Asa’s Ship Comes In

This is the salt and pepper shaker set my son Asa recently made and gave me as a Christmas present:
ship and waveIt actually does work as a set of shakers: as the picture reveals, the mast is held in place by a cork that stops the hole where you can put salt (or pepper), and the bottom of the wave has an opening for a similar cork to allow for the insertion of pepper (or salt); and there are smaller seasoning-sprinkling holes on the deck of the ship and in the indentation on top of the wave where the ship sits.  But for all that, I’m not really sure that this set does fit into my collection, for a number of reasons:

First, it’s unique.  There is in existence only one such ship and one such wave, made by hand by a local artist and fired in a local kiln.  All the other shakers in my collection are individual examples of assembly-line runs, the same or very similar to thousands of other shakers made from the same moulds.  I hadn’t realized it before, but as I think about it now after receiving this new set, I am realizing that knowledge of the run-of-mill shakers’ lack of uniqueness is part both of what makes the shakers interesting to me and what allows me to make fun of them, as I often do.  They represent what their manufacturers thought would be popular enough and sell widely enough to be manufactured in multiples, and so they’re evidence either of mass taste or of someone’s commercially-oriented idea of mass taste.  They are meant to speak to a lot of people (albeit probably not very loudly or very distressingly), and so reveal something about popular values and or a manufacturer’s ideas about popular values.  But Asas’s ship and wave are made to suit just me and my values and my tastes, or maybe even not that–to suit Asa’s values as tastes, with his hope that I’ll like them, too.  They are not making any claim to mass appeal.  Making fun of them (which I don’t want to do anyway, because i really do like them a lot) would not possess the saving grace of being evidence of  more discerning taste or expressing a critique of less discerning taste.

Second, and as quite logically follows from that: Asa’s ship and wave are not cute or adorable.  There is no obvious joke here, and no attempt to make me or any other viewer think of how charmingly vulnerable the ship or the wave are.  The ship has no eyes, the wave no lips or limbs.  While they are miniature versions of a small ship and an ocean wave, there is nothing about the ways in which they are diminished that implies an attitude of defensive superiority or offensive belittling of them.  They are simply small but to scale–and I get no sense from them that part of my response to them should be emerging from their defusing of the power of the ocean or its waves.  While small, the set still conveys a sense of the power of the sea and the relative littleness of the ship in relation to that power.  The jaunty little ship on its own might seem a little cute–but accompanied by  the wave,its littleness has quite other implications.

Third: this shaker set does not in any way seem to invite or imply its inclusion in a larger group of shaker sets–in a collection.  If Asa made more shaker sets representing different objects, I can see how I might want to have those, too.   But I suspect it’d seem wrong to place them all together on the same shelf in a way that advertised their similar collectibility and the fact that someone had committed himself or herself to the act of collecting them. Their point is in no way their participation in a larger group of like objects.  They are not really collectibles.

Fourth, Asa’s shaker captures something that seems quite real, especially about the wave, and yet paradoxically, it really doesn’t look much like a real wave at all.  It seems more like an expression of the movement of a wave–a way of capturing not just what a wave might look like but also what it might feel like to be in a wave’s presence.  Also: a ship and a wave are not the kind of binaries or pairs you usually find in a salt and pepper shaker set because they are in fact, not just in relationship to each or opposite to each other but, as depicted here, I think, in conflict with each other.  The shape and swoop of the wave capture the roiling energy and immense power of the sea,so that the the littleness of the ship perched perilously atop the wave tells a story of the apparent inequality of the battle between ship and stormy sea and perhaps even the indomitability of the invisible sailors on the ship.  The pair seems to me to say something about the relationship between little humans and big natural forces.

Or in other words:  the set is expressive of larger and subtler meanings beyond the fairly obvious ones of most of my shaker sets.  It doesn’t only represent a ship and a wave, or only ask us to consider how cute tiny versions of a ship and a wave can be. It seems to be expressive of the feelings and meanings of the ship, the wave, and their relationship.  Or perhaps it is just expressive in a way that invites interpretations because as a unique product of an imaginative and thoughtful mind it is expressive of the personality that shaped it. It expresses uniqueness.

Or to put it another way: the set aspires to be something more than merely ornamental–to be, in fact, art.  And in my admittedly prejudiced paternal opinion, I think it succeeds at that.  I think it succeeds because it seems to be conveying emotions in a way that invites thoughtfulness about them.  And it is beautiful.  Looking at it is, for me, an aesthetic pleasure.

I think the wave is particularly beautiful–full of energy and implied danger, and yet, at the same time, its energy caught in a fixed moment that allows for contemplation of the sheer visceral pleasure of its subtle and shifting colour combinations and its complex lines.   As I said earlier, it conveys its own uniqueness–as does the ship, in its tidiness and fragility.

And so, much as I like this set, and as pleased as I am to have had it made for me, I have to conclude that it’s a failure as an addition to my shaker set collection.  It’s much too good to belong there.

More of Asa’s work is on view on his website.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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