MICHELLE TANBERG

Our sense of touch is a beautifully designed language, one that is easily overlooked until something incredible makes us pause for a moment in our daily lives to truly feel something and experience it- see it- with our hands.

Ceramics and clay speak eloquently and boldly in the language of touch, and one should be able to appreciate the aesthetic of a form without beholding it with their eyes; simply by holding a vessel in hand, internalizing the weight of it, investigating the curves and tracing the ridges and even imperfections in the surface, testing the balance point and gravity of the shape, how much it holds before spilling and where the best place to rest one’s lip on is found, etc.

I met my friend Grace in university orchestra ten years ago; she was a violinist getting her certification in teaching Braille to visually impaired children and I was studying both double bass and ceramics. I had chosen “texture as a language” for my advanced research project in the ceramic studio and had my musings tuned into what that could look like translated into clay. It was through listening to Grace tell of her own life experiences and the discoveries she made in teaching that the inspiration for “Braille Bowls” was born. Initially my desire was to teach myself Braille, slowly, through writing my own secret messages, most of which are short poems and hopeful offerings. (As a child I was taught sign language and quickly picked it up, but then the application of the signing stopped and everyone forgot the motions, the symbols, the shapes.)

Our ability to experience our surroundings with different senses gives us a new perspective into the wonder around us. Grace would probably correct me in saying that Braille is technically considered a "code" and not a true language, because it cannot be spoken audibly, to which I would say the act of communicating and deciphering through touch is an incredible skill to be celebrated non the less. I wanted to encourage people to feel things differently, to slow down and take the time to be challenged and crack a hidden message, to consider what it might be like to see and read through their finger tips as others have come to learn from necessity, and for us all to appreciate our gift of sight but also the profound beauty of touch. Almost every time I hand someone a Braille bowl, they say, “what does it say?!” expectant to be handed the answer. I usually encourage them to try to read it without giving away the answer, to look up the alphabet and start in. I want to provide opportunities for the beholder to practice developing their curiosity, to explore a mystery and press in a little closer to find the poetry, to engage them for a moment in uncovering something hidden, not just giving them the easy out. Participation points are still relevant!

Even partially blind people begin learning this code by sight, so I don’t expect anyone to already have "reading through touch" down, but it would be so neat to think that a Braille bowl could inspire someone to become a Braille reader or even teacher some day.

 I made the intentional choice to glaze these tea bowls in a neutral creamy white, like an unmarked page of parchment paper, so as not to distract the beholder with color from the tactile invitation. Now they come out in different hues in experimental batches, although I find the white to be the most appropriate fit.

I have been making Braille bowl messages in small batches over the years, giving them to close friends and family as gifts and hoping to goodness none of the dots, or “letters” popped out unbeknownst to me before the final permanency of a glaze firing, which has happened a few times, forever eternalizing typos to confuse the reader/sipper (sorry Aunt Lisa! A forever "Fop of the Morning" to you too!). Making all of the dots by hand and fitting them accurately across each cup takes time, so these vessels not only take a long moment to decode but also to map out. Finding and choosing words worthy of being “set in stone” can be the hardest part, measuring and matching that message to a certain someone. This part is like being the slowest Haiku poet in the land, but I find the whole process to be rewarding.

I made a special little braille cup for Grace and sent it to her years later, with a personalized message of gratitude; she reported back that she lets her budding braille students hold and read it as well. Such a satisfying and inspiring notion to me!

I will keep making Braille bowls if people promise to keep reading them.

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