Arts & Culture

Schwartzkopf combines art, comfort in her ceramic tea cups and plates

Juxtaposing lofty art concepts with daily use isn’t something artists think about too often — unless they’re Deborah Schwartzkopf. The West Seattle ceramicist has made functionality a parameter of her art, and her show “Flowers, Butter and Tea” at Pacific Lutheran University’s gallery marries the creative with the utilitarian in a soft, comfortable way that celebrates the community that teacups and plates can generate.

The utilitarian begins with the physical display at PLU’s gallery in Ingram Hall. Instead of anonymous white plinths there are dining tables, side tables, wall brackets — all in a pale birch with a country-Ikea feel to them. Plates and cups are set out dinner-style, vases hold flowers as if awaiting guests. This is art with an actual daily use.

But it’s still very much art. In her artist statement, Schwartzkopf says she “finds it challenging to make pots people will use. … The parameter of function both limits and frees me.” She’s inspired both by her family’s esteem for handmade objects, and by the lines and planes of things in the world around her — birds, traffic signals.

The result is an organic merger of form into useable objects, with a highly integrated artistic voice of softness, alertness, comfort and conversation. A vase both visually delights and spreads out stems: nine ovoid, red-lipped openings sprouting like fungi from a rocking oval of gold-dusted creamy green. Twin coffee cups rest on symmetrical saucers, echoing each other in their small, round, cookie-holder dips and their splashes of coral and teal. A taller vase billows outward with grainy, gray-green forms like a stem seen under a microscope.

The larger, multipiece place setting is more practical than arty. But it’s still unified artistically in its washed blue palette, and in the alert triangular corners of the bread-and-butter plates.

Adding real flowers to the show is a nice touch, and draws attention to the way Schwartzkopf pulls the natural world into her teatime conversations. Dottings of red, blue and purple trickling around the handles and edges recall delicate edges of flower sprigs, while the creamy surfaces of sea-green, beige and burnt orange hint at the warmth of butter, sauces, coffee. Schwartzkopf pays a lot of attention to detail. She marries a brown-spilled goblet with a pale one, with similar cruets, and pulls in a curvy corner of a tray to highlight the same line in a decanter. And she injects just enough whimsy —a milk jug leans into a curved teapot like an affectionate puppy reaching for an aproned mother — to lighten things up.

The overall effect is one of tranquility, the smooth ceramic objects speaking eloquently of happy, relaxed mornings of filtered sunlight, flowers and shared meals.