It started off as a way to learn to let things go: 108 clay bowls, handmade by artist Lynda Lowe and sent into the world on ever-expanding rings of giving and receiving. But now that those bowls — even the broken ones — are back after a year’s journeying, the Raft Island artist has discovered that her “Patra Passage” project has gone far beyond giving and loss into realms of ritual, artistry and the regeneration of life itself. And on Saturday (Feb. 14), the whole interactive project, told through a website full of stories, comes back home in an exhibit at the Museum of Glass, where the bowls were first given out.
“The idea of collaboration was there right from the beginning,” says Lowe. Petite and blonde, with a freckled, friendly face, she’s taking a break in her island studio from creating a show’s worth of large, gold-light-flooded paintings — and packing up Patra Passage bowls as they trickle in from the last recipients. “I’ve always wanted to involve the viewer in my work. I’ve (even) done pieces you can walk inside. But ultimately it’s turned out superficial or unsuccessful, because the viewer has to be as committed to the work as the artist.”
Lowe, at a time of “personal breakage” in her own life, also wanted to create a project that helped her learn how to let go of precious things. Using the simple form of an artist-made bowl, she came up with something highly unusual in the world of expensive, collected, don’t-touch art. She would make 108 bowls, give each to someone she was grateful for, and ask them to keep the bowls for no more than four months before giving them on to someone else special, explaining the project’s purpose as they did so.
Lowe gave out her initial wave of bowls, nestled into wooden boxes with an accompanying block painting to rest on, in a send-off ceremony at the Museum of Glass in September 2013. Since then, each bowl has been gifted to at least three people, some halfway around the world, making a total of 496 participants. When the project’s over, the bowls will be sold, with all proceeds going to charity.
“I didn’t want it to be about reciprocity — I wanted it to be about giving in a simple way,” says Lowe, who was inspired by a visit to Tibet in 2000 where she saw bowls waiting on a Buddhist altar, metaphors of both giving and receiving, of both ritual and quotidian use. The “Patra Passage” bowls are striking in both their simplicity and individuality. Glazed with gold, orange and cream inside and out, smoked with black in a complex fire-pit process and etched with inscriptions from ancient Asian texts to Gallileo, they vary in size but still fit into a pair of cupped hands. Making them was a laborious, lengthy process, Lowe says, a kind of repetitive meditation of shaping, pinching and turning.
To hold such a bowl is both a familiar and unnerving experience: It’s a shape we all know well, but it’s still a precious sculpture that would sell for hundreds of dollars or be placed out of reach in a gallery or museum. And so, when Lowe began to hear back from the bowls’ recipients and put their many stories in text, photo and video form on the project’s website, the things people did with their bowls, and the way they handed them on to the next recipient, varied enormously.
Some played music with them. Some took them on adventures, like whitewater rafting in a Tupperware container. Some used them for weddings, others for artistic inspiration, like bowl No. 40, which became the center of a photographic series. Some recipients were so nervous about breaking the bowl that they never touched it; others sent theirs back broken (including one whose box had been chewed by a dog). C.R. Roberts, business reporter for The News Tribune, used his for a social experiment at Infinite Soups, where he set the bowl alongside a sign asking customers to either donate or take money. (He ended up with a profit, which went into the tip jar.)
Bowls traveled to the Netherlands, to Peru and around the United States. One bowl was given to a best friend by a dying woman, another was credited for allowing a childless couple to conceive. Some bowls triggered reunions of long-lost friends, another connected Lowe with an artist she’d long admired who had in fact admired her.
For Lowe, who gave the bowls with absolutely no expectations about how people would treat them, whatever happened was the right outcome.
“I don’t understand a lot of the things that happened, but I do celebrate the mystery of it,” she says. “It’s out there, and these objects helped people pay attention to it.”
The bowls, including 14 broken ones that Lowe managed to mend and five shattered ones she didn’t, will all be on view in “Patra Passage” at the Museum of Glass, displayed on ladders handmade by one of Lowe’s friends. In addition, there’ll be a couple of bowls visitors can pick up and hold for a while, and one of Lowe’s enormous golden color-field paintings to create a contemplative space.
But that’s just the start of the exhibit — and the real meaning of the project, for Lowe. About 75 percent of the recipients left stories about their bowl on the website, and those stories will be inscribed on wall texts and written on translucent fabric floating from the gallery ceiling.
“To honor these experiences … was the whole point of the project,” Lowe explains. “The surprise of the project was how many people — hundreds — that I didn’t know, carried the energy and magnified it. That I could receive their stories back was a real gift. I realized the enormous amount of collective wisdom in them. That’s what’s filling this collective bowl … it’s a massive collaboration. This is about all of us, not just Lynda’s art.”