Social Art Practice: the Napkin Ring Project

For many, the most sacred moment of our daily life is the shared meal. Through the process of repetition, manual construction, hand painting and chance, my project surrounds an everyday object, the napkin ring. Using cut copper tubing, a painting is made on each ring as a resist. The exterior is etched into relief. The interior is etched with a verbal message in response to the exterior painting. Although this began as a means to bring intention to the table and a meal, a pattern of napkin ring stories have surfaced. As the rings have become activated objects, I have created a website that is very slowly collecting stories from the table. I am still evolving this project’s documentation and presentation.
— Augusta Farnum

the collected conversation: submissions from the napkin ring project

Make a beautiful table and reuse our napkins. Shäna Lane-Block. May 26 2016

Ritual does not come easily to my household. There is routine and there is keeping up with what is in front of us, with what’s next. But celebrating the divine and unique aspect of every moment that is now and now and now seems to only come when I orchestrate it. And even then maybe not yet.

I believe in supporting creativity. I support my creative friends, I support creators who are acquaintances, and I support strangers who appear to be creating something that I believe will flourish into something even more special if they can just get the much needed support now. Sometimes all the things come together at once. Combined with the possibility of creating ritual and making moments special is like the universe calling me to action.

I imagined something special when I brought these rings into my house. I imagined dinner parties I haven’t given in years. I imagined laughter and engaged conversations about ideas and plans, instead of arguing about take one more bite of your broccoli. I imagined relishing new flavors and cooking new dishes. It brought me the idea of the dinner table as a special place. But our table still just seats four and I still get eye rolls when I put a new dish on the table on the rare occasion I find inspiration to try something new and children’s giggles too often seem to be brew from distraction rather than humor and joy.

Sometimes one’s intentions of creating ritual are not shared by one’s family. So I keep putting them out. I keep slipping our napkins into them, hoping one day it just sticks. One day the beauty and ritual of the ring will just become routine. Maybe we can make joy routine, maybe we can make celebration routine, maybe we can make creativity and stimulating conversation routine, everyday things. And maybe if I keep setting the table and keep inviting, it will come.


To hold a woven napkin before being admired and inspiring discussion.  Anonymous. February 24 2016

After 23 years of marriage, life and conversation can become VERY routine and a little stagnant. It's an easy, unintimidating, sort of dormancy. Are we unwittingly postponing life? Is that the same as avoiding life? The love is there, and we know it, so shhhh. I'm sleepy.
The bond between us, the connection of rope was turning to yarn to thread. We needed a quiet and soft re-connection opportunity.
The napkin rings are so hefty and complete in their connection, and beautiful to feel and see. These rings along with woven napkins and a set of lunch date promises can't be broken or postponed. Presented to my husband as a winter gift, they provided ritual for connection and forward flow. They represent an invitation to meeting and looking into each others eyes to understand, to scheme, to remember and to comfort. It's quiet refreshment and way overdue.



Little Ring, Little Ring. Johanna Stoberock. February 19 2016

I recently moved my office from one room in my house to another. My husband and I both have trouble sleeping, and we decided that moving rooms might help us find a way to sleep through the night. My office was across the hall from our bedroom, and it was a relatively easy three-point turn: office furniture into the living room; bedroom furniture into the office; office furniture into the former bedroom: a little chaos alleviated by hope for steady sleep.

We’ve moved a number of times in our lives together (eight times by my count this morning), and, moving across the hall, I found several boxes that I’d shoved into the back of my office closet when we first moved into our present house and that I’d ignored thereafter. The boxes, it turns out, were filled with books and books and books I’d created for school during the years between six and eighteen. There were books in which I’d drawn pictures in crayon for every letter of the alphabet, books in which I’d illustrated Greek myths, books in which I’d written and decorated poems inspired by Romeo and Juliet, books in which I’d illustrated some differences between monocotyledons and dicotyledons by drawing pictures of lilies and roses. There was something unsteadying about reading through them on the floor of my new office, my former bedroom. They seemed somehow sacred, the child who’d made them both very close and very far away, but if sacred, also corrupt in their thick coating of dust. I remembered exactly how I’d felt drawing a picture of Noah’s Ark with colored pencil in Third Grade—the different colors I’d used for the different wooden slats of the boat; the way the ship pitched in the water; the water itself, its variants of blues and greens, the enormous box of Caran D’Ache pencils open on the table beside me as I worked. I remembered drawing that boat and for the first time feeling in control of what I put down on the page. I didn’t remember anything about the essay I wrote on Hamlet in Eleventh Grade: my teacher praised it effusively in her comments, and, reading through it on the floor of my new office, a place for waking which once was a place for sleep, I agreed that there was a lot to praise, and had the uneasy feeling that I understood that play better when I was sixteen than I do teaching it in my forties—though, certainly, I enjoy the experience of not understanding much more now than I would have when I was young. 

At the end of the day, having washed the dust off my hands several times, I decided to throw the boxes away. All of those books, all of the saved paintings, all of the essays, all of the illustrations of mathematical concepts, they all ended up in our recycling bin, and the next day my husband drove them to the recycling center and now they are gone forever.

Right around the time that we made the bedroom/office transfer, I bought a set of copper napkin rings engraved with images that have just enough shape to contain imagination, but just enough openness to let that imagination breathe. Right around that time, too, I started dreaming of work. Not just the standard anxiety dreams that for me are part and parcel of my job. No, dreams about my real work, about the stories I’ve been working on and the stories I’d like to write, and the stories that I didn’t even know were stories but that maybe one day might be. And I started dreaming about childhood. 

When I was in Kindergarten, we played a game called “Ringlein, Ringlein.” “Ringlein, Ringlein” is German and means “Little Ring, Little Ring.” We played it with a teacher’s gold wedding band. We sat in a circle with one child in the center, and while the rest of us sang a song whose beginning translates roughly to “Little Ring, Little Ring, You must wander from the one hand to the other,” the child in the center passed his or her small hands through ours, secretly dropping the ring in one of them before the song was over. The children in the circle would then guess where the ring had ended up, the new bearer of the ring now trying as hard as possible to stay still, to look untouched, to pretend the honor conferred by the transfer of the ring had not in fact taken place. Even before we had the language of crushes, I always knew which girl would drop the golden band into which boy’s hands. Even knowing, I still hoped that the ring would find its way to me. I see those Kindergartners now on their Facebook feeds and I wonder if their faces in anticipation now match up with their faces in anticipation then.

The copper napkin rings on my table remind me of that game. At night, before dinner, we each—my husband, my daughter, my son, and me—sit at our place at the table and hold hands and bless the meal. That ritual traces itself back to Kindergarten as well—certainly we never blessed any meals at my home when I was a child. I remember sitting at tables on tiny chairs with bowls of millet soup in front of us, holding hands, saying grace, the windows steamed up behind us, nap mats waiting in the room next door for when we were done. 

The napkin rings of now, stuffed with rolled up napkins, glow on the table in front of us, and I think that there exist objects that can transport us back in time that have no concrete bearing on that time at all. Boxes gone, an office now filled with echoes of sleep and a bedroom now filled with echoes of work, and the hope that all those echoes will somehow knit themselves into something healthy and meaningful, I think our ways of revisiting childhood are mysterious and uncontrollable and don’t have to be heavy or covered with dust. Give me my family and copper napkin rings and the ability to imagine either forward or backward just before I fall asleep, and on most days I’ll give you the dusty relics of childhood without hesitation.

Social Change. or just a place to laugh. Augusta Sparks Farnum. January 25, 2016

When I made my sister laugh so hard, that she peed in her pants, I wonder now if it was done in cruelty or hilarity.  I like to think, our sisterhood is based in laughter. It is what we have left, it is our wealth. The three of us laughed growing up, me, my sister, and our single mother. Our mother, a bohemian who was raised to give dinner parties, was instead a working artist who did a hundred menial jobs to feed us. The days were full of tasks better done by a team, instead it was each to their own. When we got through the day, we had dinner. It stood as an unquestioned custom.  And it was there that we laughed. It was there that we told too much. We discussed our crushes, our expectations, and our complaints. And we laughed. 

To sit at the table. That is all she asked for. In this act of showing up, we left our internal work to look at each other.  To sit at the table was a small act of social change. 

Now, we wait till everyone is seated, and only then do we begin. We use the same cloth napkins long after they are stain free. Food is shared, and what is served is what is eaten. I am often the maker. Dinner is still the custom, laughter is present, and so are my children’s stories of counter politics from the school yard. We share news of the comings and goings, and the in-betweens. Our lives diverge by day and at night there is a continued conversation. We can watch each other, honor each other, and see the struggle.

Dinner is a social act of education in our house, in this environment we discuss the world. As a family, we invite my husband's clients to share stories from their perspective. Sitting at the table, exposes all of us to perspectives beyond our battles.

As a family we gather friends to laugh, and compare stories of parenthood and leaping into new adventures. We give each other permission into the unknown, and we bare witness. We gather as a social act of love. We gather as a social act of change. 

These two generations have had one continued privilege, one priority that continued as an intentional act. To gather daily. The food, has spanned from WIC meals to organic feasts. We gather as a social act to listen, and to create community, if only to discuss the weather. The napkin rings hold our place at the table, in honor of the continued conversation, and the conversation continues. When we laugh, I love it best.