If you tell Christian Morris a story, he’ll give you an ear. Literally.
“It’s kind of weird to hold a 2-inch ear in your hand… I made them as a gift to people that I interview, because it’s like, you give me your story I’ll give you this,” he said.
The ceramic ears, which come in an array of blues, greens and purples, are tokens Morris gives to people he speaks with as part of a public art project called Practices of Listening.
The 24-year-old Leetsdale native is a resident artist with the Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District. The space awards residency every summer to an emerging artist as part of its Creative Placemaking initiative.
“We realized because we are a cultural anchor in the produce terminal … we thought we could begin bringing in these artists in residence and asking them specifically, as you think about making art, to focus on the Strip District in some way," Executive Director Janet McCall said. "What we’re trying to do is capture where the neighborhood has been and what it means to people.”
Through the "Listening" project, Morris said he interviews nearby residents, business owners, shoppers and passersby, but he's partial to the oldtimers.
“I’m looking for the stories of people who have been here a long time,” he said.
In the back of a store off Penn Avenue, Morris held a $75 handheld recorder near Raymond Turkas Jr.
Turkas, 64, explained his childhood: a window facing the old Cork Factory, seeing the real Primanti brothers making sandwiches and the streets clogged with trucks purchasing wholesale products from the produce terminal in the middle of the night.
The owner of his family's decades-old business Strip District Meats, Turkas agreed the neighborhood looks and feels different today.
“I like what’s happening down here," he told Morris. "When I was your age, these were all family business. There were a lot of people my age that were sons and daughters of the old school guys, so I grew up with a number of people whose families had business down here.”
He records the interviews and uploads them online. He then turns to his potter’s wheel in the Society's studio. From wet gray clay, he crafts sculptures of audio speakers, which are later paired with QR codes that visitors to the space can tap into to hear stories from the neighborhood around them.
“When you record a story it kind of pins them down in some kind of way, and with ceramics it's malleable, it's fluid like a person is, and then I put it in the kiln," he said. "It kind of fossilizes, it sticks.”
Citing public radio, pottery and artifacts as inspirations for “Listening,” Morris said he spent more than a month becoming familiar with the neighborhood before settling on a concept.
“Each (resident) artist comes with his or her own idea of pinning down what the Strip District is,” he said, adding that through the residency, artists abandon their sense of self to focus on a broader group of people sharing a specific place.
Morris’ studio in the Smallman Street gallery is free and open to the public. He said sometimes it’s difficult to reach a productive work pace with so many visitors, but having to explain the concept has made Morris constantly refine his idea.
When people come in, Morris said he wants them to think of the small speakers as artifacts of a person, time and place, even though they don’t actually produce sound.
Art doesn't need to function in the way a true electrical speaker would, he said. It requires an open mind and trusting heart.
"Going down the path of why would someone make something like this, or what were they thinking and interrogating your thought process,” he said.
At the Society's studio in early August, the 24-year-old described himself as introverted, intense and emotional, but he was talkative as he grabbed a handful of clay, centered it on the spinning wheel, tapped the machine into motion and shaped the concave form of a circular speaker.
As its form appeared, Morris used a sharpened tool to shape and trim the edges. The clay “feels like butter” in his hands, he said.
The wheel whirred beneath him as he trimmed, a step Morris said is so meditative, he tries to make it last as long as possible.
“It’s kind of funny, all the mistakes you make when you’re throwing it, you think they’re gone, but when you’re trimming it you confront them again… I love ceramics for that. There are infinite lessons about how to live,” he said.
That need for understanding made Morris a perfect fit for the residency, McCall said. She said the society encouraged him to take risks and use his interdisciplinary talents.
“He’s working with clay, which is a traditional craft material, but he’s also studied acting, so he’s engaging in this method of active listening which is a way to build trust and openness and encourage people to share their stories,” she said.
After college graduation, Morris said he wants to continue his work combining the audio and ceramic mediums.