Spotlight: Miranda J. Thomas

For a potter, Miranda J. Thomas has an impressive range of clients. Her work has made its way to the White House and the Vatican. Together she and her husband direct ShackletonThomas, a Vermont-based company specializing in handmade furniture and ceramic goods. Born in New York to British parents, and raised in Italy and Australia, Thomas brings a global approach to a locally minded, artisanal trade. On Tuesday, March 23, she will conduct a workshop run by the Office for the Arts’ Ceramic Program.

The Harvard Crimson: What pottery techniques and insights do you plan to cover in your workshop?

Miranda J. Thomas: I normally teach techniques and the history of patterns. I talk about commemorative things that I do, and giving pottery as gifts. Since ancient times, pottery has been used as a libation vessel and as a form of paying tribute—people would present each other with golden vessels. It was something to treasure. Pottery became symbolic of that ceremony, only we don’t give golden vessels any more—instead we give bare bowls.

When you’re a potter you have to bear in mind that people want to send a message of peace or congratulations, or of being truly happy about something. It has been the potter’s role in history to convey that message. I’m not really interested in artistic expression in the sense of inventing something new every ten minutes—there are important points in people’s lives, and I want to commemorate them.

THC: How did you begin taking commissions from the White House and the UN? What is it like to work with such high-ranking clients?

MJT: It started off with a simple little dish. I remember hearing on the radio in 1999 that it was the longest America had been at peace, and thought it would be really cool to send a gift to Bill Clinton. It was a humble pot, made by American hands; it was sort of to say, “Thank you, and it’s up to you to keep the peace.” The next thing you know I got a letter back from Bill Clinton, that said, “Thank you so much for your kind words, all my regards....”

A few weeks later we sent out a card with a picture of a turquoise and gold piece on it, saying we were having an opening. We got a phone call from the White House saying that they wanted 16 turquoise and gold pots just like it, to give as gifts to Middle Eastern dignitaries in the next 24 hours. We didn’t have any so we sent other examples of symbolic pots in many different styles.

Three weeks later we got another call. They asked, “Is there any way you can do a very large carved porcelain bowl with a peace dove on it, and have it ready in 6 weeks? You must do it because it’s going to be President Clinton’s personal gift to the Pope.” I talked to my husband and said, “I think I have to do this,” and he agreed. I went down that afternoon and threw the bowls....

Years later, the UN Association of New York needed a gift for Kofi Annan to commemorate his ten years of service. I was asked to make a large white porcelain peace bowl with a ring of gold on it. The UN also wanted to do something to award Ban Ki Moon for his work on water conservation and relief around the world so I designed an aqua colored bowl with fish to symbolize water and was asked to present it to him.... Right now I am working on making gifts for different heads of state.

THC: How do you think craftsmanship fits into the context of a major university like Harvard? What role should artistic training play in education?

MJT: It’s absolutely imperative for human beings to make things, especially when you’re using your brain all the time. Some people can’t articulate through writing, so they learn to speak with their hands.

Right now we are going through a technological age, which is helping art because it’s so visual. We need to spend much more time increasing visual literacy, so that when you see a symbol you understand what it means. The younger generation is getting flooded with images, and they aren’t given the tools to understand them.

People have come to rely on machines and have lost confidence in what humans can do themselves. My husband and I believe so strongly in things that are handmade, but they’re on the verge of extinction. We’re trying to keep it alive—we’re the dirt-pitch rebels, the last of the line!

THC: To what extent do your designs reflect your multicultural background?

MJT: Every type of pot comes from a certain tradition. Using certain materials and symbols, you can instantly conjure up a particular culture. There’s turquoise for the Middle East, blue and white for Delft [from the Netherlands], the bottle green ware of France, the ironware of Japan and Korea. If you use those techniques they immediately evoke a culture, and if you mix them you create hybrids. You hope that people can pick up on it—that’s where an increase in visual literacy comes into play.

—Sally K. Scopa