The Power of Things
May Hands

It is instinctive to be curious and to collect. Into a container we place our selected fragments of the world, given an opportunity to curate our personal space and minds. The early technologies of spinning and vessel making being combined led to the making of nets (believed to have been knotted similar to macramé) to catch food and hold belongings as humans travelled from one place to another. Ursula K. Le Guin’s essay, The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction (1986), considers the humble container and suggests it was one of the earliest inventions and cultural devices. She discusses how the container is the tool that brought energy home, providing warmth, food, shelter and comfort as well as materials for creativity. ‘It is a human thing to do put something you want, because it’s useful, edible, or beautiful, into a bag, or a basket, or a bit of rolled bark or leaf, or a net woven of your own hair, or what have you, and then take it home with you, home being another, larger kind of pouch or bag, a container for people, and then later on you take it out and eat it or share it or store it up for winter in a solider container or put it in the medicine bundle or the shrine or the museum, the holy place, the area that contains what is sacred, and then next day you probably do much the same again - if to do that is human, if that’s what it takes, then I am a human being after all. Fully, freely, gladly for the first time.’ (

What is a Vessel?
A home
A convenience
An organisation
An arrangement
A store
A place to hide
A place to be held
A life
An incubator
A decoration
An indentation
A mould
A solution
A protection
A transportation
A souvenir
A memory
A place
A space
A tool

What is an Ingredient?
A substance
An object
A feeling
A fragment
A piece
A whole in itself
A temperature
A liquid/ gas/ solid
A part
A leftover
A commodity
A word
A flavour
A texture
A colour
A material
A prayer
A thought
A sound
A gift

Material holds such value. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010) recognises value in all materials, objects and beings, through their vibrancy and vitality. Bennett presents a passage from Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands(1998), where he notices the vitality of a garbage hill as it decomposes and oozes pollution, Bennett writes, ‘Sullivan reminds us that a vital materiality can never really be thrown ‘‘away’’, for it continues its activities even as a discarded or unwanted commodity’. (Bennett, 2010, pg. 6). Leftovers and undesired items become ‘rubbish’, though this is not the end of their existence and vitality. By decomposing they change states and carry on their continuation of being. This vibrancy and energy exist within all things, Bennett describes it as ‘Thing-Power’, ‘Thing-Power: the curious ability of inanimate things to animate, to act, to produce effects dramatic and subtle’. (Bennett, 2010, pg. 6).
Through ‘Thing Power’ we are consciously and sub-consciously attracted to gather things from the world around us and make technologies, shelters, art etc. We are able to recognise the power in objects and material, the possibilities and opportunities they gift us. Our various environments provide materials and situations to adapt to and live with/within - a seeking of harmony and survival. In his essay, Making Culture and Weaving the World (2000), Tim Ingold writes, ‘...making should be regarded as a way of weaving, and not vice versa… the forms of objects are not imposed from above but grow from the mutual involvement of people and materials in an environment.’ (Ingold, 2000, pg.65-68).
This mutual involvement, a purposeful collaboration between material, human or animal and environment results in the act of making; a biological compulsion. It is what creates culture, traditions and technologies.
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass (2013) invites us to speak the grammar of animacy, to see all living things as animate, an idea that is deeply rooted in indigenous philosophy and language. ‘To be a hill, to be a sandy beach, to be a Saturday, all are possible verbs in a world where everything is alive. Water, land, and even a day, the language a mirror for seeing the animacy of the world, the life that pulses through all things, through pines and nuthatches and mushrooms.’ (Kimmerer, 2013, pg. 55). By recognising and respecting the aliveness that vibrates within everything (‘thing-power’) no longer would we undervalue and toss aside what we label as ‘things’ or ‘it’. Both Kimmerer and Le Guin suggest we treat all living things as ‘kinfolk’ and refer to them as ‘kin’.
Kimmerer speaks in depth about the indigenous knowing that all living things are in service and gifts to one another; the earth is an ecosystem of gift giving. She writes, ‘The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘‘bundle of rights’’, whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘‘bundle of responsibilities’’ attached.’ (Kimmerer, 2013, pg. 28).

Reflections on flower potions and sandcastle cakes
As a child when visiting my grandparents’, I made up my own recipes for potions with the readily available materials I could find in their garden. These were mostly herbs, flowers and grass, with added rainwater that had been collected in a green plastic watering can. I would combine everything together into one of my Grandma’s ceramic pots and mix it all together with a stick or a feather, adding in wishes and words, then grind, stir and let steep. Fragrances of sage, lavender and rosemary emerged and bright pops of rose petals floated to the surface of my brew. I was ‘cooking’ alfresco, feeding the fairies and insects that lived in the garden. Child’s play, gathering a sense of things and gaining knowledge of the available ingredients that grew in a suburban English garden. Children find ways to copy what ‘grown-ups’ do through play. These are typically daily essential tasks, which though basic and routine for the adult, can be mimicked by a child as an form of play and ritual.
As a child, in the local play park you would find me in the sandpit making sandcastle cakes - hand-formed mounds of damp sand with twigs, leaves, lolly pop sticks and daisies adorning the tops. These were reminiscent of my Grandma’s famous ‘clarty cakes’ she has told me so much about; of similar form only constructed with clay and mud (‘clarty’ is northern English dialect for sticky and muddy). A couple of years ago I remembered these sandcastle cakes and the clarty cakes and found myself back in my Grandma’s garden asking the wet earth beneath my feet it’s permission to take some of it. I began with a prayer for the land and gave my gratitude, slowly I dug into the clay rich earth. With the weight of my body and a careful stamp of my feet, in a blue tarp Ikea bag I mixed the clay with added barley straw and sand to make cob. I then assembled cob sculptures, packing the sticky, solid material and additional natural ingredients (including grasses, seeds, flower petals and herbs) into bags to record and trace the space within those containers.
Since making this series of works and exhibiting them in various exhibitions I have returned them to the site where I received the clay. ‘Thing-power’ is very much alive, within the wind, rain and frost and in the sculptures themselves, the compact forms softening and decomposing in shape and arrangement, returning back into the body of the earth.

Bennett, Jane 2010: Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, USA, Duke University Press Kimmerer, Robin. W. 2013: Braiding Sweetgrass, Minneapolis, MN, Milkweed Editions
Tim Ingold essay from:
Graves-Brown 2000: Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture, London and New York, Routledge
Lange-Berndt, Petra et al., 2015: Materiality, London, Whitechapel Gallery Le Guin, Ursula. K 1986: The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction’, from ‘Dancing at the Edge of the World]

May Hands
Vessel IV (Dahlia/Net)
H: 7cm L: 29cm W: 23cm

Fired black crank clay, glaze and transfers

May Hands
Buy Me & Become Me (LV)
Clay and soil aggregate, sage, lavender, rose and fennel seed

May Hands,
Scanned Gathered Objects