Dinner and a Spoon

Liesl Chatman had been thinking about this for over a year. Dinner with friends and family. A shared meal with a shared purpose: to bring together people from all walks of life to reflect upon connection, community, memory, and the lives we have all lived these past few years since the pandemic began. Helping spark that reflection would be twenty-plus spoons carved by Liesl herself.

And so we gathered on campus. Spoon carvers and students and staff and community members came together for a potluck-style meal. But before the food was served. Before anyone sat down at a table. Before anyone brought a spoon to their mouth, or any utensil for that matter, people needed to choose a spoon.

The spoons that Liesl makes are meant to be used. They are, first and foremost, spoons. They are beautiful and kolrosed and exhibition-worthy. And they are meant to be used to eat oatmeal and soups and curries and blueberry pie, to help you nourish yourself every day. On this day, they would be used to eat, but also to spark conversation.

Liesl, as she has done so many times before, spread her spoons out on a table. Sometimes they are dumped willy-nilly. Sometimes they are passed around. Sometimes they are lined up on display. But always, people gravitate to them. These spoons are a documentation of the life that Liesl has lived since early 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic had just begun. Adorned with kolrosing, a traditional art akin to tattooing the wood that often uses coffee grounds or cinnamon to give color to the ornamentation, the spoons are a beautiful piece of her, and our, everyday.

An array of Liesl Chatman’s spoons at a recent presentation with students on the UW–Madison campus. Photo credit: Marcus Cederström

Liesl asked that each person in attendance walk around and take in the spoons before choosing one spoon to eat with. And so it was that before this shared meal, we were also privy to an impromptu art exhibition.

With spoon in hand, we found a seat, we found a bowl, and we found ourselves eating with family and new friends. We shared stories and memories of the past few months. We also shared our reflections on why we had chosen the spoon we had chosen, what connections we might have to the spoon or the kolrosing. Perhaps most important, we listened quietly and deeply to each other as we sat around the table in community.

This meal, these spoons, this residency was a reminder to all who participated that traditional knowledge and folk arts are (and should continue to be) an important part of our everyday lives. They help us present ourselves to our friends and family and to the world at large. The folk arts that are a part of our lives every single day help make us who we are. Liesl’s spoons document the last few years of her life, and through a traditional folk art she makes connections between the past and present, connections between traditional knowledge and contemporary issues, and asks that we all engage with what it means to be in and create community.

After three months in Madison, scores of students, multiple public presentations, and a few new spoons, Liesl’s residency is coming to an end. A dinner to celebrate, to reflect, to share, and to be in community was a perfect culmination to an already amazing few months. And so, with bellies and hearts full, we prepare to say goodbye to Liesl. For now. The residency may be coming to an end, but we look forward to working closely in the coming months with Liesl and the many new spoon carvers we have met.