Sculpture and music in one object

Ceramic flutes bring beauty into the home while offering soothing sounds for relaxation

Ceramic flutemaker Robin Hodgkinson calls his one-of-a-kind spirit vessels "sculpture with a voice." It's a reference to the clear, ringing tones the instruments can produce with only a gentle exhalation of breath and to the Shinto belief that each object has its own spirit.

"In Hawaiian culture, they consider flute music to be the breath of God," Mr. Hodgkinson elaborates. "The breath out, or exhale, is the breath of the self. That's somehow connected in my mind to music, the movement of air creating sound. Air coming out of a person's body is so expressive."

For Hodgkinson, the vessels are not only a way to combine a degree in anthropology with longstanding interests in music and art, but a way to pass on to others the gift of making music, which he believes is the perfect vehicle for creating "sacred time and space."

He says, "Anthropologists and philosophers talk about sacred time and space. Sacred time can be subliminal, just sitting and daydreaming. It's non-normal time, out of the everyday routine. In our culture, our pace is so fast, you really have to consciously set aside the time for sacred times ... time that is potentially healing. There's a certain element of reflection, of meditation. I hope my instruments provide inspiration, a reminder to make that sacred time available."

Hodgkinson's spirit vessels are indeed inspirational. The fanciful flutes, with names like Temple of Sound, Temple Gate, and Maya, are Hodgkinson's own design, largely inspired by pre-Columbian ceramics.

These exotic artworks range from a single vessel that looks like a boat riding atop waves to elaborate double-chambered pieces that evoke doorways, arches, and gates.

Many are inscribed with intricate symbols and gilded with gold. On some of the vessels, he has added tiny prayer flags, and he is currently exploring designs for a three-chambered flute.

However, as extravagantly beautiful as some of the pieces are, they take no special technique to play. A child's gentle exhale can evoke a sweet tone. In the double-chambered vessels the column of air is split into two windpipes, allowing the player to get two notes at once, creating melody and harmony. There is a simple tuning system for songs, or the user can simply exhale into the instrument, enjoying the aural manifestation of breath released.

There is a calming quality to the sounds, and Hodgkinson says a lot of women buy his instruments for their overstressed husbands to keep in their offices.

Some people buy Hodgkinson's flutes simply as works of art - a sculpture to grace a mantel or coffee table. Others are buying a musical instrument. In fact, Hodgkinson's instruments, which include transverse flutes and four-hole ocarinas, have been played in concerts by a variety of professional musicians. The ocarinas are popular in classroom teaching.

But for Hodgkinson, the underlying hope is that all his pieces somehow feed into to the process of creating special times and places that nurture the spirit.

"We're all consciously or unconsciously trying to create sacred spaces," he believes. "The way people decorate their houses ... gardens do it even more concretely, with plants as icons.... It's a manipulation of objects in a way that is meaningful to you."

Hodgkinson's own "sacred space" is in the tiny western Massachusetts town of Haydenville, about 10 miles west of Northhampton, where he lives with his wife and two boys, ages 16 and 13.

There his backyard studio is nestled in a grove of trees, with large windows opening up to lush greenery and a wooded area beyond.

Interested in music and ethnomusicology since childhood, Hodgkinson absorbed the folk music and traditions of different cultures as his anthropology studies took him all over the world.

He "fell into flutemaking" as a way of extending and integrating those interests on a personal level. Hodgkinson's first foray into flutemaking 25 years ago was creating instruments from bamboo, acrylic tubing, and exotic woods.

Ultimately, however, the materials didn't "speak to my spirit," he says, and he found clay to be a far less-expensive medium, as well as more artistically expressive.

"On the one hand, I want to make the act of simple musicmaking accessible to people. I've learned from primitive cultures how people get a great sense of satisfaction playing music. It's an important social function in the life of their community.... On the other hand, I'm trying to make something visually beautiful."

Hodgkinson sells his work through galleries around the country and through his Web site (, where visitors can see a sampling of some of his works. However, his most fulfilling outlet is craft fairs, where he gets direct contact with the people who buy his instruments.

"I've had people in their 20s and 30s come up and say their mother or their aunt bought them an ocarina when they were a child, and now they're a professional musician, and they just wanted me to know they really loved that ocarina," he relates.

While the transverse flutes and ocarinas form the majority of Hodgkinson's business, the heart of his enterprise is the spirit vessels.

"The hope," he says, "is that someone buys a piece because it speaks to them. The fact that it has a voice is important to me, and everyone who buys a piece likes that aspect, whether or not they take advantage of it. But my motivation is that whoever purchases it lets it contribute to their sacred space, however they define it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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