From the ballot to the bowl

A locally designed ceramic bowl is in the spotlight at rare tie-breaking event for Virginia House of Delegates.

Photo by Jan Hatchette

Your typical bowl doesn’t have any real significance. It’s for your morning cereal, midday soup, evening popcorn. And that about sums up the relationship.

But in yesterday’s election drawing, a bowl became more than a bowl. It became a key witness to a fascinating electoral spectacle: the tie-breaking name drawing in the race to determine the new Delegate for Virginia’s 94th District.

An 18th-century Virginia law mandates that, in the event of a tie, the electoral board “proceed publicly to determine by lot which of the candidates shall be declared elected.” After an already eventful state election—involving a recount in which Democrat Shelly Simonds was initially declared the victor by one vote against incumbent Republican David Yancey a day before a three-judge panel chose not to certify the results and instead counted a disputed ballot toward Yancey’s total—yesterday’s proceedings were hotly anticipated, drawing national cameras.

Yet as the cameras started rolling and the tweeting began, viewers may have been surprised to see a lovely piece of artwork resting atop an oblong table in an otherwise lusterless, bureaucratic setting. The blue and white stoneware bowl, crafted by Virginia potter Steven Glass, soon took center stage.

Just after Virginia Board of Elections Chairman James Alcorn summarized the election process to this point, he introduced the morning’s star.

“I wanted something a little bit more appropriate for the significance of the event. So I asked some state agencies for either something with some historical significance to Virginia or something by a Virginia artist,” Alcorn said in a phone interview. Though the board frequently uses a glass bowl or other receptacle to conduct drawings that determine ballot order, Alcorn noted that this event called for something different, with its potential impact on the balance of power in Richmond.

The board reached out to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where deputy communications director Jan Hatchette chose the bowl from works that Glass—resident potter at the VMFA Studio School since 1982—finished this past December, says VMFA education director Celeste Fetta in an email. Glass, Fetta writes, says that the “wax resisted cobalt blue and white exterior design creates energetic sky movement while the red iron oxide interior glaze is earth-like grounding.”

As Virginia and the nation awaited the results of the 94th District election on their livestream, they were forced to pause to learn about the bowl. Fetta, on hand at the election ceremony to represent VMFA, provided a brief biography of the artist, as well as a statement he had prepared:

“Clay vessels, like boats, carry cargo—the cargo of ideas and opportunities,” she read. “Therefore, I feel it is a very fitting vessel to select the winner of this election.”

Less than two minutes later, Alcorn opened his small plastic film canister—a recent purchase from Amazon after a cleaning crew mistakenly tossed canisters the board had long used—to reveal the election winner: Yancey.

But in the aftermath, as cameras clicked away and the board members continued with the election proceedings—and as vice chair Clara Belle Wheeler discussed the magnitude of an event that was “unprecedented” as a drawing with such significance for the commonwealth’s balance of power—the bowl remained. It was a calm presence, with its oceanic blue and white swirls frozen in motion. A presence duly noted on Twitter.

In fact, as Alcorn points out, the bowl itself has at least one Twitter account all to its own.

Less than a week into 2018, there has already been a momentous election result in Virginia—and a moment of fame for a piece of artwork that might have spent its life in obscurity, resting on a shelf with an occasional gallery showing. But this week, if only for a day, it became a national thing of wonder.