When I see an artisan that truly stands above the crowd in the imagination which he or she brings to the craft, it warrants attention for this blog. When that individual makes bottles — in this case decanters — and identifies some of them with booze, it can’t be resisted. That’s what happened when I happened on a ceramic piece by Michael Grafton, an artisan living in Panama City, Florida, where he creates, as his website puts it, “unique sculptural works of art.”
The particular jug/decanter that got me going is shown above. It is called the “Chainsaw Whiskey Jug” and appealed to me enormously because of the disembodied hands that are poised to operate this formidable looking tool. Grafton, as he does frequently, has written his own commentary on this item: “You might want to be careful drinking from this whiskey jug. It was not made for those frilly, mellow - wimpy, mild - sweet on the lips - goes down smoothly - properly aged - and bring a smile to your face whiskey blends. This jug is for that freshly made - 150 proof - rot your gut - put hair on your chest - burn all the way down - tear you up inside - white lightning moonshine whiskey that you will never forget, until the next morning. It also works well as chainsaw fuel. Enjoy.”
Grafton seems somewhat obsessed with whiskey. Shown above are three jug/decanters all made to resemble the well-recognized label of Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. Each of them carries its own dubious message. The one at left, labeled Kool-Aid Jammer conjures up images of James Jones and the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guiana years ago. The second, “Howling Wolf,” and its “wild nights” motto has me thinking of Lon Chaney Jr. running around as the Wolf Man when the moon is shining just right. The third is a bit enigmatic. My fancy is that “Old Yeller” of movie fame has wandered upon a rural still, lapped up some of the “dew,” and gotten sick.
Less whimsical and more to the point is the bottle above that he has christened “Toxic Moonshine Whiskey Bottle.” He explained: “The first cup or so of moonshine in a batch is where the impurities (such as the poisonous methanol alcohol) gather. Responsible distillers will toss this away, ensuring a relatively safe product for their customers. However, there are plenty of unscrupulous people in the business. Some moonshiners have been known to include bizarre ingredients to add to their product’s potency, including manure and embalming fluid. To make matters worse, the stuff is usually made in the middle of the woods in less than sterile conditions, the sweet mash drawing all manner of insects and rodents.”
Grafton’s “Toad Whiskey Jug” has a similar moonshine theme. He postulates the following about its origins: “Occasionally moonshiners will leave a few jugs of a particularly good batch of whiskey hidden deep in the woods for a full year to let the moonshine age. This brings out a complex bouquet of flavors and tertiary aromas that the high end moonshine connoisseurs will pay top dollar for. But that's only if the forest critters don't get to it first.”
The artist may have come by his clearly deep knowledge of moonshine by his Southern origins. According to a biography he was getting an degree in architecture at Louisiana Tech, he was hired at the Odell Pottery in Lafayette, Louisiana. Learning from its found and a master ceramicist, Peter Martin, he stayed seven years there before moving to Panama City where, with a partner, he designed, managed and handled the finances for the highly successful Round Tree Pottery. In 2009 he started his own art-pottery company.
Another persistent images for Grafton are undersea scenes — or more likely, undersea nightmares. Living as he does in a town with a lengthy sand beach on the Gulf of Mexico, ocean-going activities are familiar occupations for him. My favorite among these bottles is centered on a face of a very wary snorkeler looking at the array of fish and one crab who seems to be blocking his air tube. All the fish appear to have extraordinary dental appendages.
It is likely that they are smaller, but no less nasty, relatives of a fish ceramic that Grafton dubs “Monster Fish Face Jug.” He says of it: “You know those peaceful Summer days when you are at the lake, sitting on the dock, reading a good book and dangling your toes in the water. This monster fish loves those kinds of days.” I am reminded of those Wisconsin “old wives tales” about muskies nipping off toes from feet dangling off docks “up North.”
As proven above, sea creatures other than toothy fish can be a hazard to mankind, as evidence by the Grafton bottle above. One observer of his ceramics has suggested that the artist offers the viewer an opportunity to get “emotionally involved” with the people he sculpts, but it is up to the viewer to create the back story. Referencing this double decanter, the observer asked: “What is going on between this dude and the octopus on his face?” Whatever it is, the “dude” is unhappy.
A third area of Grafton whimsey are pun-like send ups of familiar terms, legends and sayings. The decanter above, named “Fish Tank,” employs one of Grafton’s monster fish that has been transformed into a formidable weapon of war. It bristles with multiple guns and combat ready figures. In looking over this highly complex ceramic, my favorite touch is the ladder that climbs up the side of the white neck of the jug.
A less threatening vehicle is the artist’s rendition of the fable of the tortoise and the hare. In this case the rabbit is sitting confidently astride the turtle that is equipped with wheels and what appears to be a explosive propulsion force. Yet from the position of both contestants on the sculpture, it appears that the turtle would once again cross the finish line first — by a nose.
The final example of Grafton’s fantastic imagination is a marvelous send-up of the feminist mantra: “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” This fish — evidently a male fish — not only needs but actually has a bicycle and seems to be thoroughly enjoying the experience. Clearly this is a “must have item” for every male chauvinist on your Christmas list.
Note: Michael Grafton has a webpage on “blogspot,” the same free weblog publishing site that hosts “Bottles, Booze and Back Stories.” The “firstname.lastname@example.org is his web address. The site contains dozens of pictures of his creations for sale. Grafton also accepts custom orders. When the “Chainsaw Whiskey Jug” recently came up for auction on eBay, it sold for $280 — a very reasonable price, it seems to me, for a truly unique bottle.