Joe Bennion & Horseshoe Mountain Pottery

Leaning on the information desk on the 3rd floor of the BYU library was a daily ritual of mine for several years. Mostly due to a cute boy who worked on the other side of said counter…. but that’s a post for another day. One such day, I found myself fiddling with a bunch of pens in a mug. My fingertips grazed the rim and instantly recognized the texture: pottery. Hand-thrown and fired. I picked the mug up and was instantly transported home. Not to Texas per se, but that spiritual home that only exists whenever and wherever family is gathered. At first I couldn’t believe it, but that weight and shape were unmistakable . I rolled the mug over and sure enough, the stamp stood along the base proclaiming quietly to any who would take notice: this is one of Joe’s pots.

I have two distinct memories of Joe and his pots. The first is more a movie montage of long drives through the mountains South of Springville twice a year to visit a strange man in a small shop. We’d stay for what felt like an eternity and always head back North with several odd-shaped pieces of brown butcher paper.

The other is decidedly more concrete and a medium I relied on  once we moved to Texas: The Potter’s Meal, a short documentary by Steve W. Olpin about Joe’s life and the philosophy behind his pots.

The first time I saw this short film, it transfixed me. I swear it lasted three hours (28 minutes in reality) and opened my eyes to a few key concepts that a life-time of Sunday School lessons had never hit on. For our purposes, we’ll keep it to one: The Meal as a ritual communing (to communicate intimately). Digging around, I found this is not a new, strange, nor unique concept in any part of the world….

But let’s back up first. Ritual. You know the word, and you’ve probably participated in a few throughout your life. From secret handshakes at Girls’ Camp to ordinances performed in modern-day Temples. You recognize something different about the time and space a ritual exists in… but have you ever asked yourself why? Here’s an answer from Eliade:

The religious festival (ritual) is the reactualization of a primordial event, of a sacred history in which the actors are the gods or semi-divine beings. But sacred history is recounted in the myths, hence the participants in the festival become contemporaries of the gods and the semi-divine beings. They live in the primordial time that is sanctified by the presence and activity of the gods…. The religious experience of the festival — that is, participation in the sacred — enables man periodically to live in the presence of gods. … In so far as he imitates his gods, religious man lives in the time of origin, the time of myths. In other words, he emerges from profane duration to recover an unmoving time, eternity.

… It is not with the morphology of the festival that we are concerned; it is with the structure of the sacred time actualized in festivals. It can be said of sacred time that it is always the same, that it is “a succession of eternities” (Hubert and  Mauss). For, however complex (or simple, like family dinner) a religious festival may be, it always involves a sacred event that took place ab origine and that is ritually made present. The participants in the festival become contemporaries of the mythical event. In other words, they emerge from their historical time… and recover primordial time, which is always the same, which belongs to eternity. Religious man feels the need to plunge periodically into this sacred and indestructible time. For him it is sacred time that makes possible the other time –ordinary time–the profane duration in which every human life takes its course.

In Eliade’s terms, the religious festival we’re concerned with here and now is The Meal. Throughout Christianity exist examples of the highly complex ritual Meal to the simple “breaking bread.” Included are Meals with formal names like Passover and The Last Supper, Meals that punctuate intense periods of spiritual instruction, and Meals immediately following significant spiritual events.

[ I should note here that these scriptures depict more than just the institution or the execution of the Sacrament. While the Sacrament is definitely a ritual Meal, it’s morphology– to borrow from Eliade– is specified and unique enough that it deserves its own study. ]

But what about the everyday Meal? Is that not a ritual, too? A religious festival worthy of study? I say yes. Apparently Joe does, too:

“I think everything is connected, whether we know it or not. Quite often we function as if it isn’t. We walk in a straight line and don’t think about the returns we have in our life…. In making pots, in gardening, in raising a family you realize these circles – these cycles – and these things that come back. Science and faith and art all come together and should work together as part of the same system instead of being separate disciplines.

At one time, in more primary cultures this connection was taken for granted. For instance, the act of making pots… was seen as much a spiritual endeavor as offering sacrifice or working in the Temple. I like to think of the home as being an important temple. It’s a place where art and spirituality all come together.”

– The Potter’s Meal

Unsure of the details of our pre-mortal experience, I hesitate to pin one ab origine to the daily festival of the Meal, but what I can tell you with surety is this: it’s vital to our continued existence. Science tells us we can only live so many days without food, that physical nourishment provides our bodies with proteins and amino acids required for basic functions. Faith tells us we must continually draw nearer to the Lord, seek spiritual rejuvenation through reactualization of sacred space and time.

Members of the LDS faith have this scheduled like clock work — weekly partaking of the Sacrament, monthly Temple attendance, yearly interviews and check-ups with Bishops and Stake Presidents. But how often do we just “grab something” on the way toMutual, Institute, Dessert Night, Break the Fast, Presidency Meetings, Welfare Meeting, etc.? Are we missing the daily opportunity to communicate intimately with our Creator?

Sadly, yes.

Rewatching The Potter’s Meal, I noticed Joe is an enthusiastic gardener and makes the connection described above between organic spirituality and meal preparation in the home. The ritual Meal is not just about eating, but the connections discovered and created. Connections between Earth and mankind, between parents and children, between brothers and sisters, between God and mortal. I suppose in those connections is where Eliade’s reactualization takes place — mortals are given a chance during The Meal to suspend profane time and enter sacred time not only for themselves but with those around them, with their family. And this is where Joe’s pottery comes into play:

I am fascinated with the idea that we are the children of a benevolent creator. The influences that most powerfully shape who we are seem to be located in the household and family. I want my pottery to be there and to promote and influence that growth, however small it’s part may be. The family dinner table is sacred space and the venue of first choice for my pottery.

— driving philosophy  behind Horseshoe Mountain Pottery

 

 

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Some of my favorite things from Joe in recent, blogging history:  This is about home and pottery in it’s natural habitat. This is the best window into Joe’s personality. This is the house I remember Joe and Lee living and gardening in.

V.

PS: this is how innocently this post began, a footnote in an old journal of mine. “*duality of a meal — eating to fill the hole vs. recreating sacred space through gathering family, friends and breaking bread; Christ, appearance of food at sermons, moments of religious significance

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