Salt of the Earth

Chickadee salt cellar
Chickadee salt cellar

At first glance, a kinship between the cultures of Maine and Japan may seem improbable and farfetched. After all, there are still relatively few Japanese in Maine and in the 70’s when I was growing up here, they were virtually nonexistent beyond my own family. Yet, I’ve always known that there is a simpatico between the two cultures. Both are basically island cultures defined by a reserve and a wariness of outsiders. Both cultures believe in quality and self-sufficiency, relying on their own hard work and craftsmanship to sustain them through natural disasters like typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes, and harsh winters. Both are very much tied to their roots and land, not to mention their devotion to nature. So while geographically they lie thousands of miles apart, their commonalities tie them together in the broadest sense, including the importance of the most elemental of materials- salt.

I have associations with salt through both cultures so I wanted to bring both perspectives to the making of this object. The first time I ever really considered salt as a concept was when I studied documentary photography at the Maine school, Salt, when I was 22 and read about why they named the magazine Salt. “Why the name Salt? Because salt is a natural symbol for the magazine- the salt of the sea, salt-washed soil, salt marshes, and salty people, the kind that won’t use two words when they can get by with one.” By the same token, there is so much unsaid and understated in Japan that these two cultures seem cut from the same cloth. As an artist, I think about the way that Shintoism has aestheticized salt in its rituals elevating the material from ordinary to sacred, which is interesting by any measure.

As a substance, salt pervades life on the seashore as a thin white film that both erodes and preserves. In Japanese food, saltiness is the predominant flavor and brine is the main method for pickling the vegetables that are present at every meal. I can clearly see my aunt pouring salt over mustard greens and rubbing it into fish as a cleanser. When I picture sumo wrestlers tossing handfuls of salt into the ring to purify it before a match, I think of the unique sensation of salt on skin. Its hydroscopic nature gives one a feeling of astringency and cleanliness. There is a duality in the sensory experience of using the salt cellar; one hand lifts the slightly oily, silky wooden lid, while the other hand pinches the rough and crystalline structure of salt. Cooking by feeling the material, by gauging quantity through touch, is incredibly visceral and bears an uncanny similarity to making pots and working in clay. Ironically, clay is also hydroscopic and the link between making pots and making a meal is crucial in that the end product is very much determined by process.

Grouping of salt cellars
Grouping of salt cellars

Making a salt cellar simultaneously feels like the easiest of forms and the hardest in terms of subtlety of curve and historical references. Making a salt cellar is different from making a cup or a bowl. It’s not an object that one puts their lips to or scrapes food out of. It’s a stationary object that sits by the stove or on the table waiting for a hand to lift its lid to season food. The walls are thicker than usual on these salt cellars in order to give them stability and a sense of permanence. Sometimes, it’s best to have a contrast between materials but in this case, the pure whiteness of salt seemed best offset with the pure whiteness of translucent porcelain. The same white color but in different manifestations. White could have even been enough, but they needed the warmth of another material close to both cultures, so asking my friend, Josh Vogel, to work with me was a natural choice. His mellow and grounded personality comes through in the cherry lids and his craftsmanship is impeccable. In collaborating, we talked about wanting to make an object that looked like a spool of thread; an object that both contributes to making something of beauty and still is beautiful in and of itself. A spool of thread is both commonplace like salt and rich in history, just like salt. It’s an object with deep roots in Maine craftsmanship and Japanese craft, making it the perfect container for the most elemental of materials- salt.


  • awesome!!
    love it! i truly need one by my stove as i cook–it’s a great idea.
    this time i hope i can get one from the sale-
    your new siding on the house looks awesome. is it cedar? we chose the exact same color for our house last year–in cedar 🙂
    best of luck in Maine–i imagine the summers are amazing.

    • Hi Johanna,
      I’m glad you like the salt cellars and hope you snag one on Tuesday. You might want to set up an account early to save a little time at checkout. Yes, the new siding is cedar and will be left to age and patina. It’s not quite the same thing, but the stave churches of Norway have shingles that have been slathered with pine tar which makes them smell amazing, plus the churches are so massive that the shingles on that scale make them look slightly furry, a look I love.

  • I have been looking for the two chickadees salt cellar for some time now. I cannot locate one for sale. Where might I find one? These are wonderful works!

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