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On Function and Content

Sanam Emami, New York State College of Ceramics, Alfred University



My pottery focuses on the potential of function, ornament, and pattern to interact and blur the line between historical conventions and contemporary life. The primary sources of inspiration in my pots are derived from patterns in Iranian and Islamic art and architecture. These patterns are based on elaborate geometric interpretations of nature that when broken down and taken apart are often comprised of simple shapes such as the square, the circle and the triangle. I am interested in the opportunity for individual inquiry and innovation within these general and accessible frameworks. The juxtaposition of ideas and images, east and west, old and new are revealed through the functional pot and reflect my own history of moving through cultures and continents.

Key words:  Art Nouveau, pottery, Iran, Islamic

Something beautiful fills the mind yet invites the search for something beyond itself, something larger or something of the same scale with which it needs to be brought into relation... But simultaneously what is beautiful prompts the mind to move chronologically back in search for precedents and parallels, to move forward into new acts of creation, to move conceptually over, to bring things into relation, and does this with a kind of urgency as though one’s life depended on it.1 (Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just)

At the turn of the last century, Art Nouveau artists used decoration and ornament to create radical works. Their fluid natural forms were derived from historical references and reinterpreted to create a new style. This new style was an attempt to create artwork that could inspire change in the world and span the space between the individual and collective experience. The past was used to redefine the present. My pottery, likewise, focuses on the potential of function, ornament, and pattern to interact and blur the line between historical conventions and contemporary life. The primary sources of inspiration in my pots are derived from patterns in Iranian and Islamic art and architecture, many of which were reinterpreted by the Art Nouveau movement in Europe.

This first image is a Tulip Vase that I made in 2003. (Image 1) This small object (height 11”) is an example of my research into the history of the tulip and its migration west from the Middle East to Europe, and the migration of ideas and forms that moved back and forth via the silk route from China, the Near East and Europe. I will discuss the piece and the ideas and influences that inspired the object later in the talk. I will also address my interest in the motivations and strategies behind the movement of Art Nouveau. In particular, I will focus on the desire to actively use historical references and interpretations of nature from many cultures to create new works. Of the many cultures that were referenced by the Art Nouveau style, Islamic Art and its dynamic interpretation of nature/figure/text into abstraction, pattern and ornament, will provide a window into my own approach to making work and the place I hope my work can exist in the larger culture.

Before I delve into these ideas, I would like to share a few thoughts about the field of ceramics and address some broader questions that were posed to us by our session discussant. Ceramics is a broad and often un-mappable field of art, practice and theory. The question of what the field is and how we can understand its parameters is a good place to start. This question is not new, and has in fact been present since the inception of ceramics as a distinct field of modern theory, practice and production. What do we as makers of objects, sculptures, and installation art, imagine is the role of this material to be today in contemporary life? I am particularly interested in this question of the contemporary artwork having to do with how something looks like versus the idea that an artist’s practice might reflect a contemporary approach to making work. Does something need to fit into a visual genre that we as a society have deemed is valid (i.e. contemporary), or does the practice of the artist, such as their research and point of view, categorize their place in the art/ceramic/material world of the 21st century?

As visual artists, our natural instinct may be to make the work rather than talk about it. However, many of us are also stimulated and curious about the discourse that has the potential to come to the surface when we attempt to sort through the complexity regarding our practice and arrive, momentarily, at some form of mutual understanding. I would like to take a moment to mention that when I think of defining and understanding some aspects of the current field of ceramics, there are mixed emotions. For me, the sheer broadness of the field creates both confusion and also unparalleled freedoms. Perhaps in trying to explain the field of contemporary ceramics, and I suppose one could say contemporary art, to somebody outside of that practice or field is not unlike trying to explain to an outsider the motives, anxieties, desires of a foreign culture. Perhaps it is too big, too multi-faceted a concept. However, I think it is something we all try to do and one place for dialogue to start may be in finding similarities, of which I think there are many. (These similarities may exist, as mentioned above, in the approach to making and researching artwork.) Similarities between what we perceive as ‘the other’ and ourselves. The potential in expanding our points of view about these questions lies in creating opportunities for exchange between the traditional maker and the non-traditional practitioner, the ceramic artist and the non-media specific artist, the maker and the viewer, and the viewer and the art. These exchanges occur in multiple ways in the larger culture. Part of my own interest in making work for visual pleasure and practical use is rooted in some of these exchanges.

Connections/Influences of Islamic Art & Art Nouveau

The Art Nouveau artists are unabashedly looking backward, but they are not looking back in a straight line, they are looking across cultures to see how artists have interpreted nature and they are reinterpreting/appropriating techniques and ideas to create a new style. Paul Greenhalgh states that:

For these designers, (Art Nouveau), decoration was centrally to do with mediation - with the creation of a vehicle to develop visual language that might collectivize and objectify individual intervention in the object. Art Nouveau, with its epicenter in the decorative arts, was a dramatic and flamboyant stylistic development in the visual arts and, after 1893, tore through Europe and North America. … Art Nouveau was deliberately eclectic, a style determined to reinvent the past in order to arrive at a future. 2

Greenhalgh goes on to write about how the past was used in multiple ways by the artists. He lists three main sources of inspiration: nature, history, and symbolism. What makes the work particularly radical was the way the Art Nouveau style used decoration to combine the inquiry of materials and techniques (genre) with the spirit of an age (style) that could work collectively across disciplines and peoples, moving from the individual realm to a collective one. 3

Islamic Art was a major, yet often critically overlooked, influence on the Art Nouveau artists, as well as William Morris and others. One example is this tile wall (Image 2) from a garden in Shiraz, Iran. The swirling lines of the vines intertwined with the birds from the wall and the movement of the pattern on the bowl depict a strong sense of curve and movement of line that are found in many examples of architecture and design of Art Nouveau artists. According to Francesca Vanke, some Art Nouveau artists found Islamic Art a suitable style to use because it was perceived to be ahistorical. ‘Unlike the other major Oriental culture represented in Art Nouveau, that of Japan (which was seen as more amenable to Westernization), the Islamic countries were still widely viewed as being located outside time and, therefore, incapable of “progress” ’.4

The sophistication of the Islamic art and expression is varied and broad. Natural forms were observed and reduced to simple shapes such as the square, the circle, and the triangle. These shapes refer to the natural and the organic, and yet evoke a sense of structure and order. Artistic representations of the natural world and calligraphy have been interpreted and abstracted into geometric and arabesque patterns.

Looking past the fluidity of the arabesque patterns and the hard edges of the geometric fields, one also finds humor, playfulness, and even the erotic. Examples of figures in Islamic art can be found in Persian miniatures and in paintings. These figures raise questions about perception and representation, and the question of ornament. I am interested in the way the figure is seen in the context of color, pattern and ornament. How does the representational image read within this framework? Sometimes the figure blends into the background and isn’t the focal point, instead it exists as another element within the flattened picture plane. The way multiple elements coexist within the painting, particularly representational and non-representational, are ideas that can also be seen in the works of the Art Nouveau period, as well as, in my own current body of work.

Pattern, Ornament and the Tulip Vase


The images above (Images 3 and 4) are Tulip Vases I made between 2001-2005. The Tulip Vase is a complex sculptural object. One can look at and understand the vase in terms of the formal object. There is pleasure in looking at this obscure object that was made to hold a flower, but whose entangled history includes being stolen from the Sultan’s court in the Middle East, smuggled to Europe, and later to become the flower that became symbolically Dutch. This object allows me to layer my ideas from the various histories, cultures and time periods. I can be the historian and the artist, drawing attention to the parts of the story that I think have been forgotten or overlooked. The complexity of the story of the vase has changed as the flower moved through different cultures. Below is my interpretation of the history of the flower and the history of the people fascinated by understanding and controlling the flower.

When my family migrated from Persia (modern day Iran) the objects we carried with us became visual signifiers denoting home. The pieces were delicate and precious. Their value exceeded the necessity to move them.

The Tulip Vase grows out of a complicated past with conflicting layers.5 These objects were created to satiate an appetite for the display of wealth. There are emotional and intellectual motives for choosing to explore this particular ceramic object. The rise and fall of the Tulip Vase reminds me of the rise and fall of the wealthy class in Iran.

Rewriting stories into objects like a pot is a contemporary journey. I am not going back into history; I am drawing history back into the present.


Creating a complex form, such as the tulip vase, that allows me to build up layers of information and still retains its function is the unequivocal balance of idea and form. The function is both complex in form and specific in use. Does the flower decorate the object, or does the object decorate the flower? (Image 5) These discoveries are revealed in the actual use. Filling the tulip vases with flowers changes them. The flowers become part of the building process, another layer of information. The object exists with or without flowers, but it exists differently. (Image 6) The size of the ware reflects a scale that is both intimate and approachable. The viewer can pick up and hold the object. The pot is both familiar and simultaneously eccentric. It offers a feeling of something that is known, but not named. This is where the pieces start to become idiosyncratic. At times decadent and even pretentious, its relationship to function grounds the conceptual nature of this elaborate piece. (Image 7)


What is the content of work that relies on function, ornament and pattern? (Image 8) I work with historical archetypes, and reinterpret associations and references through the interaction of function, ornament and pattern. I use pattern and ornament to define form and allude to a story without illustrating it. ‘Ornament is decoration in which the visual pleasure of form significantly outweighs the communicative value of content’.6 Pattern and ornament are words that describe embellishments that are applied to but not necessarily integral to the design or meaning of the form. (Image 9) In my work, the viewer does not need to know the whole story of the tulip vase to appreciate or have an attraction or curiosity about the work.

Silk Screened Imagery


The next image is a simplified line drawing from a complex architectural building in Morocco (Image 10) that leads to a silkscreen that became a drawing/wallpaper that covered the surfaces of two walls, one black on yellow and the other yellow on black. This piece was made and installed in 2003. The original drawing was scanned and made into a silk screen. The process of screening allows for multiple images to be generated quickly. (Image 11) On the wall, the image is manually screened one block at a time. The printing process is the place where variation occurs. Each screened image records a different amount of color and texture from the original drawing. This created a repeated pattern field that covered two walls of a small dark room. At first, the pattern seems uniform, but after a few moments, the viewer realized that each printed block recorded a distinct visual motif. The color contrast between the black and the yellow is stark, and created an optical illusion of movement in the room that was not lit except for the light coming through the door. The process of silk screening in my work would later move from the wall to the pot.


In more recent work, the formal structures of my pots have been simplified while the techniques and ideas that are applied to the surfaces have become more complex. (Image 12) In the past, I have covered surfaces with one uniform pattern and attempted to integrate the shape of the individual unit of the pattern to the overall shape of the pot. These patterns were embedded into the skin of the wet pot with stamped forms. My interest in layering different shapes, patterns and line qualities on top of each other led me to explore the technique of silk screening. The process of silk screening allows me to generate multiples of two-dimensional images. These images change as they are screened, cut and overlapped on the surface of the three-dimensional pot.

The images I have been using are of historical patterns and motifs that are interpreted from nature, but they are also images of nature itself. I have been interested in juxtaposing the two next to each other, (Image 13) and orchestrating the composition of two-dimensional imagery and texture that floats and move around the forms. Combining these processes has allowed me to approach each piece as an elaborate template for sculptural and pictorial ideas that are rooted in both the tradition of Art Nouveau and Islamic Art.



Intricacy is formal complexity. An intricate pattern is intrinsically hard to read because the sheer density of elements keeps us from seeing how the pattern is organized. Ambiguity is the tendency of some patterns to send mixed signals: they can be read it two or more ways at once.7

Function, ornament and pattern can be universal and democratic, immediate and familiar. (Image 14) I am interested in the opportunity for individual inquiry and innovation within these general and accessible frameworks. The confluence of ideas and images, East and West, old and new are revealed through the functional pot and reflect my own history of moving through cultures and across continents.

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  1. Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just, Princeton University Press, 1999, pp.29-30. back to text
  2. Paul Greenhalgh, ‘Radical Ornament’, in Garth Clark (ed.), Ceramic Millenium: Critical Writings on Ceramic History, Theory and Art, The Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art & Design, 2006, p.67.back to text
  3. Greenhalgh, ‘Radical Ornament’, pp.72-76.back to text
  4. Francesca Vanke, ‘Arabesques: North Africa, Arabia and Europe’, in Paul Greenhalgh (ed.), Art Nouveau 1890-1914, New York, Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000, p.125.back to text
  5. Sanam Emami, MFA Thesis Statement, 2002. The footnote for the exhibition statement read as follows:

    The Story of the Tulip Vase
    The tulip is a wildflower said to originate in western and central Asia, mainly Armenia & Persia.

    The origin of the word tulip is unknown.   One explanation for the name tulip is its resemblance to the headgear worn by Persians - the turban. The turban was also written as “Toliban” which is translated into Latin as “tulipa”.

    In 17 th century Holland tulip bulbs were sold for the prices of good houses.

    The rise of tulip madness led to the creation of idiosyncratic Dutch objects that became the Tulip Vase. back to text

  6. James Trilling, Ornament A Modern Perspective, Seattle & London, University of Washington Press, 2002, p.23. back to text
  7. Trilling, Ornament, p.35. back to text

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Introduction from
Walter McConnell

Welcome from
Mary Drach McInnes

On Function and Content

by Sanam Emami

Courting Risk

by Linda Sormin

Conspicuous Consumption

by John Byrd

Functional Languages

by Anders Ruhwald

Towards Incongruence

by Michael Jones McKean

Edited conversation, discussion panel

Listen to the speakers presentations (mp3 files)

Walter McConnell

Linda Sormin

John Byrd

Michael Jones McKean

Anders Ruhwald

Sanam Emami

The complete recording of session number CA07-054 (“Ceramics: Five Emerging Artists Survey the Discipline”)and other sessions from the 95th Annual Conference of the College Art Association may be purchased online by going to the Conference Media web site.

Eddie Hopkins
(obituary by Ron Wheeler)

On Function and Content • Issue 9