Vivian MacKinnon

Vivian, who is the Art Projects Coordinator at Ben’s Bells, tells us about her background in art and her inspiration of the kindness benches she creates.

Interview with Vivian MacKinnon

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background as an artist? 

I grew up in and around the black water swamps of North Florida and my folks were teachers, one was also a musician and the other an art teacher! Our home was full of music, interesting people and art supplies! My mother, the art teacher, encouraged us to go wild with color whenever we were in her studio and we did. 

During summers my mother taught all sorts of art classes at the local rec center and I tagged along. By osmosis I learned about different mediums and techniques, from weaving to water colors to color theory. Once old enough to take classes I gravitated towards the ceramics lab and never looked back. Gratefully, I was a very tall child so I had no trouble using the adult kick wheel at 9 years old as there were no electric ones. I still have a couple of those clunky pots here in Tucson full of my mother’s aloe plants that I have carted all over the country. 

I was an art major for a time but like many adults I was never satisfied with my work, it always looked like I made it (of course). So, I wandered away from art for a long long time and turned to nature for inspiration and employment leading natural history tours and bird watching trips. It would be years before I rediscovered the joys of ceramics and let go of my expectations of perfection. 

What is your position at Ben’s Bells and what does that entail? 

I started as a studio assistant making our iconic “be kind” ceramic ornaments and helping volunteers glaze them. Ben’s Bells is well known in Tucson, in fact almost every third grader here will pass through our studio at some point and hear the story of how we started, why kindness is important and how they can spread kindness in our community. Kids are easy to work with, no child ever came into the studio and declared, ‘I can’t do art!” but adults are another matter entirely, I found myself constantly having to convince adults that they could do this!  

Today I am the Art Projects Coordinator, which is a bit of ceramics instructor and a whole lot of logistics. I train new staff and advanced volunteers in some of the finer points of production, I make sure that we have all of the needed materials on hand, that all of the equipment is in good working order, that we are making the things we actually need, and that the tasks fit the abilities of our volunteers. Once I finish all of that, I come up with new products and classes as well as make one-off items to be auctioned at our annual gala, A Celebration of Kindness. 

 What drew you towards working with Ben’s Bells? 

In my mid-forties, after my father died, I left a career in environmental non-profit work to become my mother’s caregiver. She suffered from Alzheimer’s and had completely forgotten how to make anything but she loved going to museums and galleries and we had a wonderful time together. She adored the colors of the Southwest, the glorious sunsets and the drama of the thunderstorms and the crazy shapes of the cactus and other spiny denizens of the desert. Even in the depth of her dementia she was the kindest person I have ever met; she never said a negative word about another nor complained about her situation. I am forever grateful to my wonderful spouse for allowing me this time to be with her in our home, he’s a peach! 

After my mother’s death the best way to honor her and make myself happy would be to find my way back to clay so I enrolled in a hand building class at the Tucson Clay Coop. I learned so much from the generosity of the teachers and other members and also from my member chores dealing with the glazes! Eventually I had to go back to work and I spotted an advert that Ben’s Bells was hiring, what better way to honor my mother’s kindness than to work with the “Be Kind” people, the rest is history! 

We noticed that you create mosaic benches. Can you tell us more about why you started creating these benches and what they mean? 

All of the ceramics created at Ben’s Bells are meant to be visual reminders of kindness. Sometimes in the hubbub of life we can forget ourselves and get carried away by our worries and anger. If we pause, remember to breathe and let our eyes rest on something beautiful, we can come back to ourselves and deal with ourselves and others in kindness. 

Our visual reminders range in size from our quarter-sized Kindness Coins, to our windchime ornaments, to stepping stones and garden benches, right up to large wall-sized mosaics. In fact, we are currently making a 32 by 12 ft mosaic on the Tucson Convention Center in celebration of Ben’s Bells 20th Anniversary. 

How do Mayco products fit into your designs? 

Ours is a community art project and we depend on volunteers of all ages and abilities and Mayco’s Stroke and Coats are our go-to glazes. First, having the ACMI certification that the glazes are non-toxic and safe for use by all ages is huge for us! We have kids as young as 5 working with their parents in the studio and we feel confident that it is safe to let them do so and their parents appreciate that any spills will wash right out. Because we are making literally thousands of the same ornament it is important that we can match colors within the run and even over several years, Stroke and Coats colors are always true and they offer us the best reds in the business without doubt! 

For our ornaments and ceramic beads and jewelry we use low fire clay but for our mosaics we fire to cone 5 or 6 so the fact that we can use the same glazes with the same confidence makes my life as the project coordinator that much easier, no keeping track of which glazes to use when. Lastly, I love how stable the Stroke and Coats are, they just do not move! We do a lot of personalizing on the ornaments and I like to add extremely tiny details to my mosaic pieces, I have found I can add details and do multiple firings until I get exactly what I’m looking for. They are simply the safest, most reliable, and most versatile glazes available for what we do. 

What are some simple ways that we can implement kindness into our lives? 

Kindness, like any skill, takes practice, and it is not always easy. At Ben’s Bells, we teach about the many benefits kindness has to offer for our well-being in order to inspire people to practice kind behaviors and actions. There are many ways that we can implement kindness into our daily lives. We can learn to understand and name our emotions so that we can pause and reflect before acting. We can practice written communication and reflection with Kind Notes or thank you notes. We can express gratitude in a journal or to others. We can create visual reminders of kindness for our homes or shared spaces. We can choose to act with kindness when we are met with unkind behavior. Building awareness around kindness helps us to keep it active.

Ben’s Bells offer resources to help inspire our practice such as Tools for Kindness, and free programming for schools through our Kind Campus program. We also create beautiful ornaments with the help of volunteers that carry the “Be Kind” message. Simply seeing this message can have a positive impact on the viewer, create affinity for their community, and inspire kind behavior. There is no wrong way to practice kindness, and doing so in small ways each day can have a huge impact on our own lives and in our communities.