What is a bowl, anyway? For Stephanie Loeffler of Chelsea, it is first and foremost a vessel of story. On Sunday, November 8, the artist and art teacher could be found at the Tunbridge Public Library, surrounded by 33 bowls on loan from 30 local community members to mark the opening of the six-week show she organized, "The Bowl, A Celebration."
Loeffler found inspiration for the exhibition from Namita Gupta Wiggers, director and chief curator of the Museum of Contemporary Craft in Portland, Ore., whom she met at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts summer conference in 2014. The year before, Wiggers had organized "Object Focus: The Bowl" with nearly 200 bowls on view. In a New York Times article, Wiggers commented, "When I talk to people about the bowl, it is always about something else. It's a metaphorical conversation about ritual."
In Tunbridge, each bowl is accompanied by a story written by its owner that explains its history and personal significance, which is most often related to family.
There is a simple, two-toned bowl made by local glass artist Robin Mix, which he gifted to his mother for her 60th birthday in 1987. A bowl that Elaine Howe's brother found while digging in the dirt was coveted by his siblings. Howe writes, "We don't know where it came from or how it got there." And a large, ordinary aluminum bowl lent by the Jenkins family played an integral role in the home birth of Heather Jenkins' fourth son, Edson, in 2003 (it was used to catch the afterbirth). "To answer the question many of you may have," the description reads, "yes, we still use the bowl for cooking and other fun stuff."
The exhibition features several loans from the family of librarian Jean Wolfe, as well. These contributions include an unglazed, clay-coil pot that Wolfe's son, Timothy, made under Loeffler's instruction in 1989, in a lesson about Abenaki culture. In her curator's statement, Loeffler notes, "The bowl need not be fancy or precious, yet a glance will retell the story in our mind."
Not all the bowls come with happy family stories. Patricia Harrington has lent a bowl that she painted with a colorful, cheerful scene. Small line-drawing figures are pictured holding balloons that are ascending to the sky, and the central figure holds a painter's palette in place of a balloon. The brief description says, "Over the years artistic expression has been a very fulfilling balance to the effects of childhood incest. This bowl was painted on a good day ... 33 years after the atrocity."
In her self-healing art-therapy practice, Harrington has painted multiple bowls initially purchased from the Vermont Bowl Mill in Granville, according to an article about Harrington published in last week's Herald of Randolph.
The exhibit opening included an Empty Bowl Supper in support of the local food shelf. Guests were able to purchase a bowl for $5 and then fill it with one of the soups being served. For this event, Loeffler, who studied ceramics, threw 50 bowls, which were then glazed in primary colors by her art students. On the bowls' bottoms, she inscribed words such as "give," "share" and "listen."
As Wiggers did in 2013, Loeffler has also established a "bowl lending library" to accompany the show. Local artists Jeanne Bisson and Ikuzi Teraki, Mix, Kathy Myers, and Chris Vernon each contributed a set of handmade bowls. Each set comes with its own wooden box, custom-made by Loeffler's son Patrick, as well as a journal for borrowers to jot down "how these bowls became a part of [their] home." Though the exhibition comes down on December 31, Loeffler hopes the bowl library will remain a fixture in Tunbridge for a full year.
Currently, the bowls are lent out using the library's paper-based catalog system, but Wolfe assures that they'll eventually be integrated into the newer digital database. And bowls are not the only nonbook item you can check out here. The library's children's section includes 52 "story bags," each with a kids' book accompanied by relevant items — How to Make an Apple Pie, for example, comes with a rolling pin, pastry mat and pie tin.
Arguably the most exciting part about Loeffler's adoption of Wiggers' idea is that it represents a unique genre of curation, one based more on the mobility of a concept than any specific works of art. Elevating objects and the stories behind them, however opaque they may be, is a fundamental underpinning of the art world and exhibition culture at large. Applying this exercise at the everyday, community level makes the process accessible, allowing individuals to consider how they personally grant power to things.
The line between life and art could hardly be made thinner.
The original print version of this article was headlined "Tunbridge Bowled Over With a New Exhibit and Lending Library"
Rachel is an arts staff writer at Seven Days. She writes from the intersections of art, visual culture and anthropology, and has contributed to The New Inquiry, The LA Review of Books and Artforum, among other publications.