She is a simple clay figure, an aid to fertility, fashioned in a classic folk style. She sits on a shelf in my bookcase with other treasured objects. I bought her in a crowded shop in Taiwan. She was one of many, all slightly different, all standing together. They were as simple as the desire and made only to help fulfill a wish.
I wanted to buy several, picturing them mounted in a row on a polished driftwood base, but I could afford only one. I was told it was made by an artist from an indigenous tribe that lives on Orchid Island. A trip by seaplane could be arranged? I shook my head, no.
I choose one and turn her gently around in my hands. It is easy to picture her as a lump of wet clay in the hands of the artist. She has a small head that grows wider toward her chin and merges into a thick, strong neck. Her ears are applied and her nose tweaked-out from her face between the artist’s forefinger and thumb. Her mouth is open.
She wears a full-length gown and squats on wide feet. Her two knees push out from the lower part of her encompassing garment, which spreads wide so she stands flat and secure. Her long, heavy arms are bent straight in at the elbows. Her stubby hands hold a swaddled baby tightly against her chest.
There are marks of the artist’s hands pushing and molding the soft clay, squeezing it in here and there and making little cuts into the hands to indicate fingers, little dents into the face for eyes. Her stony and rough surface is barely smoothed a bit and then fired, not painted or decorated. Fine polishing is clearly not important, all that is needed is a figure with the basic look of a human female holding a baby.
Other artifacts at my home are unlike the fertility sculpture. One is a Toby pitcher, a smooth porcelain portrait head of General Montgomery from the WWII campaign in the desert. He is carefully molded and painted in bright colors. His expression is superior and confidant. He is meant to be an individual person, even though many identical Monty heads were molded.
Another ceramic I treasure is an unpainted Chinese bearer. He is made of fine clay but only sanded smooth and bisque fired, not glazed. He stands at stiff attention. His right arm hangs straight down, the left is tightly folded up. His left hand at his shoulder holds a support for a Palanquin. His gown is formal, as befits an important and trusted servant. He was a courtier in the long-ago past, one of many molded to be exactly the same. He is still ready to serve his master in the after life.
Neither of these figures appeal to me the way the Taiwanese figure does. My Orchid Island lady is one of an endless chain of similar-but-different, quickly-fashioned figures. Still, she seems an individual presence as she delivers her powerful message—and she clearly expresses a universal human wish.
Copyright © 2015 by Mary Wallis Gutmann