Michael Strand affects change in social systems through pottery

Archaeologists and anthropologists alike use pottery to better understand a culture. Pottery tells us about a culture’s history, from everyday domestic routines to trade practices, even rituals related to religious beliefs. It is ubiquitous, dating back to around 6000 BCE, and common among both the rich and the poor in ways few other items are. Pottery styles changed over time as cultures evolved, and the transition of styles can be read as chronologic archaeological record like the fossils found in sedimentary rock. The whole history of human culture is written in our pottery. Michael Strand is continuing that history.

Michael Strand went to college with no intention of becoming an artist. He studied psychology and education, joking that he had no knowledge of art. He took ceramics as an elective and got a C. Later, while he was still an undergrad, his wife saw his transcripts and encouraged him to retake the class. He did, and this time around he had a great teacher and fell in love with it. He came home and told his wife, “I’m going to be a maker.”

So he changed majors and became what he calls a “seven-year undergraduate student.” He says, “I wanted to be a therapist and I liked the idea of psychology, but on some level I haven’t really left either one of those things behind.”

In many ways Strand’s work examines the psychology of an object, taking an anthropologist’s approach to studying how people interact with the object and how that object can move through and impact a culture or system.

“In essence we’ve been trained as artists to think about these linear boundaries, about how what we make fits into the world,” says Strand. “My primary interest is in examining the way we acquire or think about something. It is the most critical part of an artist’s [practice]. When we encounter art there’s kind of a limited spectrum in the way we [think about it].”

He says he is envious of music because music has done a masterful job of making itself perpetually relevant to contemporary culture throughout every era, whether through live performances or recordings. Music is a cornerstone of culture, in both the popular and historical contexts. Objects are not viewed by the mainstream in quite the same way.

“Music has been able to infiltrate every aspect of our lives through broadcasting,” he explains. His work examines how objects can be similarly broadcast.

A new project of his that just launched last month was done in partnership with the Catholic Church in Brazil, creating bowls for a centuries-old tradition of the Capelinha, or “little chapel.” These “little chapels” are sent home with church parishioners and travel through the neighborhood from home to home. The bowls were packaged in a beautiful box, and the intent is to collect recipes from each of the families the bowls come into contact with as they make their journey through the neighborhood, making it not just an object of evangelization but one of community engagement – a two-way conversation.

“The conversation [previously] was kind of one-way: the Church would come into your space and continue evangelizing about itself,” Strand explains. “Instead of the Capelinha just broadcasting the Church, this is kind of outreach to the community. It creates a feedback loop. The result is that it creates a more communicative Church body, and that has value you can quantify. The Church has grown old, so ‘How are they relevant?’ is an important question being asked by people around the world. So how can artists service a different kind of market [like the Church] as community builders?”

Strand says he thinks of the world as systems rather than as places or structures. “This is a beautiful system for me to hack with craft,” he says.

He met with people in the Church to see if he could move the “system” of the Church towards a new concept with the Capelinha, and they loved it. Now, instead of just the Church communicating to people through this object, this new Capelinha collects recipes that will go into a cookbook for the Church. “Instead of relying on the same [traditional] mechanisms for things to move, like museums and galleries, what I’m saying [here] is that what [artists] are doing is valuable in this arena too.”

He previously worked as the Director of the Center for Liturgical Arts at Concordia University-Nebraska, and is acutely aware of the tension that now exists between art and religiosity – a tension that is largely the invention of the late Modern era and Enlightenment, as artistic works were, for centuries prior, intrinsically tied to the spirit world – whether it was artists of Modern cultures depicting scriptural scenes or makers or pre-Modern cultures depicting their gods and ancestors (in mediums that often included pottery). “It’s this one thing that people tend to shy away from as artists because there’s a stigma, but it’s a considerable [amount of] what’s being made for Church consumption.”

The Capelinha will travel for one year. In that year it will have moved through a large part of a city of 600.000 people. “It’s a different narrative to talk about,” Strand says. “I’m a potter – how do I hack the system” – in this case the Church – “for something I want to make? This is a really good example of a system and how [artists can] move through this system.”

Strand likes to imagine new situations for a relationally functional object to function in. “When you’re a potter working with the Catholic Church, you’re typically asked if you’re designing the Communion ware. No, we’re designing a community within a community.”

Again, taking an anthropologist’s approach, Strand does not view such objects in terms of their perceived religious merit or value, but rather objects of human merit and value.

“I do really care about the objects I make. In order for that to be relevant it has to be made in some way that honors the idea, otherwise it could just be a mug that you buy at Target. The bowl that’s moving through the Catholic Church in a beautiful box has a specific design. It’s not like I’m making ‘Jesus platters.’ I worked with group of students; half were agnostic if not [outright non-believers]. What we did is examine the faith as a subject rather than as our own faith – how do we utilize a design and concepts that work with that, not to subvert it but to honor it?

While some – probably most – would call the work Strand does “social practice,” he doesn’t see it that way. Rather, he sees it as trying to build a connection between the often all-too cerebral, highly conceptual art world and the actual, physical, human real world.

“So much creative energy goes into the objects we make,” he says. “Who is creating the [objects] that connect [the artists] to the rest of the world? It’s not social practice and not necessarily art as community engagement, but [it’s] doing the research to find new and relevant ways to take what we make and move it into the world.”

Strand also has a project doing similar work in fire stations around the world called “Bowls Around Town.” It started with a fire station in Portland and then went on to one in Brazil. “I take an idea then I rip on it in different ways,” he explains. “[Right now] I’m fixated on this idea of a bowl creating a cookbook. The reason I chose fire stations is because it’s a system that’s almost the same internationally.” He sees the same behaviors, the same mentality, the same kind of camaraderie, the same struggles, even the same imagery – right down to the red fire trucks – as consistent in fire stations across the globe, from Antarctica to Iran.

“To be a firefighter you have to be a certain kind of person, almost atypical. Police officers are political [figures], but firefighters are a really common space internationally. They share a brother- and sisterhood. It cuts across political boundaries. If they’re a firefighter, anywhere in the world [that they walk into a fire station], they’re home.”

This project, just a very simple bowl in a box with a book, is traveling to every continent to different cultures around the world. The idea is to gather images and recipes from a shared meal documented by these firefighters to create the cultural backdrop of who these firefighters are. “There is a bit of journalism here,” Strand says. “The bowl is on this mission to find out who these firefighters are, collect information on them. It creates a common space.”

The content for this project comes from the participants. They take the photos documenting their meal and add information to the bowl. “I want to create platforms for people to be creative because it’s self-documented. Asking firefighters to take photos [that end up being] sort of naïve and sweet. I can’t contrive naïve and sweet. I can only make it open enough so that can happen.”

The bulk of the work behind a project like this isn’t the creation of the bowl itself, but in effectively communicating the idea. The rest relies on the audience’s participation.

“A lot of my work is about communication and collaboration,” says Strand. “A bowl is so basic and so fundamental throughput human history. It really allows us [the concept of] sharing. There was a point when [human cultures did not have] a collective amount of food for sharing; when that happened it changed who we are as human beings.”

Strand enjoys the unbiased documentarian nature of his traveling bowls. “I’m using the object as a proxy for a human being asking questions. The bowl is the interviewer. The bowl has no issues with agency. It’s so basic and human. It doesn’t have the same baggage as a professor.”

He prefers for his work to be very basic and elemental. “Some people say, ‘It’s just a dinner and a bowl, that’s it?’ There is so much social practice [interlaid with] art theory. If you’re hitting people over the head with theory, they don’t want to participate.”

Digital hacking and Trojan horses have to be simple and unobtrusive to be effective, he explains. They have to exist in a way that goes unnoticed; they’re doing something outwardly simple yet much bigger than what it seems.

Strand’s fascination with systems takes his work from the Brazilian Catholic Church to Brazilian fire stations, to libraries, corporations, and private homes from Australia to Asia to South Africa, even the U.S. Senate. With everything he does, he is interested in affecting change – change in the way people view and interact with his objects, but also changes in engagement, creating new ways for people to interact with and understand each other through his objects and continue using those objects to create their history and tell their stories.

“Inherently what I want to do is make the world better.”

Michael Strand is the Department Head of Visual Arts at North Dakota State University in Fargo, North Dakota.