In Some Ways, Our Cup Overruns in Rhode Island

It’s a small thing, but when I was the descendant who wound up emptying out a storage unit full of the stuff that my grandparents had accumulated over their lives, one of my favorite rewards was an intricate coffee cup.

For most of our adult lives, my wife and I have had to stick with the sort of tableware that comes from bulk stores — maybe not “disposable,” but not so expensive that you feel bad when you have to throw it out.  I drink a lot of coffee, though, and it’s nice to have a special cup.

Of course, in a household of six people, a father often finds himself with no choice but to use what’s in the cabinet instead of in the sink, in the dishwasher, or forgotten somewhere it shouldn’t be in somebody’s room.  With that in mind, as I decided what items were worthy of my handful of raffle tickets at a recent event, I put one in the bag next to a handmade cup from Lindsey Epstein Pottery in Tiverton.

I won, and now I’ve got a vessel for my coffee that is unmistakably one-of-a-kind — from the hand-drawn illustration of a ship wheel to the colored glazing with streaks that give the impression of depth and motion.  Best of all, nobody else in the house is quite daring enough to take it out of the cabinet… yet.

Something feels very Rhode Island about the cup, like it’s a souvenir bought during a subtle vacation.  A discerning tourist might bring such a thing home instead of a mass-produced “I (heart) Newport” cup from a visitor’s center on the island in order to tell friends, “I bought that from the sculptor herself during an open-studio event.”  But those of us who live here know that the studio is just a few turns away.  Everything is just a few turns away in Rhode Island.

Maybe there were similar artisans where I grew up northern New Jersey, but if there were, they were overshadowed amid the malls, outlets, and chain stores.  In aesthetics, the closest I remember were import shops, where a boy could try to convince his parents to buy him a walking stick that hid a sword, shipped over from the orient.  The bragging rights in that overpopulated region came from the ability to get crafts from far away.

Now the Internet has brought that thrill to every town in the country and anybody with a credit card can (theoretically) order a cane sword from Japan or a Tiverton-made cup that’s not-quite-like mine.  But only us locals get to say that we filled our cars at the next pump or cast our votes at the next booth over from the artist.

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