Almost every potter makes cups. Whether functional or sculptural, colorful or minimal, the artist's preferences and personalities are visible.

Part of the pleasure of the Clay Studio's International Cup, an exhibition showcasing ceramic work, is that "each cup represents an individual," said Sue Tirrell, the exhibition's juror. 

The show has a full array of clay bodies and techniques, too, she said. She encouraged people to go the show in Missoula and "explore the cups. Pick them up and look at what they're made of," she said, and "see how earthernware feels verses a stoneware cup verses a smooth, fine porcelain cup."

While many aim for a dazzling aesthetic, they still have to fulfill many requirements beyond their visual appeal, she said. They must be comfortable to hold. They have to keep the liquid either warm or cold. The lip must provide a smooth drinking experience.

"At the same time, they're really an object that people bond with," she said. Whomever your audience is, they're going to use it on a daily basis.

Tirrell, who's based out of the Paradise Valley, has her work on the cover of the national magazine Ceramics Monthly this month. The Clay Studio's cup show got a mention, too, with spotlights on Sara Beth Truman and Kaitlyn Brennan's submissions.

The show, most often held every other year, includes 40 artists culled from 135 entries. The finalists come from the U.S., plus a few from Canada and one hailing from the Netherlands. Tirrell said there were a surprising number of new names, which feels rare now that ceramic artists are so active on social media.

Overall, Tirrell said the majority of the cups were functional versus sculptural.

She liked the way Fredi Rhan's "Latte Cup," a wood-fired porcelain vessel, was designed for a specific type of drink. Latte cups must have a wide top and narrow bottom so they don't trap too much heat under the foam and melt it. The color scheme, with browns and creams on the bottom and a light blue on top, somewhat resembles a latte, she said.

Breena Buettner's cup caught Tirrell's eye. The bottom half appears to have been thrown on a wheel, while the top is coil built, a method in which small coils of clay are stacked horizontally, giving it a ribbed texture. The coil's interior sides were smoothed out to ensure that it can be used.

Tirell thought it had a nice reference to a classic diner cup, with its single blue stripe, while flaunting its hand-made character through the coils.

Clay Studio executive director Shalene Valenzuela pointed out Fort Collins, Colorado, resident Justin Donofrio's "Tangerine Cup," with its eye-candy complementary tints of orange and blue-gray. She liked how it's loosely formed and feels nice in the hand. The lip, while curving, works nice on the lip.

Red Lodge Clay Center resident artist Allison Cochran's "Hour Glass Cup" "sits on the line between sculpture and function," Tirrell said. She thought the shape looks inviting to the hand while it's "hour-glass" shape might make it a little more tricky to use as a drinking vessel.

From a short distance, Eric Heying's white porcelain cup appears to have been decorated with overlapping colorful patches. Get closer and you can see that they're very small, short "threads" of extruded clay that were dipped in glazes of dark gray, a red, orange and yellow. Valenzuela pointed out that the texture gives the cup an appearance of heft, but it's quite light. The textured threads, almost like a miniature rug, act a nice grip when you hold it.

One local included in the show is Jane Philips, a former Clay Studio intern. She wood-fired her wine cup, leaving rich black splotches and tan flecks on its white porcelain surface.

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The exhibition doesn't have any requirement that the cups function as cups.

Valenzuela, a ceramic sculptor herself, pointed out the many ways the sculptural cups stretched the boundaries.

KyoungHwa Oh's piece remains functional while serving as a sculpture — whoever buys it will need a short pedestal. Once arranged, ceramic "water" ripples down the short drop and pools at the bottom. The cup, the shape of a bulb with an accompanying "rippled" lip, can rest on its own subtle pedestal legs.

Oh, of Grand Junction, Colorado, has been accepted to at least three or four of the studio's juried exhibitions over the years, Valenzuela said.

Nick Weddell's "Turtle" is partly functional, too. She picked up the cup to demonstrate: the saucer is attached to the bottom of the cup. It's nevertheless an attractive piece, with its "candy-colored glaze" and bubbly forms, more like a playful expressionist painting fed into a 3-D printer.

Robert W. LaWarre III's is one of the most purely sculptural. Remove the pointy red-and-green cap from his bust of an ashen, morose clown and you'll find that it is a cup, after all.

Lin Xu of Manitoba, Canada, submitted a completely nonfunctional, deconstructed cup. The piece, ornamented with a hummingbird decal, appears to have been ripped into pieces, with ragged edges, that Xu arranged into curling folds.

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Arts & Entertainment Reporter

Entertainment editor for the Missoulian.