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Museum of Contemporary Craft Exhibit: A Fascinating Look At The Humble Bowl

The ubiquitous, everyday bowl is taken for granted, even though it tells the story of civilization and culture. "Object Focus: The Bowl" at the Museum of Contemporary Craft may compel you to see the bowl with new eyes.

At first, the idea may not bowl you over (bad pun intended). An exhibit on bowls? How mundane. What’s next — an art show on dental floss? But if you look deeper into “Object Focus: The Bowl” at the Museum of Contemporary Craft, you may gain an appreciation for the humble, ubiquitous bowl.

The bowl is an ingenious, indispensible creation that has sustained civilization for thousands of years. A vast improvement over our first bowl: cupped hands.

“There is nothing simple about how bowls work. Though their utility is seemingly easy to define, the experience of that utility is profoundly complex, relating us to an ancestral need to bring water to the lips, food to the circle,” writes multimedia artist and writer Jovencio de la Paz in an essay featured in the exhibit. The bowl is an extension of “the body’s most simple gestures: to hold, to carry, to give, to receive.”

The bowl has given rise to the communal table.

“With the creation of a vessel, something that has the ability to carry hot liquid from place to place, you have the ability to make hotter foods and stewed dishes. It changes what you can cook and what you can eat if you can actually put hot liquid into something and not hurt your hands holding it, right? Then it leads to practices of eating together, dining together,” says Namita Gupta Wiggers, the museum’s director and chief curator.

The exhibit showcases 170 bowls. Some come from different cultures, including Tibetan singing bowls, Korean tea bowls and seven bowls from the late 1600s salvaged from a Vietnamese shipwreck. Also fascinating are three large bowls sculpted entirely of plastic forks, knives and spoons, a Frank Lloyd Wright Imperial Hotel place setting, and a disposable ramen container that’s made to look like a handcrafted ceramic bowl.

“The idea of this exhibition is to show people a range of kinds of bowls to help them go back home and connect what they see in the museum with what they have in their own lives. There are lots of exhibitions where you’ll come and will see amazing things that people have made that are not related to things you have in your private homes. But a bowl — everybody has a bowl. Everybody has a story about a bowl,” says Wiggers.

She says the exhibit shows how museums can help people connect art with their own everyday lives.

“The everyday is really important,” says Wiggers. “If people come in and [the exhibit] gets under their skin and [they] start thinking about it and wondering, then we’ve done a real good job.”

Wiggers launched the show on bowls after considering how art and design have elevated tables, chairs and lamps. But the lowly bowl, a craft like the others, has been overlooked.

“I started thinking about how the bowl is a fundamental form and it crosses over craft, design and art,” says Wiggers.

The ubiquity and everydayness make the bowl a challenging object to focus on.

“It’s hard to articulate things we are so familiar with.”

Wiggers has invited artists, writers and scholars to contribute essays about bowls in the exhibit or vessels they have at home. “Together, we can gain a better understanding of the object,” says Wiggers.

You can visit “Object Focus: The Bowl” at the Museum of Contemporary Craft Tuesday through Saturday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free on first Thursdays of the month from 11 a.m.-8 p.m. The show runs through August 3, 2013.

To learn more about curator Namita Gupta Wiggers, tune in to Oregon Art Beat on April 4 at 8 p.m.

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Object Focus: The Bowl at The Museum of Contemporary Craft