Shattered Vase Theory
I began making these shattered vase forms at home during the COVID quarantine as two-dimensional collages on wood panels. When I was finally able to return to the studio I began to transpose them into three-dimensional bricolage sculptures. During this process I encountered the “Shattered Vase Theory,” a psychological concept introduced by Stephen Joseph in his book, What Doesn’t Kill Us – The New Psychology of Posttraumatic Growth. The theory grew out of a 1990s psychological study of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). In Joseph’s concept, the shattered vase is a metaphor for someone who has experienced severe loss, trauma and PTSD. The essence of the analogy is that we begin as a beautiful vase, intact and lovely. Then tragedy strikes and the once perfect vase is shattered. There is a yearning to pick up the pieces, to glue and reassemble the vase as it once was, but this isn’t achievable. Instead, with some time and reevaluation one can begin to imagine that these shards could be transformed and reassembled into something entirely new and perhaps also wonderful.
This fresh perspective is what psychologists refer to as Post-Stress Growth (PSG), that is, the ability to transform a traumatic experience into a renewed possibility through an acceptance of change. Surprisingly, PSG happens to a fairly large percentage of people who have encountered severe trauma. Evidently, I belong to this group, in that my shattered vase sculptures bloomed from my personal trauma. Eight years-ago I was involved in a traffic accident with tragic consequences for my children. Neither my life nor my art practice have ever been the same.
My practice is comparable in some ways to Kintsugi, the ancient Japanese tradition of repairing broken ceramic pottery with precious metals. In Kintsugi the broken pieces of the vessel are reassembled and the cracks bonded with lacquer mixed with gold or silver dust. The repair is intentionally left visible; afterwards the object is considered even more beautiful because of its scars and imperfections. The philosophy behind this work is that we take pride and strength from our imperfections and honor the resilience our journey requires. While I agree with part of this premise, my concept differs in an important way. Rather than attempting to repair the original object, I transform the shards into a new invented form. The new shape and the arrangement of the fragments derives from serendipity and improvisation. As a result, the artwork is oriented less to its past form and more toward a future incarnation.
Each of my pieces is composed of a stack of found, commonplace ceramic objects that have been assembled into a vase-like form. These layers of castoff objects form a stratigraphy analogous to that of rock, soil and earth. But, unlike geological materials, these household objects once had a human function: family meals were served on them; they were collected as mementos; or perhaps they served as reminders of important events. Eventually, for whatever reason, the objects lost their value, and what was once cherished became obsolete and insignificant. It is the very forlornness of these abandoned objects that I’m attracted to—even as castoffs they reflect a life, a culture, a moment.
The same kind of artifact provides the raw material for the mosaic of shards that covers the exterior of my vessels. In a sort of reverse archaeology, I smash the whole object and use its fragments to create a Cubist-like skin for the vessel, thereby creating a new form that amalgamates the shattered traces of individuals and families who once possessed these objects. Collaged onto the fragmented surfaces are autobiographical images such as maps from my family travels and experiences. The result is a composite of culture, artifact, and personal history.
Intrinsic to creating art from tragedy is the paradox that the artwork could not exist without the heartache and sadness that gave rise to it. It is difficult to revel in the artwork’s splendor or success because it is a remnant of trauma. Yet, tragic art is imbued with profound irony and contradiction, and there is also something divine and immensely gratifying in art’s ability to transcend pain, to convert it into something beautiful, such as a sculpture that can eulogize and commemorate what is past even as it resurrects and reimagines a new form.
Ron Baron, 2021
The Absent is Present
We shape clay into a pot, but it is the emptiness inside that holds whatever we want.We hammer wood for a house, but it’s the inner space that makes it livable.
-From the ancient Chinese Tao Te Ching
In Walden,Thoreau wrote, “Sometimes in a summer morning…I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon… in undisturbed solitude and stillness…I grew in those seasons like corn in the night.” Thoreau realized that spirit and creativity can flourish in seclusion, that absence and presence are not necessarily in opposition but can complement and coexist with one another. Although something positive may grow from certain kinds of loss, one might doubt whether this is possible in the case of mourning the tragic death of a loved one. Yet, paradoxically, a void filled with lament can be fertile ground for creativity, since no matter how painful the bereavement process, the mind in mourning cannot help but dwell on the loss, and the artist must work from his experience. Not that the blooming artwork can miraculously transform a dark negative space into a positive affirmation--rather, the broken spirit heals itself in a way analogous to the technique for repairing a Kintsugi tea bowl. The cracks are not concealed but filled with gold. The repair highlights the fractures and points to the history of the damage. Without the breakage its new, restored form would never exist, yet to suggest that it is as “good as new” is absurd. Perhaps a piece of broken Kintsugi pot takes on a different beauty after repair, but when a person’s life is shattered by the death of a loved one and its aftermath, the shards can never be assembled in any manner that makes sense. Bromides like “all things happen for a reason” or “there is a light at the end of the tunnel” are repulsive and preposterous.
Legend has it that in the 1920s Ernest Hemingway made a wager at lunch with several colleagues that he could write a short story in just six words. He scribbled on a napkin, “For Sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” This laconic story perfectly portrays the sentiment of my current body of work. Each creative act is an offering that grieves for a senseless tragedy and venerates a life lost. The artwork dwells in the pain and absence, commemorating and remembering, rather then avoiding it, covering it over to heal and forget.
-Ron Baron, 2016