The Alternative Vessel



A Thesis Presented to

The Wood Department

Oregon College of Art and Craft


 In Partial Fulfillment

Of the Requirement for the

Bachelor of Fine Arts in Crafts


R. Michael Torrey

May 8, 2003


Approved for the Wood Department

 Sharon Marcus

Thesis Advisor

 Committee Members

Gavin O’Grady

Michelle Ross



We all know what a vessel is. We all have an idea or picture that pops immediately into our heads when we hear the word. “It’s a boat,” we say, or “It’s a pot.” It’s something to ride in, or carry stuff in, or maybe if we’re biologically inclined, it’s a vein or an artery that carries blood.

But there are other, lesser-known definitions of vessel. It is these alternative definitions that I have chosen to examine with my thesis work.

In this paper, I am going to discuss the history of the word vessel, and propose a theory of how the word came to have such a wide range of meanings. I am going to discuss my own relationship to vessels, and how I became interested in the word and the idea of vessel. Finally I am going to discuss the specific works I have chosen to create for my thesis, and how they relate to the concept of vessel.





Dictionaries have no shortage of definitions for Vessel.  When I first began researching the subject, I came upon this set of definitions:


ves·sel (vès¹el) noun

1.    A hollow utensil, such as a cup, vase, or pitcher, used as a container, especially for liquids.

2.    a. Nautical. A craft, especially one larger than a rowboat, designed to navigate on water. b. An airship.

3.    Anatomy. A duct, canal, or other tube that contains or conveys a body fluid: a blood vessel.

4.    Botany. One of the tubular conductive structures of xylem, consisting of dead cylindrical cells that are attached end to end and connected by perforations. They are found in nearly all flowering plants.

5.    A person seen as the agent or embodiment, as of a quality: a vessel of mercy.

[Middle English, from Old French, from Late Latin vâscellum, diminutive of Latin vâsculum, diminutive of vâs, vessel.][i]



The first two definitions are the most. Everyone knows a vessel is a cup or a vase or something that contains things, and we also all know that a boat is a vessel. But why? Why are two such disparate objects both termed ‘vessel’ in the English language?

My theory is that we have the Greeks and the Romans to thank. The ancient Greeks, and probably other cultures as well, used large pots as boats.  Here is a depiction of Heracles riding in a pot boat on his way to the Hesperides.  This image is found on an Athenian vase (or vessel) dated about 480 BCE.[ii] You could say that he’s both potted and on the pot.  The root of the English word vessel is the Latin Vas.  Perhaps the Romans saw images such as this, or used pots as boats themselves, and thus felt that the same term could apply to both.


When we look at the word vessel and its usage, we see that a vessel is something that contains, often for the purpose of transport. Horse-drawn carts, trucks, and railroad trains contain and transport things, but these are not called vessels. Why not? There must be something specific about a vessel to differentiate it from a non-vessel that performs a similar function. Vessels are watertight. They are sealed in such a way to keep a liquid in, or out, during transport. This is where the connection is, and it is why airships, or dirigibles, are called vessels. Dirigibles are sealed to contain the lighter-than-air gas that allows the ship to float in the sky.  So where do the blood vessels come in? They are also sealed containers for transport, but instead of being a discreet container which is filled with liquid and then moved from place to place, blood vessels are actual passageways through which the fluids move to get from place to place. There are other vessels in the body, most notably the vas deferens, through which semen is transported to the penis.




When we get to the fourth definition, the botanical one, we start to get into less familiar territory, unless you happen to be a botanist. We can assume that plants must have a way of getting nutrients from the ground up to the leaves. It turns out that plants have several methods of doing this, but one method involves the formation of vessels. The interesting thing about the way plants form vessels is that rather than a collection of cells growing into a tube  - which is how human and animal vessels are made -  in certain plants strings of single cells form, and then the interconnecting walls of the cells actually dissolve to form the vessel. This method of vessel formation occurs in hardwoods, but not in softwoods, and is one of the main means of differentiating between the two.[iii]


The final definition in my set is applied to human beings.  A vessel is a person seen as the agent or embodiment of some quality.  People are said to be a vessel of this or a vessel of that. The Virgin Mary is said to be a Vessel of Mercy.  Carry Nation was said to be a Vessel of Wrath.  The reasoning behind this usage is unclear, but to me it evokes the image that the person is simply a container for this quality, that the body is chosen by some outside force to be filled up with this quality and therefore has no personal responsibility for it. I find I am of mixed emotions about this idea. It appeals to me on one level and repels me on another. I guess my discomfort has to do with the opposing ideas of free will and divine control. Do these people choose to be the vessels, or are they chosen by some higher power? Or is it that we, meaning the rest of society, simply choose to assign these qualities to these people for our own purposes?

The definitions are disparate, but to me they all suggest the qualities of containment and transport. I believe that these are the essential qualities that bring something or someone to be called ‘vessel.’




My interest in the concept of vessel grew out of my interest in boats and boat structures. As a child I was always interested in how things were put together, how they worked. I was fascinated by things that seemed to display their structure openly, such as bridges and electrical towers, or that showed the inner structure through the outer surface, such as early airplanes and zeppelins. Sails and wings hold great fascination for me, in that they catch the unseen and utilize it.  In 1997 I started working on a series I called “Flying Furniture,” which incorporated ribbed canvas wings. My first two years in the BFA program at Oregon College of Art and Craft took me away from these personal foci as I began learning the nature and history of art, practiced new techniques and discovered new materials. It wasn’t long before these primal interests returned, however, and in a class called Reliquaries I set about creating my first boat form.    The relic inside my reliquary is a poem written by my father during World War II, when he was 18 years old and in the Navy.  I took structural inspiration from a book on wood and canvas kayaks.[iv] The piece includes techniques from other disciplines in which I had classes that year; fibers and photography. Before I stretched the cloth covering over it, my classmates and I found the open wooden structure, which I have come to call Bulkhead and Strip construction, to be quite compelling. The form is created by first arranging and fixing in place a series of parallel wooden bulkheads, then bending thin strips of wood over the profile created by the bulkheads and attaching the strips where they contact. 

At that point I started on the path that has led me to this thesis work.  My subsequent work has been geared toward exploring this theme. A chest of drawers was created by standing the boat shape up on end and placing drawers between the bulkheads, and a boat formwas bent in the middle to become a chair. This same type of structure was used to create a windmill model and a tall grandfather-style clock. The resulting form is open, yet creates an overall shape with an implied surface. The forms have volume and presence, yet are not bulky. This idea fascinates me. If you step inside a skeletal structure, can you truly say that you are contained within that structure, when there is so much open space around you?

When I began my thesis year, I was planning a series of five sculptural pieces that would explore the concept of vessel in its various definitions. As time went on, I refined my plan to encompass only the more alternative definitions, the ones less familiar to most of us.

<My research over the last several years has been geared to help me with this thesis work. I have researched skeletal structures in general and artists in particular who use skeletal structure as inspiration. These artists include Richard Deacon, Josep Riera y Arago, Martin Puryear, Vladimir Tatlin, and Leonardo da Vinci.  I also have researched vessels as art and inspiration and came up with several of the same artists. What I found is that I am not the first to find skeletal structures and the concept of vessel to be compatible and suitable subjects for inspiration.

The Work


My thesis works are based on the final two “alternative” definitions for the word vessel, and on an additional definition or category that I feel fits in with the overarching concept of vessel.  I will go into that additional information when I discuss that particular piece. In general, I worked with the idea of a wooden framework construction in various forms. I decided not to limit myself to staying with abstract or representational pieces, although I did allow formal issues to be prominent in the work, meaning I wanted the pieces to be graceful and aesthetically pleasing.


Piece 1 – Vessel of Sustenance


The vessel in its botanical meaning, as a means to transport sustaining fluids through a plant form, is the subject of my first piece.  A vessel is formed in a plant when a string of cells collectively dissolve their interstitial boundaries and form a tube. These cells basically self-destruct in order to serve the greater good of the plant. In trees, only the hardwood varieties have this type of structure; softwood trees have a “more primitive structure,”[v] and the presence or absence of this structure, rather than the hardness or softness of the wood, is what differentiates the two.

This piece is tall, like a tree, and segmented to suggest the cells. The bulkheads are pierced to imitate the dissolved cell walls. The strips widen at the base like roots, and at the top, like branches. It bulges in the middle to suggest the passage of nutrients. This piece is the most abstract of the three, and the simplest. I used steam-bending techniques to shape the outer strips, and finished the bulkheads with Tung oil.

I want this piece to suggest growth and upward movement, fluidity and extension.


Piece 2 – Vessel of Hope



This piece is based on the idea of a person as the embodiment or container of a quality.  I chose to make this a female figure because of personal aesthetics, and because the female body is often considered to be a container for new life.  I choose Hope as the quality for this figure to embody because I believe that conceptually, women embody the idea of new life, of refinement of the environment, and of hope for the future. Hope fills the figure with light and air.

The piece is human scale, to suggest that Hope is not a concept too big for us each to possess.  It is the most representational of the three, more complicated than the first piece, but still relatively simple.

. The bulkheads of this piece are shop-made plywood with alternating dark and light layers to suggest strength in diversity, which is an aspect of hope for our future as a species. The beech outer strips are steamed and then attached onto the bulkheads directly. I built an elaborate temporary support structure to hold the bulkheads in place while I worked.



Piece 3 – Vessel of Transformation



This third piece in the series embodies a definition of vessel that I feel should be included, as it seems to meet all the requirements.  It is, in essence, a cocoon.  A cocoon is a construction that is hollow and sealed.  Contained within the cocoon, a creature is transported from one stage of life to another. Therefore I feel that a cocoon fits very easily within the range of meanings that already exist for vessel.

My cocoon is imaginary, yet recognizable in form. In this way, it bridges the gap between the abstract quality of Piece 1 and the representational quality of Piece 2.  It hangs from the ceiling to suggest a natural formation.  It is open and inviting, even after its occupant has left. It appears to be a place where a mental transformation is still capable of happening.


This is the most complicated of the three pieces, involving fabric patterns and upholstery techniques. The ribs were steam bent and then laminated. Assistance in producing the fibers



Why did I choose the vessel, and more specifically the Alternative Vessel, to be the subject of my thesis year work?  What have I learned in this year?  What will I carry forward into the future?

The truth is that the subject chose me.  It began with my interest in boats and zeppelins and structures made out of wood.  It began with Da Vinci drawings and the Wright brothers.  It began with something so deep and visceral I’m not even sure I can identify it in words.  To me, there is something very compelling about the idea of sitting on dockside in a canvas apron with a spoke shave carving just the right curve on a piece of oak, surrounded by sawdust and shavings and the smell of the sea.  There is some thing inside me that is drawn to the structure of an airplane wing; the parallel bulkheads pierced with weight-saving holes in patterns that seem both deliberate and arcane.  I want to create structures that express these feelings and inspire the same feelings in those who view them.  In trying to define and solidify this rather ethereal area of interest, I began to explore the more intellectual aspects of the subject.  I read about the origins of airplanes and the history of sea travel. I studied skeletal structures, learning about both the engineering and the aesthetic aspects. I looked at the work of artists who seem fascinated by these same things, and I tried to corral and distill all this information into something manageable for a body of work. This process began several years ago, and has developed over time, so that at the beginning of this year I had a fairly good idea of how to frame my thesis.

Meanwhile, I sketched and sketched and sketched.  I sketched ideas for pieces without thinking too much about the concepts, caring mostly for the structural and formal aspects of the work, and the feelings they invoked.  I wanted to explore the Bulkhead and Strip form, to see how I could use it to make both abstract and representational structures. By the time the beginning of this year rolled around, I had a very good idea of the forms I wanted to make.

So then all I had to do was to marry the forms and the thesis concept, which was not very difficult.  I suppose one could say that I have simply made rationalizations for an essentially emotional choice of forms, that I have found ways to fit the pieces I wanted to make into the subject matter. There is a certain amount of truth to this. One could just as easily say that the forms and the thesis subject matter developed together over time and that intuitively I chose these forms because they would fit into the thesis. I’m comfortable with that idea.

In this my thesis year I have learned new ways to construct the things I want to make.  I’ve learned that I am not alone in finding these forms compelling, and that it is not necessary to understand the concepts behind my work to appreciate the work. I’ve learned about word history and wood structure and making plywood, and how many hours I can spend in a shop with sawdust and screaming machinery before my hands get numb and my mind turns to mush.  I’ve learned that my work better stand on its own merits, as I am not very good at explaining it.  I’ve learned that some people want everything to be created logically while others value intuition. I’ve learned that I work both ways.

In the end, and I say ‘the end’ knowing that there never really is an ‘end’, that the ending of one thing is the beginning of another and over all is the continuation of the life that spans all the beginnings and all the ends; in the end I have these three pieces. Three pieces of work out of the many I imagined both before and during the process of building them.  They can be the basis for a further exploration of the form, or the jumping off point for a tangential trajectory.  I feel that I would much rather keep my concepts broad and general, allowing the work to be influenced rather than dictated by them.  In the future, I will keep crossing that line between sculpture and furniture. I will work both large and small scale. I will seek public art commissions and experiment with speculative work.

I came into school an artist, and I leave a much better artist, armed now with vocabulary and with history and with techniques and with, most of all, confidence in my own judgment and intuition.

Thank you.



Studio Pottery – 20th Century British Ceramics in the Victoria & Albert Museum Collection  by Oliver Watson © 1990 Phaidon Press Ltd.


The Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition © 1989 Clarendon Press


Sky Sailors – The Story of the World’s Airshipmen by Ces Mowthorpe © 1999 Sutton Publishing Ltd.


Early Flying Machines – 1799 to 1909 by Charles Gibbs-Smith ©1975 Eyre Methuen Ltd.


Soft Sculpture & Other Soft Art Forms by Dona Z. Meilach © 1974 Crown Publishers, Inc. NY


The Pottery of Acatlan – A changing Mexican Tradition by Louana M. Lackey © 1982 University of Oklahoma Press


Ancient Chinese Bronze Art – Casting the Precious Sacral Vessel by W. Thomas Chase © 1991 China House Gallery


Studio Pottery – 20th Century British Ceramics in the Victoria & Albert Museum Collection  by Oliver Watson © 1993 Phaidon Press Ltd.


The Art of Craft – Contemporary Works from the Saxe Collection by Timothy Anglin Burgard © 1999 Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco


Vessel of Wrath – The Life and Times of Carry Nation by Robert Lewis Taylor ©1966 The New American Library, Inc.


Gilded Vessel – The Lustrous Art & Life of Beatrice Wood by Garth Clark


Ships & Seafaring in Ancient Times by Lionel Casson © 1994 University of Texas Press


The Dictionary of Wood


Wood and Canvas Kayaks


Web-ography in the House of God



[i]Excerpted from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition  © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Electronic version licensed from INSO Corporation; further reproduction and distribution in accordance with the Copyright Law of the United States. All rights reserved.

[ii] Page 6, Ships and Seafaring in Ancient Times, Lionel Casson, 1994, University of Texas Press

[iii] Dictionary of Wood

[iv] find this book

[v] dictionary of wood