Bonnie Kemske creates sculptures mimicking hugs using touch research. Her goal is to raise awareness of the benefits of touch and bring people together.
Listen to This Episode
- 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.
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
JM: Tell me about your tactile art. What are your objectives with the work that you produce?
BK: I think the main objective, what I came down to realize what I was doing is that I aim for my art to help people find comfort in a frightening world. I think that today there is an overwhelming sense of a low-level fear all the time. If with my work you can get rid of that fear or let it go for a moment, I think that’s quite a positive thing.
The way I create my works is through using my body. That’s so people will be able to interact with the sculptural ceramics using their bodies. The works are cast-hugs. I sit in the studio, and I have to have an assistant to help me do this. I have huge latex balloons, and I fill them until they’re about 18 inches across or more with liquid plaster. I hug them very tightly until that plaster sets. Those become the casts I then take molds from and make the ceramic forms from.
One of the reasons I do this is because every time you make something, every time you make a mark on a sculpture or a piece you’re building, you’re making an artistic judgment. I wanted to have one removed from that, I wanted only the tactile to make the decision. That’s why they’re cast without my knowing what they’re going to look like visually.
After I have several cast—I usually do up to ten at a time—I then choose two or three that are visually enticing. Of course they are visual as well as tactile, and those are the ones I then cast. Through a lot of exploration and a lot of investigation, what I’ve found is they need to be relatively heavy because it slows people down. That makes them slightly more contemplative and relaxed. They need to have a good texture on them. If they’re smooth, people don’t respond to them as well, which is suprising but it’s true.
The fingers have a tremendous sense of tactile discrimination in them. The works are textured so there’s a kind of active interaction; as you run your hand over it, you feel all of the texture. They’re heavy because we have sensors across our bodies which sense pressure or weight, and then we have sensors that judge temperature—that’s important, too. The works are low-fired so they’re still a bit absorbent, so they’ll absord your body heat and warm up as you handle them.
Our sense of touch is very complex. Some people say it’s actually not one sense, it’s multiple senses. In my work, I try to engage as many of those senses as possible: weight, temperature, tactile discrimination, texture, and the form of the piece. All of those are almost separate tactile experiences or touch experiences.
JM: Where did you get the idea to make your first piece? Where did the idea come from? What gave you the idea to cast a hug of yourself?
BK: [laughs] I know! It’s strange, isn’t it?
BK: I had been in the studio for ten years making textured ceramics. They were based on the figure but they were abstracted. I called them soft forms, and they were very textured. As I was making more and more, I began to get incredibly fascinated by the texture of the surfaces.
For instance, one time I was doing an open studio event, which I used to do every year. Somebody came who was blind. She was completely blind, and her teenage son brought her. As soon as she walked in the door, I had an entirely different sense of what her work would feel like. I thought to myself, ‘I need to apply that sense that she had, that she was telling me as she was touching my pots. I need to apply that to what I was doing.’
Then I had a work in a small exhibition in London. I was gallery sitting for lunch for the gallery owner. I was sitting at the desk, I looked down and there was a middle-aged man in the gallery. He had been wandering around and he kept coming back to one or two of my pieces in there. It was a group show so there were a lot of different pieces. As I looked down, I saw out of the corner of my eye: he put his hand on top of one of these textured soft forms and he ran the palm of his hand over the side of it.
I thought, ‘That’s what I want. I want people to not be able to resist touching this work,’ even though there are signs that say “Do Not Touch” or we know we’re not supposed to touch artwork.
JM: I was just wondering about that, yeah.
BK: The truth is that there is a taboo against touching artwork, but it’s not a strong taboo in that people are desperate to touch artwork. It’s not just the touching for verification, which also happens: if you touch with your fingers just to make sure it feels like what it looks like. People want to experience the touch of art. They haven’t been allowed to very much.
I decided I would do a research degree into texture. I went to the Royal College of Art in London and I said, “Could I do this research degree?” They agreed and I started. Within three months into the research, I realized the whole PhD was not going to be about texture, it was going to be about touch. My interest wasn’t actually in texture, it was in touch. It wasn’t about the thing, it was about the experience of the thing, which is what the French philosopher [Maurice] Merleau-Ponty used to talk about.
It’s about the incorporation of the thing into your space or your self awareness, and that’s what touch does. It physically links you to something. That’s how I came to be doing it.
The first thing I did was I studied what touch is physiologically. I went and I found out what the cells are that are involved with our senses of touch. I was making tiny little, sculptural textured objects to run across different parts of the body.
There’s a great experiment you can do down your bare arm. If you run a textured object down the inside of your arm slowly, all the way down your palm and off your fingers, it feels like different objects. Your sense of tactile discrimination changes so much from being poor on your shoulder and increasing down the arm. Into your fingertips, it feels amazing.
I was making these objects to run around the body, and I knew I didn’t want to make that as artworks. I started thinking about pots, objects, and sculptures. Somehow, I remembered an interview I’d had with Nigel Barley, who was an anthropologist at the British Museum. He did a lot of field work in Africa. I was interviewing him about something entirely different, but he mentioned that in one tribe he had spent a lot of time with, the women made their own pots for carrying water. They made the pots to fit their bodies. They made them to be easier to carry them, but to use a cliche, it was a light bulb moment. I thought, ‘That’s it. That’s how I engage the body’s sense of touch: I make the works fit the body.’
I decided I needed to find a way to really make it part of me, and it became the hug. I then decided in an effort to turn off my visual skills that I would cast them. That’s how they’re made and that’s how they came about.
JM: I’m not clear on what your concentration was in your PhD program. What did you study?
BK: A PhD program in Britain is different from in the States. It is solely about a single research topic. My research topic when I went in was about texture and ceramics. It’s a bi-practice PhD, so fifty percent is studio work and fifty percent is theoretical work.
What I did was I used what I call a concatenated methodology. I asked a question in the studio and answered it, which would give rise to a question which I would then answer theoretically, which would give rise to a question back in the studio, so I had this back and forth. That’s what working as an artist researcher means: I go back and forth between the theory and the practice.
My PhD is in Ceramics, and it’s in Touch and Sculptural Ceramics. My actual PhD is called Evoking Intimacy: Touch and The Thoughtful Body in Sculptural Ceramics.
JM: It’s so cool that you’ve found a niche like this. It’s just fascinating.
BK: There certainly isn’t anybody I know of who’s been doing this kind of thing. There’s lots of touch work going on and there’s tactile art going on, as well. I belong to a couple of tactile art organizations. A lot of times it’s almost a by-product or… [pauses]
JM: I can see maybe—there are product designers and research on touch would be secondary to the product they’re designing. I could see that.
BK: That’s right, or they’re using the research to promote something.
In art, what you find is there’s a lot of art that’s made to be touched going all the way back to, for instance, Franz West in the 1960s and 1970s, but it’s not plesant touching. The materials aren’t nice or the experience isn’t nice.
When I was doing my research, people kept saying to me, “Why don’t you make it spiky?” I’d say, “Because I’m looking for comfort and a positive experience, not a scary and painful experience.” [laughs] The only sense of touch I was trying to turn off was the nociceptor, the receptor for pain. That was the one I didn’t want to be engaged. [laughs]
There’s more work being done in it. Touch within society in general, Western society in general, we understand much more how important it is or at least most people do. I think one of the ways you can tell we do understand this is because, if you look carefully, you can see that advertising is using it more and more all the time.
JM: I’ll have to look for that.
BK: Yeah. You’ll see mobile ad commercials where they’re hugging each other or they have a phone you can hug. If advertisers are doing it, that means it’s part of the zeitgeist, you know? [laughs]
It’s out there, people want it. They really do want to engage touch and to use touch more fully to make their lives better.
JM: It does seem like our culture is sort of touch-starved.
BK: Yeah. I have to admit, I’m an American living in Britain. I’ve lived here now for a long time, 35 years, married to a Brit.
JM: Where did you grow up, by the way?
BK: I grew up in Delaware.
There’s less touch here than there was in the States when I was growing up. [laughs] I did have to acknowledge in part of my PhD that part of it was because I was a bit touch-starved on the cultural level, you know? [laughs] I’ve watched the British change and that’s partly because of American TV and things. We now hug each other much more often than we ever did before, as much as Americans do, but not as much as the French do. [laughs]
When I was in Japan during that period, investigating touch in Japan, what I found was they didn’t touch each other as much, especially across sexes, but they touched objects more. They would go into a gallery and they would touch the ceramic works there without batting an eye. They touched every bit of cloth all the time. Everything was being touched. Even on the level of objecthood, there are cultural differences.
JM: Do you have any insight into the benefits of touch? What are we missing out on?
BK: Absolutely. It’s amazing that anybody could think it wasn’t important. Studies have shown from the very early 1960s with… [pauses] What was his name? Harry… [pauses] At any rate, it was cruel and we would never do it now, but he had monkeys.
JM: Oh, I’m vaguely familiar.
BK: Yes. He gave fake mother monkeys to these baby monkeys. Some of them were in terry cloth and were cuddly, and some just had milk. They would go to the milk for sustenance but then they would immediately stay with the cuddly one. Even more important than feeding, they would spend much more time with the cuddly mother. Then he withdrew even that, and these monkeys had all kinds of serious illnesses and issues.
That’s been shown in humans, too. Babies who are deprived of touch develop all kinds of physical and emotional issues. There was a recent study, I think about two years ago, that showed people in particular, even moreso for women, who are hugged have lower heart disease levels and lower blood pressure levels just from the hugs. You can lower your blood pressure through hugs.
That’s part of the reason I decided—some people think the caress or the hug is too cute to put into art. In fact, it’s a fundamental human experience that is so powerful. I decided, regardless of its tweeness, I had to use it. I had to go into it and develop it.
There are studies that show, for instance, with waitresses, if they touch their customers even just barely, they’ll get more tips. They’ll get higher amounts, and that’s because it makes people feel better. Of course, there’s oxytocin levels—it does release chemicals that make us feel better, as well. There are all kinds of physiological and emotional benefits to touch, and all kinds of damage that can be done if we don’t have touch.
JM: How does your work help to overcome these—I don’t want to say fears, but this apprehension we’ve sort of learned about touch?
BK: It is a sadness that touch has become equated often with sexuality, bad sexuality, and badness. In creating sculptures, there isn’t the sense of that. If someone were to come to you and give you a hug that you didn’t know, you might well recoil from it, but you’re not going to recoil from an inanimate object. I knew I was already on a winning case there in that people who are receptive to touch would be happy to touch the sculptural forms, whereas they might not be so happy to have a hug.
I’ll tell you a story. I had some work at a scientific conference in Amsterdam a few years ago. It’s a haptic conference so it looks at mostly technology and virtual touch. They had an art thread, so they asked me to come and present my work.
I had a professor who came from the Far East. He came and looked at my work two days running. This conference went on for about four day. I finally saw him after the conference one night. I said, “Why don’t you come and sit and hold one of the cast hugs?” He said okay, he would. He came and he held this thing. He held it for about ten minutes; then he got up, put it down, and walked away. He didn’t say anything at all.
I was quite upset because I thought he had been receptive to it. I saw him later that night and I said, “Did you dislike?” He said, “No, no. It wasn’t that. It’s that, as I held it, I realized I had no hugs in my life. I never hug my wife, I never hugged my children. It just made me feel sad and also positive at the same time. When I go home, I’m going to hug my family.”
I was so deeply moved. I thought, ‘If I had hugged him myself, he would not have had the same reaction as he did hugging this art.’ It’s odd, isn’t it? It somehow gave him the distance and allowed him to do it. If I had hugged him, it would have been a different thing. I mean, I do hug lots of people, it’s true. [laughs]
JM: [laughs] It’s those kinds of considerations in your work—that’s why I’ve been such a big fan of yours, seeing the pieces you come up with and the research to back it up. There’s all of these design considerations. Like you mentioned earlier, the weight of the piece is important. It’s so interesting to me.
BK: What I’ve found is that, if the pieces are too light—because lots of people say, “Oh, they’re too heavy.” If they’re too light, then people are too quick with them. They actually hold them out and look at them rather than allowing the weight of them to settle on their bodies, especially men I have to say. Men tend to hold the object in front of them and turn it in different directions to look at it in different ways rather than allowing it to find a place to sit on their body comfortably.
If it’s heavy, you engage with it more and more slowly. Also, if it’s against your body, you stop looking at it. [laughs] Your tactile senses have to kick in. Vision will always dominate an experience if you allow it to. What I was trying to find is a way to allow the tactile or the sense of touch to be privileged in these settings.
JM: I hadn’t thought there might be other social considerations to how different viewers would want to hold or approach the pieces.
BK: That’s right. The actual setting takes quite a lot of consideration, as well. I did a lot of testing on the setting. One of the things you have to do is you have to allow people to interact with the work without feeling self-conscious. Often when I show the work, I’ll show it with benches, seats, or something facing away from the gallery so people don’t feel they’re being looked at, or I have the lights dimmed. That’s another good way of doing it, or anything that makes people feel comfortable, relaxed, and un-self-conscious. That’s very important.
It was trial and error: I would put things out and see how people were reacting with them. I collected comments constantly. I have hundreds and hundreds of comments. What I did was I intended to use the basics of grounded theory. I would categorize the comments and see what the themes were that were coming out. That was one of them, that they lost their sense of themselves in the work, which was the letting go of the self-consciousness. They would say, “I felt like it became part of me,” “I felt myself going into the work,” “The work and I became one,” things like this, which showed me they were freed from the fear of being gazed at.
One of the other things I think is important in what I’ve been doing in this work is that, with visual art, most people have a sense that there’s a whole history of the aesthetic of visual art. Most people feel self-conscious about their comments about it. Unless they’re in the field of art, they’re hesitant to make comments or they say, “Well, I know what I like,” which means, “Please forgive me for what I’m about to say, but I like that piece.” People are constantly self-judging themselves and judging their judgments, as it were.
We don’t have any of that with touch. With every single time an individual handles a tactile object, it’s a different experience and it’s only their experience. There can be nothing right or nothing wrong about it. There’s none of that aesthetic baggage you have with visual art sometimes. It is very freeing in many ways, I think.
JM: Overall, what do you like about doing the work you do? Why did you choose to be an artist researcher instead of, say, another field? How does it convey the benefits of touch, for example, in ways that other fields might not be able to?
BK: Art is my field, that’s what I do. Touch is my interest, and so they’ve come together. I think that lots of people in lots of different walks of life, if they’re interested in touch and the benefits of touch to our existence and our being, they can bring that into how they are, as well—their sense of what they do, as well.
Art is fantastic, there is no doubt about it. You sometimes can get that aesthetic experience, which is very moving and takes you out of yourself, and touch experiences can do the same thing. What I don’t want people to think is that, because I’m producing an object that has tactile qualities, that I somehow think I’ve got a corner on touch in our world. You know what I mean? Touch is so integral and so important that we should all be looking at ways of incorporating touch. It’s important. I feel lucky that I’m in a field where I can express the importance of touch in my work.
I also use touch in the rest of my life, as well. I consciously touch people if I think they need it. If I stop somebody—if there’s a homeless person and I think they might be in trouble, it’s important that you touch them if you can—just a bare touch on the arm, any kind of touch. You go to a café and the waitress seems miserable, when you leave, you make sure you touch her arm briefly and say, “I hope your day is good.”
Incorporating touch in your life can have so many benefits and is such a positive thing to do.
JM: I think you mostly exhibit your work in the UK. If we don’t have access to your tactile pieces, what are some tips in our daily lives we can use to be more mindful of touch and those benefits?
BK: All of the objects we surround ourselves with have tactile qualities. I think we need to make sure that we consider those tactile qualities when we add more objects to our lives. If you’re buying mugs, for instance, feel them. Pick them up, hold them in your hand. What do they feel like?
If you’re with somebody, don’t hesitate to say, “See what this feels like. Have you felt this?” You’re sitting, I don’t know, somewhere in somebody’s home and there’s a soft pillow next to you. You’re sitting next to a person you’ve just met. You’ve got something you can talk about: you’re experiencing this soft pillow. Even a comment about that—I think raising our own awareness of all the tactile qualities around us and raising other people’s awareness of it through our mindfullness, as you say, I think we need to be more aware that our world is entirely tactile as well as being visual. We see it but let’s touch it, as well.
If we recognize that there’s a need for touch and not just touch between people but touch between us and objects, make them good touches. Make choices that engage our sense of touch in a positive way.
JM: I was listening to what you’re saying. What I’m thinking is maybe the first step is being aware of the need for touch. Maybe the second step would be to start having more discussions, establishing a discourse. Maybe that will help overcome this fear that touch is a bad thing.
BK: Absolutely. Everybody touches. If we talk about it, it’s not as shocking as people think it might be. [laughs] I don’t think you’ll be seen as strange if you draw attention to things that are particularly touch pleasing. I think people will be responsive.
JM: What would be the best way for us to follow you and your work online?
BK: As I say, I will be updating my website. I also tweet when I’m in the middle of a project. That’s @bonniekemske.
JM: Your website and then Twitter?
BK: Yeah, I think that’s probably the best bet.
JM: That’s bonniekemske.com?
BK: That’s right!
JM: Alright. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you’d like to talk about?
BK: The other thing thinking back on what we’ve talked about, there are a few other aspects of touch and making tactile art that I haven’t mentioned. One is that I think it creates community and relationship.
JM: How so?
BK: What I’ve observed is that complete strangers—granted, this is in Britain where people don’t talk to each other in general until they’ve been introduced. [laughs] Unlike Americans, when we stand in the grocery store line, we’ll chat about anything, won’t we? In Britain, if you chat about things in the supermarket queue, they think there must be something wrong with you.
In an art setting, when two people who have never met each other before sit down and there’s this tactile object between them, they start talking about it. What they do is they start telling stories about it. “You know, that reminds me of a big, fat cat I used to have when I was a little girl.”
I had one woman—this was very moving. She was from Iraq, and she said when she was a little girl, there was a huge rock outside the village that would get warm in the sun. When the women were in labor, they would go and lie against this rock. It was said that the rock would take their pain away. This experience had brought that up.
Another man who had been traveling for three years, he stopped in London and he was on his way home back to the Far East. He held one of these pieces. He started crying and he said, “It makes me realize how much I miss my family.” I think a tactile object can bring people together in such a positive way.
In addition to that, I often saw families using it. You would see a parent give a child one of the sculptures to hold or to hold against them if they were too heavy, then the parent would hug the child. I saw this with three-year-old children and with thirty-year-old children. [laughs]
BK: The child would hold the sculpture and the parent would have their arm around the child. I found that very striking and very moving.
I think that, if we incorporate touch more in art, maybe that will help us to incorporate touch more in our society in general.
JM: To summarize everything, if your work had a message, what would you like for that message to say?
BK: Ooh. [pauses] Let the things you surround with give you comfort.
JM: Wow. [laughs] That’s very well put.
BK: Well, I hope it’s okay off the top of my head like that. [laughs]
JM: [laughs] No, that sounds great.
You’ve been very generous with your time and you sound like a lovely person. I really appreciate it.
BK: [laughs] That’s very sweet of you. I’ve enjoyed speaking with you, Josh.
JM: Yeah, this has been great. I hope you enjoy your day.
BK: Okay, you too. Take care.
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.