The Homemade Exchange: Trading ceramic mugs for stories from Mainers about the place they call home

Posted:  Wednesday, April 18, 2018 - 7:45am

Is there a place that makes you feel happy? Where you feel safe and relaxed? A place that makes your heart swell a little, where you know you belong? A place you call home?

A couple of young innovators in Newcastle want to know where that place is, and why it holds a special place in your heart.

Juliette Walker and Devin Shepherd are working on a project from their home base at Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts in Newcastle, where Walker is a year-round employee.

Though their project is time-consuming, they don’t consider it work. It’s a labor of love, and it is bringing the subjects of their upcoming book together through something they all have in common: A love of the place they call home in the state of Maine.

The Homemade Exchange is a project of exchanging handmade ceramic mugs for stories from Mainers about what home means to them. Walker dreamed it up. She had conducted a similar, smaller project in her hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.

The ceramics artist received a bachelor of arts in studio art from Pomona College in Claremont, California in 2013. She came to Maine in 2016 to fill a temporary “summer stock” position at Watershed. She took a full-time position in January 2017.

When she first came to Maine, Walker said she felt like something of a newcomer, for obvious reasons, and she said she wanted to learn more about the state, this place and the people.

She started trading some of her ceramics pieces with people in exchange for stories about their love of their special place in Maine. “It’s a lovely way to connect with people from this area,” she said.

“I think ceramic mugs are an amazing tool for making connections. They’re hand-built, you can use them to share a drink with someone, which often facilitates conversation with them, and I think people are naturally drawn to handmade objects.

“So when you offer this object in exchange for someone’s words and stories, it’s such a nice trade, and I really love talking with and connecting with people that way.”

Shepherd, a professional editor and writer, is from Waterville. He attended Boston University where he earned a bachelor of science in communication in 2014. He writes poetry, and while Walker is the hands-on creator of the mugs they’ll be swapping for stories, he’ll be transcribing, writing and editing most of the stories for the book that will be the culmination of their year-long project.

Watershed Center for the Ceramic Arts is on Brick Hill Road, named for the brick factory that sat on the property in the ’70s. Large “beehive” kilns that were used to fire bricks are still in the huge barn, now the workspace for the center.

The mugs Walker is creating for the project are made with the red coastal clay that was used for the bricks — hence, the brick-colored vessels. “We call it the Watershed clay,” Walker said. She makes them by rolling out and then coiling long pieces of clay and pinching them together, so each of her pieces is adorned with her thumbprints. ‘I really like working that way, because I work slowly, and it makes for more of a personal touch.”

The photographs being taken for the book are close-ups of their interviewees’ hands holding their new cup, or mug. “I love that because it documents the cup that was used, or passed over, during the conversation,” Walker said.

“It holds those stories and those moments of spending time with that person. And when that person uses the mug, later at home, or wherever they take it, they’ll probably be reminded of what they talked about as their home, which is really kind of special.”

Support for The Homemade Exchange was provided by The Kindling Fund, a grant program administered by SPACE gallery as part of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Regional Regranting Network.

Walker and Shepherd will be at the Augusta Art Walk on April 20. Look for the Homemade Exchange Cafe. “People can come in for coffee or tea, and talk to us about their home, in exchange for a mug.”

The couple plans to interview people of all ages, from all over the state, throughout 2018. They ‘re still looking for anyone interested in participating, and sharing his or her story of home.