradition of human creative activity that has lasted over 9,000 years. Think about that for a minute. In today’s world, any one of us may live 100 years, experiencing perhaps 6 generations (our grandparents to our great grandchildren). People have been making these clay souvenirs for 400 – 450 contiguous generations, and we still find them on display in small roadside stands near temples and churches across the globe.
Yana Payusova was born in Leningrad, USSR. She was trained as a painter at the St. Petersburg Fine Art Lyceé, and received her MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder after immigrating to the U.S. Yana exhibits her work nationally and internationally. Her paintings and ceramics incorporate symbols of folk art, Russian icons, graphic poster art, illustration, and comics, and reflect Yana’s cultural heritage and her training in traditional Russian realist painting. I reached out to Yana after seeing her work exhibited at the Northern Clay Center’s “Horror Vacui” show. She graciously agreed to an online interview in these isolating Coronavirus times.
JW: Yana, what attracted you to ceramics?
YP: In my work as a painter, I always felt the urge to move into the third dimension.
When I was making paintings on canvas, I tended to use very thick stretcher bars and continued the intricate and detailed painting on all four sides of the canvas (even though a viewer would never be able to see most of those surfaces when the work was hanging in a gallery/museum).
I knew that I wanted to break out of the flat surface, but could not think of an approach that did not feel gimmicky. I always admired ceramics from afar, but did not see an entry way into the medium. Ceramics seemed to me to have a very steep learning curve and come with too many possibilities and choices. However, in 2013 two things happened that changed the trajectory of my artistic practice.
First, I came up with an idea to create a series of heads and at the same time came across the work of Katharine Morling. Morling’s work is visually stunning but very restrained in the materials she uses (white clay body decorated with black slip).
Her sculptures look almost like three-dimensional drawings. It was a Eureka moment and I dove off the deep end. Initially it was a very frustrating process, as I had to fail again and again (and again!) before I started to figure out the process, the materials, the timing, etc. One project turned into many and I never looked back.
JW: Had you worked with ceramics earlier in your career? What started you down this path?
YP: I worked with clay a little bit when I began my training at the St. Petersburg Art Lycée (Russia) at the age of twelve, but we did not fire the work nor did we have any glazes. As I mentioned, I always admired ceramics from afar, but could not decide what I wanted to do with it. In my graduate program at the University of Colorado at Boulder we participated in graduate seminars with students from other disciplines, including ceramics. At that time, I also thought that sculpture, as a broad medium, was going through a Renaissance of sorts in the contemporary art scene. I kept seeing work that resonated with me that was ceramic in nature. What the artists did with the medium was endlessly surprising and varied.
JW: How have the properties of ceramics influenced your artistic development?
YP: I always loved the physicality of clay. Loved how it warmed to the touch and responded to one’s direction. However what I find to be its most irresistible quality is its versatility. One can make dainty functional works and giant abstract sculptural pieces and slip cast multiples, etc. One can literally take it in any direction one desires. Also clay is cheap so it’s a somewhat democratic medium.
JW: Do you think of yourself as a ceramic artist now – or is your work in ceramics just one phase of your creative arc?
YP: I think of myself as an interdisciplinary artist. I have always painted, but used various media in my practice. For example my MFA thesis was photographic in nature but the surface was layered with drawings, paintings, and digital scans.
JW: In your “Revolutions” series, you created these interesting, intertwining bowl forms covered with narration. What was the origin of this work?
YP: Again it was one of those moments when an idea for a project came to me, at the same time I was teaching my Comics and Sequential Art course at the University of Arizona and was looking at a lot of wordless novels and woodcuts from the 1920s and 30s. At the same time I came across Akio Takamori’s erotic vessels and just fell in love with the complexity of the form and surface. The series began with a small homage piece to Takamori. As soon as I finished the first piece, I knew I wanted to keep going.
“Revolutions” explores the dynamics of power and gender… The vessel functions as a circular canvas whose interior and exterior spaces are activated with imagery examining the ever-changing roles of women and cultural gender norms.
Clay forms are hand-built using the coil technique, then bisque-fired before they are painted with underglazes in layers, and scratched into the painted surface. The color palette is purposely restricted to one traditionally used in printmaking: most of the imagery is black and white, an homage to the stark language of the woodcut print. Red is also added as an essential primary color.
JW: What prompted you to utilize bowl shapes as the foundation for these narrations?
YP: I think of the pieces as spherical vessels, very body-like. I liked being able to work on the two surfaces (interior and exterior) simultaneously and enjoyed the fact that the two surfaces continually interacted with one another, as the viewer moved around the piece. I was able to stay very spontaneous and intuitive as I worked on the surface as large stretches of the surface were two dimensional. It was almost like drawing on a flat surface. I liked the fact that the imagery was endlessly looping. It felt animated and almost cinematographic.
JW: You incorporate so much imagery from your Russian origins — what draws you to that imagery and those cultural references?
YP: I lived in Russia until I was seventeen and I am obviously hugely influenced by Russia’s culture, folklore and traditions. Some of the imagery is steeped in nostalgia. Some of the imagery is not meant to look Russian but is because it is deeply personal. I believe that in the personal lays the universal. Even though the imagery looks Russian at first glance, the surface is not impenetrable to the viewer.
JW: In Revolutions, you seem to be moving beyond strictly Russian imagery. (There are certainly Russian elements, but they don’t seem to dominate the images as in your earlier work.) Is this a change in direction for you?
YP: Though my choice of influences and imagery transcends boundaries of space and time, my own cross-cultural existence plays a crucial role in shaping my individual perspective and aesthetic. Revolutions is a series about the female experience. Most of the figures that you see in the series are unclothed. Once we remove the clothes and various other attributes it’s much more difficult to specify the ‘country of origin,’ so to speak. There are some cultural nuances in what it’s like to be a woman in today’s society in Russia but there are many overlapping complexities of sexuality, motherhood, and mortality.
JW: Where will you take your art from here?
YP: My fascination with memory and identity continues in Gravis, a large-scale sculptural installation that investigates the importance of materiality to recollection and personal narrative. I describe the work as follows:
Life-size portraits, juxtaposed with assemblages of artifacts, invite contemplation of the embodiment of individual experience in accumulated belongings. Assembled items, when viewed alongside the personal depictions, will encourage each viewer to construct a narrative built from the imagined experiences embodied in each object. The act of observation thus becomes a participatory and collaborative process that investigates the productive tension between emotional and intellectual engagement with the concepts of memory, materiality, and identity. Human figures, embellished with inventories of personal objects, represent the encoded experiences and artifacts of the dissolved Soviet Union and encapsulate the enormous impact of radical political and cultural shifts on collective memory, which is repeatedly modified, reconfigured, and woven into personal histories.
JW: Will you continue employing ceramics?
YP: In the foreseeable future – yes!
JW: Are there directions you want to push the ceramic “foundation” in your art – or are you more focused on pushing the painted imagery and narratives that rest on that foundation?
YP: I would like to experiment more with various glazes, stains, englobes and get more expressive with the surface. I am currently in the process of applying for some artist residencies where I can take the time and space to do so. I do think that it’s useful to continue to learn new processes, as it expands what is possible in the studio.
JW: As an art professor, are you seeing more programs and students gravitating toward ceramics in their art (or as part of their art)?
YP: Ceramics are hugely popular today. I think that the physicality of the medium and the tactile quality of clay is very grounding in today’s online existence.
“The Mimbres Pottery Images Digital Database (MimPIDD) is a collection of over 10,000 images of Mimbres ceramic vessels, among the most spectacular and renowned prehistoric pottery in North America. The Mimbres archaeological culture, concentrated in southwest New Mexico, is particularly noted for its stunning black-on-white style bowls, which were often decorated with naturalistic designs (especially ca. A.D. 1000-1130)…. Numerous collections of Mimbres pottery vessels exist, scattered across many countries and dozens of museum and private collections. …. The MimPIDD image collection and database brings together visual and descriptive information from many of these collections, allowing easy access to a wealth of disparate data. Created by Harvard Peabody Museum Curator Steven LeBlanc and Arizona State University Professor Michelle Hegmon, MimPIDD contains images and data from more than 75 collections and more than 140 archaeological sites.”
Although designed for academic research, the site affords anyone the ability to view Mimbres pottery while Coronavirus travel restrictions persist. It also allows the viewer an opportunity to refine his/her search criteria for subsequent in-person visits to museums. Typically, when requesting such in-person visits, a museum asks either for specific item numbers
you want to view, or for key object criteria (such as period of time, historical phase, identifying marks or styles, etc). This resource can help you answer some of those questions.
In May 2019, I attended the “Big Pot Workshop & Pig Roast” at Judson Pottery in northern Colorado. Master potter Dan Toberer demonstrated his construction of large clay amphora which he sells to craft breweries. Tim Barry, a partner with Dan in Omaha, NE’s “Hot Shops Art Center” lead a discussion ranging from technical topics on ceramic production to large-scale public art commissions.
The workshop location was the Judson Pottery, set on the Phantom Canyon Ranch in northern Colorado. Judson Pottery was a regional ceramics production facility established 50 years ago and is still used today by the owners for small-scale pottery production. Phantom Canyon Ranch once covered over 140 square miles spanning from the edge of Rocky Mountain National Park on its southern border to close to the Wyoming border on its northern edge.
The setting was extraordinary. The workshop itself was in the old barn. Workshop attendees could wander around the site, inspecting several large kilns. The workshop was interesting. I met great people, including nearby ranchers who came by after the workshop to enjoy the pig roast. Interestingly, several ranchers I met there had lived & worked in Central America, including one man who lived in the same Costa Rican town I lived in during my Peace Corps days. Small world. Dan brought some home-made beer to share with workshop participants. During these Coronavirus safer-at-home days, I think back fondly to that well-spent day in Colorado: cold beer, roasted pig, great conversation, and a workshop.
The Kumortuli district of Kolkata (previously known as Calcutta), India, is famous for manufacturing clay gods and goddesses for Indian festivals. The district is large and houses multiple workshops where clay figures, decorative motifs, and platforms to transport finished clay idols. Villagers in towns throughout the region carry these painted gods and goddesses through the streets on their shoulders during festival days of the year, depositing the clay figures back in the Hooghly River at the end of their procession, where the clay figures and ornamentation dissolve back into river silt.
I spent a day wandering through the alleyways and workshops several years ago. The level of craftsmanship first catches your attention. Large numbers of workers dredge up grey clay from the Hooghly River and sell it to workshops specializing in decorative motifs (see image below left) to figurative works (below right).
Another impressive aspect of Kumortuli is the expanse of manufacturing piecework. This district sprawls. Beautiful medieval-like workshops scatter the side roads and alleyways. Wander into any one at will, the workshops are open and welcoming to curious strangers. This is assembly-line construction, presumably on a commission basis. Workshops specialize in very specific elements (platform construction, decoration, figure construction, figure painting, assembly, etc) required for the overall finished piece.
On June 4, 2020, I launch this blog site. We’re in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Protests have broken out across the country in response to the brutal, senseless killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last week. Unemployment is at a high in my lifetime. There is pain spread across this land.
I dedicate this blog to exploring topics in ceramics, both contemporary and historical. Not because this effort will eliminate or even minimize the pain spread across this land, but because it’s a small effort to celebrate beauty, creativity, inventiveness and craftsmanship – qualities that add to our human experience.