by Philip Kao
As a visiting assistant professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. Philip Kao’s research and teaching focuses on wisdom, aging, personhood, gender, and the anthropology of development. He is the editor of Anthropology & Aging, an international journal intent on fostering interdisciplinary dialogue and comparative research related to social and political contexts of aging.
In the spring of 2016, he sat down with Pittsburgh artist Marike Vuga to converse about pottery and wisdom. Wisdom plays a special role in her artwork. Not only does she draw from nature’s wisdom, but in her latest exhibition entitled ‘Ancient Wisdom’ she turns toward the glazes and techniques of her long ago ancestors. Her symbolic pottery inspires openness, introspection, healing, and joyful living. The following is an excerpt from the conversation.
Dr. Kao: Could you please tell us about your art and what motivates it?
Marike Vuga: My art is like nature, simple and complex at the same time. Most of my art looks like it was just excavated from an archeological site. It looks old, but it was made in the last couple of years. I desire to bring people closer to nature and inspire a simple, healthy, joyful and more natural way of living. I enjoy making art and seeing the effect it has on people. I love art so much, because it goes directly to the heart. There is no resistance to the piece upfront and people are more open to perceive. There is an openness to art. So, that's why art is so powerful, because it bypasses a lot of our conscious guards, and that's why it's so deep as well, because you can convey a lot of things in simple structures.
Dr. Kao: Can you expound on the symbolic meaning of your art? What is the wisdom of the spiral?
Marike Vuga: I enjoy creating symbolic embellishments on my pottery. I love working with symbols and simple shapes such as triangles. And a lot of my work features the spiral as a symbol. It relates to the natural ways of energetic movement in terms of moving out and attracting in, so the two types of orientation of the spiral relate to that outpouring type of motion, and then that pulling in type of motion. So I work with these two types of the spirals. For me, it is not about me enforcing a specific view of the symbols in my art, it is more about letting people experience what is in it for them.
Dr. Kao: At the end of your exhibit, what did you come to learn or appreciate about wisdom?
Marike Vuga: Wisdom is difficult to capture, yet you know it, you feel it when it’s there. There's a perception that whatever was said or felt was profound, reaching deep. The energetic aspect of wisdom can be perceived. So that's what it's about, the people walked away having perceived a new site of wisdom. When you create things that have a life of their own, it's wonderful. It also became clearer to me that wisdom often comes to me in a melodic way.
Dr. Kao: Does this sense of wisdom come from stereotypes that we have or is it really coming from something that's real, in other words, a place that might be ancient, raw, or something similar? I think that this artwork is right in the middle of that conversation where you don't necessarily have to be trained or take classes in art history to have a different feeling come over you.
Marike Vuga: That's the beauty. We are naturally able to perceive wisdom. I think that's the beauty of art in general. Nobody needs training to see the beauty of art. It can be that the art you perceive is not resonating with you. That's okay, there's lots of art out there that I don't find a resonance with. It doesn’t mean that that art is bad, it's just that it is not really giving me something, but it might give a lot of other people something. So another aspect of art is that you can't really judge it. Some people might not see the beauty in these pieces and so that doesn't mean anything about the pieces, just means that art cannot be judged.
Dr. Kao: You spoke about the function of your pottery, does that come after you made the pot, or how does that function arise in the process from beginning to end?
Marike Vuga: Whether my art is functional depends on the viewpoint. From an ancient life perspective all of my work is functional, but not functional how the word is currently used, functional for that they have a function, a message for the people who look at them. So, they have a function in sharing wisdom. I derived that wisdom from that ancient time period, because back then all pottery had a function. At that time, nothing was created that didn't have a function in people's lives, and a lot of symbolic pottery was created for worship. Archeologists found many female figurines from that period, some in pottery, some in bone, and some in stone. It is one of my missions to have my pieces talk for themselves. I'm not creating every piece to have a certain message; every piece just has its own message. It's like a person, you know? We have qualities.
Dr. Kao: You also have necklaces and paintings that showcase these kinds of ancient impressions using your hand build ceramic art, but in kind of different ways. Are these pieces decorative—how do these fit into this project of ancient wisdom?
Marike Vuga: Ancient people decorated themselves with jewelry, and it had a function. Not just to look prettier, there was something deeper and symbolic to it. The paintings were created as an extension of the pendant and its symbolic meaning to me. It is about sharing a bigger message about the expression as a whole. Basically, I show a thematic interconnectedness that transcends media.
Dr. Kao: When you say that a lot of these art pieces bring us back to the wisdom of nature, what do you mean? What is the wisdom of nature?
Marike Vuga: The beauty of the flower. The wisdom of nature is the simplicity and the amazing variation. I mean, look, no two flowers are the same. Even within the same flower family, like roses. When you have a bunch of roses in a vase, for example, none of them look alike. You can classify them as roses, even the same color roses, let's say they're red roses. But each of them has, within that commonality, a different expression of self. And I think that's the beauty of it. The message is it's okay whoever you are, it's okay. It's about that richness of being you and you're always different than everyone else because, I mean, you can be you. One of the most impressive fields is pottery because when you go to a pottery event, each potter has their completely unique expression through the same medium even maybe using the same tools, and you go from table to table, booth to booth, and you’re never going to find the same thing anywhere else. It is because we all are opening up more to who we are, allowing us to express ourselves freely as multifaceted creative beings.
Epilogue: By the end of the conversation, we touched on something about the intersection of wisdom and art. I was reminded of what Paula M. Reeves once wrote in her book, Women’s Intuition: Unlocking the Wisdom of the Body, namely that “[…] the more we long to express ourselves creatively, the more our creations become messages from our wisdom, telling us who we are and what matters to us.”(pg.31). Marike’s artwork is not simply a vessel to pour wisdom into and out of. The ancient techniques that are fossilized in her pottery, along with their surface forms and textures, exude an ancient warmth. Marike’s pottery needs to be experienced beyond the musings of conventional critics; her artwork announces a shared a mutual life with the greater physical world, of which time is not something to conquer but to absorb. If we spend time to see, touch, and listen to artwork like Marike’s, we will inevitably be moved to curate wisdom in our souls, or as Marike would put it, “to reconnect with the primordial platforms for our experiences.”
Reeves, P. M. (1999). Women's intuition: Unlocking the wisdom of the body. Berkeley, CA: Conari Press.
Photo: "Stone Age" courtesy of Darina Protivnak
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