On Wednesday afternoon at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia's Old City, seven large folding tables were crammed with 500 hand-made coffee mugs.

On Thursday morning, each will be put into the hand of an unsuspecting Philadelphia pedestrian, at five undisclosed locations in Center City.

The mugs represent an array of ceramic techniques, shapes, textures, and decorative whimsy. There are bulbous salt-fired cups; red-clay demitasse with subtle gradations of white slip glaze; and big, chunky mugs with cartoon characters scratched into the finish.

All of them were crafted with patience and intention.

"Hand-made objects really enrich individual's lives. They carry the spirit of the maker," said Jeff Guido, artistic director of the Clay Studio. "I don't know if that is terminology that most people would readily embrace, or understand, or believe."

Guido does not really know how everyday people will feel when they hold a hand-made mug in their hands, warmed by coffee. That's why he launched the "Guerrilla Mug Assault." For three hours on Thursday morning, volunteers in Center City will approach people drinking from paper cups and offer each an artisanal cup.

It's a gift to take, and to use. And then report back.

Each cup has an email address written on a tag, and the new owners are encouraged to send comments and photos about their relationship with their newly adopted dishware. Those comments will be added to the Clay Studio's blog.

"It's an intimate act to drink out of a mug, if you really think about it," said Guido. "These hand-made objects — they truly do add to that experience."

The mugs are crafted by the eye and hand of fine artists to serve a functional purpose: deliver hot liquid to your mouth. Learning from the end user how each objet d'art is used is critical.

"If you're a potter and you're not talking to people using them, your not getting the right information," said ceramist Daniel Ricardo Teran. "How does this feel in your hand? How does a person hold it? How does a man hold it, as opposed to a woman? Because those things matter when you're making pots."

Holding patterns

Men and women tend to hold their cups differently, according to Teran. A man might grip the handle with three or four fingers, and sip with his elbow jutting out. A woman might hold a cup with just two fingers while cradling the vessel with the other hand, holding it close to her chest.

Or, maybe not. The blog will tell.

These questions, and the bigger question about the relevance of hand-made objects in a disposable manufacturing economy, are interesting to the Knight Foundation, whose Knight Art Challenge funded the Mug Assault with a $15,000 matching grant.


Photos by Kimberly Paynter for NewsWorks