At the Skirball, Finding Common Ground Through Food and Ceramics

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Clays used in Common Ground (photo by Adam Silverman)

LOS ANGELES — The origins of the Common Ground project began in 2019 in “the middle of Trump’s presidency, when things felt pretty freaking dark,” Adam Silverman told Hyperallergic. The Los Angeles-based potter often foregrounds notions of place in his practice, and was interested in “thinking about the country as a single place in a time of turmoil,” instead of highlighting ideological and regional differences across the United States.

With the aid of friends and colleagues from around the country, Silverman collected clay, wood ash, and water from all 50 states, five US territories (Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands), and Washington, DC, 56 different locations in total. He then combined these elements into a uniform mixture which he used to glaze a humble set of 56 ceramic plates, 56 bowls, and 56 cups to be used in a series of simple meals. He explained that he envisioned the events as opportunities “to bring people together to have challenging conversations, not just a groovy dinner party.” Alongside this tableware, he created 56 ceremonial pots that embodied the essence of what would later become Common Ground. “If this project is about being open to new opinions and other people’s ideas, the piece should be open,” he said. “The handles should be like ears, like these things are here to listen. It’s all very literal.”

Detail of Adam Silverman, Common Ground (2019–2023), 56 ceremonial pots (photo by Erik Benjamins, courtesy Adam Silverman)

In the summer of 2020, he enlisted foodways scholar Scott Alves Barton to collaborate on the project. “We started doing all of this really interesting research, making maps of different issues that we thought were relevant historically and contemporarily, doing overlays and finding places that had a bunch of convergences,” Silverman explained. Barton told Hyperallergic, “The real lure for me with Common Ground was the possibility of all of the different communities we could be engaged with.”

The duo applied for grants to bring the project to venues across the country, only to get rejected by every single one. Undeterred, they decided to hit the road themselves in spring 2022, garage-band style, driving the ceramic vessels from city to city and washing dishes by hand after meals.

The tour began with a meal at the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Los Angeles, before bouncing between coasts for nine additional meals over the next two years. Each meal was unique, with distinct menus, chefs, participants, and topics of conversation. One particularly memorable event for Barton was at the Earvin “Magic” Johnson Recreation Area near Watts in South Los Angeles in September of 2022. “It involved architects, urban planners, community leaders, and faith-based leaders in Watts who are interested in bettering their community, but don’t want to have it gentrified by outsiders, [as well as representatives from] LACMA wanting to have a stronger foothold in that community,” he said.  “I think that, at least in that moment, people were open to listening and talking.”

Adam Silverman (left) and Scott Alves Barton (right) at the Skirball Cultural Center on January 30, 2024 (photo Matt Stromberg/Hyperallergic)

Earlier this year, the Common Ground exhibition opened at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles, where it will remain until January 5, 2025, with all 224 vessels on view in a cabinet designed by Kulapat Yantrasast, Bob Dornberger, and Shinsuke Ito. The Skirball also acquired the work for its permanent collection. Naturally, the show kicked off with a meal, co-organized by the Skirball’s Vice President of Public Programs Marlene Braga and Senior Programs Associate Julie Gumpert. The menu featured dishes contributed by employees of the institution who had worked there for over 15 years, “using the project to look internally,” said Silverman. Each one reflected family memories, diasporic identities, and stories of migration from Mexico and Central America: a fish dish from Belize and Honduras, Guatemalan enchiladas, a bread pudding from El Salvador, and a cocktail inspired by a regionally specific torta from Leon, Guanajuato, Mexico.

For exhibition curator Vicki Phung Smith, collaboration with guests is a key element of Common Ground. “You make a plan and create an invitation, but so much is out of your control,” she told Hyperallergic. “The project is very generous and non-hierarchical. Participants make the experience what it is.”

Skirball CEO Jessie Kornberg explained that the project also reflected the institution’s focus on exploring the breadth of the Jewish experience through arts and culture. “For me, the symbolism of Common Ground was perfect for the Skirball, where we want to celebrate what inclusion in an American plural society has meant for Jews in generation after generation,” she told Hyperallergic via email.

Participatory food programs will continue throughout the year, with the next being a Passover-inspired meal on April 14 that will expand beyond the limitations of the 56 place settings to welcome over 200 guests, followed by a sound performance using the ceremonial pots, and a children’s art workshop incorporating natural pigments. Barton added that they would like to organize meals around more themes in the future, including homelessness in Los Angeles, urban gardening and foraging, Indigenous seed saving around Thanksgiving, and a meal timed to coincide with the presidential election in November. 

Given America’s fractured and divisive atmosphere that will likely only worsen as Election Day approaches, can Common Ground really encourage us to find, well, common ground? For Silverman and Barton, the project does not offer definitive solutions, but instead serves as a way to begin difficult but crucial conversations. “When people get to the table and you discuss the project’s metaphor, and it’s in your hands, and you can see it and touch it … and the food that’s being served has a narrative that is equally engaging and eye-opening and taste bud-opening, it softens you, it opens you up a little bit,” Silverman said. “You’re not hit over the head with an agenda like, ‘We’re going to solve this problem.’”

“Adam’s nicely framed it,” Barton added. “There’s a certain grace note that does occur by just bringing people to the table that never ceases to amaze me.”

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