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Conversation Pieces

J.S. Maier Company, porcelain makers

In a small village in northern Bohemia where there are large deposits of kaolin a porcelain factory is built by three merchant partners, in 1890. Shares in the company are passed down to sons and daughters through three generations, who manage the factory and sell porcelain wares throughout Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

Twenty-four years later a world war, with Germany at its epicentre. At war’s end, Europe, the Middle East and Africa are re-distributed at the 1919 Paris Accords. The village is now in Germany. Nine years after that at the Munich Accords, Czechoslovakia is given to Hitler in an attempt to prevent WWII. He marches into Prague in 1939, and occupies it.

Shares in the porcelain factory are confiscated by the Third Reich, and management of the factory is reassigned. The descendants of the three partners in J.S. Maier Comp and their families disappear into work and concentration camps, and out of history.

Seventy-five years later, I buy a Czechoslovakian ‘tea set’ from an auction in a small town in Southern Ontario, Canada. The cups are tiny, and I’m a coffee drinker, so it sits on a lower shelf behind a door. A year after that the world, already in the grips of climate change, overpopulation, astonishing corporate abuse and systemic white supremacy is swept into massive and abrupt change by a global pandemic.

Lockdown keeps me from my studio and my elegant tea set emerges from the lower corner shelf and onto the table, an echo of old world comfort. Tea served to myself in a ceremony of pause, as a way to mark the passage of time. Milk poured not from a printed box but from a graceful gilt-edged creamer, then tea from an elegant pot, fluted and tall. My blind Glasgow-born grandmother lived alone and drank twenty-seven cups of tea a day at regular intervals; I begin to understand the ritual that once baffled me.

I’m missing conversations and writing at favourite cafes like The Brain. Sitting right beside someone I don’t know in a room full of people watching live music, an artist talk, a play. I miss smiling at people with my whole face, and not just my eyes. I observe the now embedded courtesy of avoiding contact and nearness; cross the street when someone else approaches, two metres at all times, always behind masks. Questions at every store, have you…? Do you…? Are you….? No. No, no. Okay, come on through.

Stay Home. And so we do. I read Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless.

The light here in my residency apartment is lovely on the gilt-edged blue and white porcelain, and right there is my good sharp pencil. There’s a pile of printing paper I had torn into pieces last year after experimenting with media in the studio. There’s my dad’s travel W&N watercolour set and some titanium white, there’s a speaker, my playlists; I start to draw ellipses. With my pencil and brush, titanium white and ultramarine blue I explore curves and the hollows, connections and conversations, the way the light shines the gilded handles and rims. This becomes a ritual pause that marks the passage of time.

Research enriches the experience, deepens it with the story of enterprise, good business, fine craftsmanship, anti semitism and brutality. Not so comforting, this old world porcelain, however beautiful. Not a tea set, but coffee set, made at what had been J.S. Maier Co in a little village in Southern Germany during World War Two, by imported german workers. Some of these workers are artists and master craftspeople, and I wonder what they are thinking about as they draw the gold lines around each rim.

The new owners stamp their work CZECHOSLOVAKIA, under the J.S. Maier mark of a hand holding a torch beneath a crown.

Now we have variants of the virus, and vaccines. A year since the first lockdowns we still Stay Home, still answer No. No, and no. from behind our masks in socially distanced lines. Through the long months we’ve become better at connection across distance, so that borders and countries and oceans and physical travel begin to seem like old school. Maybe also better at connection with ourselves, better at understanding what we value in others.

Each one of us has insight into this experience from inside a bubble of solitude or space shared with family, room mates, a significant other. We live in a billion trillion fish bowls – in small-space water that once was a pond, a great lake, an ocean. That’s a billion separate experiences complete with observations, epiphanies, traumas, breakthroughs. This fascinates me far more than the news, this ocean of fish bowls that we are.

With brush and pencil I explore these little cups and saucers, the creamer and the pot which are exactly and precisely designed for conversation and the sharing of anecdotes, insights, choices. I draw them on grounds I have made that look and feel chaotic, and change as the light changes. Like our world does. My curiosity is peaked. What do my musician friends see? My prison guard friend, my teacher friend, my paramedic friend… could I curate a pause that connects us in conversation?

I find a package of used stamps from around the world Poland, CCCP, Turkey, Spain, Italy, Churchill, the Queen of England – little pieces of old school art, from a letter sent long ago from somewhere to somewhere. Makes me want to connect.

Conversation 1 happening this week. You may be getting an email from me, inviting you to the next one. Stay tuned.