The Cincinnati, Ohio, artist Maxine Midtbo’s housewares studio Memor makes contemporary vessels inspired in part by American folk memory jugs. Sometimes called mourning vessels, memory jugs are adorned with coins, mirrors, buttons, and other small objects associated with someone who has passed — a tradition the artist revived for her series of homeware.
Growing up, Midtbo lived in 19 houses over the span of 18 years; she relied on the objects she carried from place to place to tell stories of homes she no longer inhabited. Memor emerged two years ago, when Midtbo reached out to Vancouver-based ceramic artist Rachel Saunders on a whim. Saunders sent pottery shards to Midtbo for her to experiment with, and what began as a collaborative collection between the two artists evolved into an entire solo practice for Midtbo.
The studio quickly made a name for itself by embedding functional housewares with glass shards, rocks, and antique charms, creating a three-dimensional collage aesthetic. “My mother is an antique collector,” Midtbo said. “From the time I was young she would bring me with her to auctions and estate sales, instilling a passion in me for objects and their stories.” She takes this passion for pieces imbued with history and meaning and combines it with her background in craft. The level of technical skill required to make the work stretches between frustration and meditation, but ultimately, “the mind quiets as the hands work,” Midtbo said.
Though some of the embedded objects used in Memor’s pieces are ceramic, the process of making them is closer to mosaic arts than working with clay. Midtbo scavenges for pieces to adhere to the vessels at estate sales, antique malls, and recycling centers. She often makes custom commissioned works for clients, using the heirlooms and commemorative pieces they send to her, making a personal memory jug.
While small Memor jars start around $175, vases make up the majority of Midtbo’s work ($300-$500). Lamps ($600) and large mirrors ($1,000) are some of her most ambitious pieces. During the pandemic, people are spending more time looking at and being amongst their objects at home, but for Midtbo, it sometimes feels like a strange time to make expensive objects. “However, I do think the more time people spend in their homes, the more they are confronted with what they accumulate, which can lead to more thoughtful consumption,” she explains.
There’s a tension in the work between trash and treasure. Memor’s vessels are for holding personal feelings, but they’re layered with splinters that might just be considered detritus for someone else. Where does meaning come from, and how do we hold onto it? Midtbo’s vessels seem to be longing for an escape to some place and time other than where we are now, like a far-away sandy beach or an ancient ruin. They’re inextricable from the past.
Nostalgia feels integral to the vases. “One of my professors in art school said, ‘Nostalgia is an illness,’ but I don’t think he meant it in a negative way,” Midtbo explains. “When an object in the present pulls you to the past or a place, it creates a kind of unease.” It would be easy to call the work anachronistic, if it didn’t maintain such a sense of the contemporary moment, stuck as we are in a tumultuous period of history. The constellations of fragments embedded on the surface of the vessels expose a rip in time, material memory lived out in the present.