Bonnie Kemske creates sculptures mimicking hugs using touch research. Her goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of touch and bring people together.
- Bonnie Kemske is a ceramicist, artist researcher, and writer from Cambridge, England.
- She is known for creating ceramic sculptures of hugs, which she uses to engage viewers and their sense of touch.
- Touch has all sorts of benefits that we take for granted—in health, well-being, and social interaction—but our culture has become more distrusting of it in recent years.
- Bonnie shares stories of how her sculptures have affected their viewers, as well as ways we can be more aware of touch in our lives.
Below are a few images from Bonnie of her sculptures.
- The website of Concordia Sensoria Research Team in Montreal is an excellent resource for sensory research, including touch.
- The website of the Touch Research Institute in Miami is another excellent resource for touch research.
- Bonnie’s PhD thesis, Evoking Intimacy: Touch and the Thoughtful Body in Sculptural Ceramics, is available.
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This transcript may differ in minor instances from the audio content. Please notify Josh Morgan of any errors you may find.
Monologue by Josh Morgan
Bonnie Kemske is a ceramicist, artist researcher, and writer from Cambridge, England. She’s known for creating sculptural forms out of clay that are designed to be hugged. Bonnie’s spent years perfecting her forms, which she calls cast hugs, and most of them resemble pillows that are meant to be held and touched. She exhibits them in art shows, mostly around the UK, with the intention of encouraging all sorts of positive effects, including social interaction, awareness of our need for touch, and a sense of comfort that is often lacking in our touch-starved culture. I talked with Bonnie about her process, how her work has affected its viewers, and how we can be more mindful of touch in our lives.
I’m Josh Morgan. My conversation with Bonnie is coming up next on The Plural of You, the podcast about people helping people.
This is Episode 27. You can read along if you’d like at pluralofyou.org/027.
Bonnie’s sculptures represent a surprising amount of different topics, like the therapeutic potential of art, the effects of touch on our health and well-being, and the social norms we carry about touching and being touched. I couldn’t begin to summarize everything in the span of a few minutes because there’s too much to cover, especially the research on touch’s place in our social lives. Before I play my conversation with Bonnie, there’s a couple of points I think should be emphasized.
The first is that, according to touch researcher Tiffany Field, touch is the least studied and possibly the least understood of the human senses, which is odd because skin is by far our largest sense organ. Touch is also a form of communication that implies connection, and our expectations of it depend largely on how we’re raised. I got the impression from reading Tiffany’s book Touch that, even though studies have shown that touch is correlated with things like reduced pain, decreased anxiety, and increases in cooperative behaviors, people in Western societies have become more adverse to touch in recent years. There are a few theories to explain why, but the overall suggestion seems to be that touch has been characterized today an expression of threat more often than as an expression of comfort, and is linked with how we compare our social status to those around us. That’s unfortunate, given the benefits of touch that researchers like Bonnie and Tiffany have observed—not that we should all be touching one another constantly, but there are many of us who are rarely touched at all, so we’re missing out on these benefits.
The second point I wanted to mention about Bonnie’s work is that art and touch share a lot of similarities. Many of us shy away from art because we don’t understand it, or at least we think we don’t understand it. A lot of that has to do with the state of arts education, which is always struggling for funding. Something I didn’t realize until I married an artist is that beauty can have a visceral quality to it. In other words, something like a sunset or a well-composed piece of art can make us have a physical reaction, but it may take viewing lots of sunsets or pieces of art to experience that. In that sense, I like to think Bonnie’s cast hugs are a perfect example of well-composed pieces of art. Her work also proves that something doesn’t have to be visually pleasing to be beautiful. The sensation of touch can be beautiful, too.
There’s a couple of other quick things from my conversation with Bonnie that I’d like to clarify before I play it. One is that Bonnie mentions research by psychologist Harry Harlow. We couldn’t remember his name at the time, but Harlow was infamous for isolating young rhesus monkeys from other monkeys and then studying the results—it was pretty sad stuff. The other is that it can be tricky to imagine what Bonnie’s cast hugs might look like, so I’ll put a few images of those in the show notes for this episode.
I first learned about Bonnie a few years ago. My wife saw her present a talk about her cast hugs at the Alabama Clay Conference. She came home and told me what she’d learned, and we both became fans of Bonnie’s work. I’ve never encountered anything else like it, especially in the art world, so I’m really humbled that she agreed to talk with me about it. Here’s Bonnie Kemske, ceramicist and writer from Cambridge, England.
Interview with Bonnie Kemske
This transcript is not yet available. Please check back later.
Conclusion by Josh Morgan
What did you think of this episode? Let me know on Facebook or Twitter at pluralofyou, or contact me via the website at pluralofyou.org.
The Plural of You is produced by me, Josh Morgan, in sunny Edinboro, Pennsylvania. Mike Martinez created the music. Thanks to Sara Morales-Morgan for talking through this episode with me as I put it together.
You can find show notes, past episodes, and other resources on the website, and if you’d like to have the next episode sent to you automatically, visit pluralofyou.org/subscribe to subscribe to the podcast.
If you liked my talk with Bonnie, check out Episode 2 with Adam Greenfield. Adam and his neighbor started The Public Bench Project in San Francisco, and they build public benches for anyone in their neighborhood who asks. The effect they’ve had on bringing people together has been pretty impressive. You can find my talk with Adam at pluralofyou.org/002.
In closing, here’s a homework assignment.
I learned from Bonnie that a good way to make touch a thing again is to talk about it. Look for ways to share the benefits of touch with those you care about. Remember: not everybody likes being touched, but for some touch can be a gift that shows them you care.
That’s all for now. Thanks for helping.