Overview: The Patra Passage is an art-based project that experiments with a cycle of giving and receiving. The passage centers on the gifting of 108 hand-built ceramic vessels to participants who will re-gift them to others. The giftism cycle continued for one year with each bowl presented and received at least three times. It created a community of 501 participants from five continents, eleven countries and forty states. At the end of their circulation, the Patra were returned and exhibited at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington in 2015. During the exhibition the vessels were sold and all proceeds given to charity.
The word patra refers to the name of alms bowls that monks carry in various cultures to receive their portion for the day, an act that creates an understanding of interdependence with community and openness to the cycle of receiving and giving. The word’s origin in Sanskrit translates as “the vessel that never goes empty”. Whatever is received in the bowl is enough for the day, a reminder of the offerings of the present moment.
The idea first appeared to artist Lynda Lowe when visiting monasteries in Tibet where vessels lined the altar filled with water, millet, a flower, a shell, an oil candle, or something engaging to the senses; sometimes a vessel had no visible contents. Do these vessels contain what is given, or what is to be received? The inquiry lingered even when the physical object was no longer present. The impression suggests that giving and receiving can be a simultaneous and fluid act, the passage of a gift bestowed and accepted.
Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, and Phil Cousineau’s book, The Art of the Pilgrimage: The Seeker’s Guide to Making Travel Sacred, develop concepts central to this project. They write eloquently about giving as it appears in cultural history, economies, mythology, artistic practice, and how paying attention enlarges our perception. These books posit that the circulation of gifts and meaningful exchange create unity out of expressions of good will, expand our boundaries, and connect us.
Hyde suggests that when a gift passes from a giver in a circle of offerings, not as a form of reciprocal exchange between two people, or as material commerce, the giving goes beyond the control of the personal ego. He suggests that a gift’s increase in value begins after it has passed through someone. The permeability of self and its expansion is the essence of the gift; the object itself is only its vehicle, its vessel. The giver becomes part of the circle’s larger continuum that Hyde describes as “transcendent commerce, the economy of re-creation, conversion, or renaissance.” In the Patra Passage giving and receiving are fluid continuous acts, a gift bestowed, accepted, and passed along.
“When we start to ask ourselves what we can give away, we begin to see our possessions differently– they take on new potential as blessings for others, instead of being cold hard stuff. Who was it who said you never really own something until you give it away?”
Cousineau dives into the mythology of giving and creating connections, He describes how every journey is an act of discovery and how it can be a soulful and transformative experience.
To be touched, we must in turn, touch….Objects that must be touched are an integral part of the pilgrimage. ~
Images and objects are both what we see and how we see them. Objects that engage ideas can span the divide between the outer world of concrete forms and inexpressible inner realities, matter and spirit, emptiness and fullness, self and other. The Patra vessels engage this dialectic. Each experience is uniquely endowed by the orientation of the beholder. In the Patra Passage whatever perceptions are brought to the bowl are acceptable.
Gratitude can be a rare commodity if society is overly consumptive, busy, and self-absorbed. A careful balance needs to be maintained between commerce and altruism. Acts of generosity take us out of ourselves and are one of the greatest means for generating compassionate communities and reducing wasteful excessiveness. Giving something away for free makes its value indeterminate; the recipient decides its value. In this way, the “art” happens outside of monetary value, trade or profit, and inside the context of firsthand experience and meaningful encounter. The gift is not just the object itself.
The Patra Passage considers material, social, cultural, and perhaps spiritual concerns. The project poses these questions: What is the proper balance between art and acquisition, generosity and consumerism? What role does art play a role in highlighting unity and developing community? Can generosity be a subject of critical artistic examination? What is the value or potential of art that is no longer physically present? Can we use the absence of an object to evoke a firsthand experience of a lived moment in time, or as a means to imagine what lies beyond it? What role does an undirected trajectory play in the outcome of an artwork?
The Patra Passage has concluded its year of circulating bowls. What an accretion of life stories these 108 vessels held from time with their 501 recipients! Through this website’s offerings and through firsthand personal narratives, I feel privileged to have heard and read many of these experiences. I’ve corresponded with with hundreds of people I may never meet in person. I’m aware of only fragments of these stories, yet I sense an inexplicable pulse in these small bowls. There is something much more to them than when they initially were sent on their way. The vessels have founded a personal bond with each of their bearers and also created a larger community within our common experience.
Launching the project was a bit like blowing dandelion seed to the wind – releasing two years’ work to whatever unpredictable fate would befall. One of the best surprises of the Patra Passage was that the experience continued to be meaningful and sometimes even amplified though many waves of participants long after moving through the familiarity of friends in the first group. If it could be personified, the Patra vessels seemed to know when, where, and to whom they should pass. Many people wrote about how they inexplicably arrived or departed at the perfect time. I was equally pleased to hear from viewers encountering the Patra Passage for the first time during its exhibition that there was something meaningful or powerful for them as well.
Gift giving is surprisingly complex. The Passage has been a massive experiment in the ways people give and receive. I admit to personally learning a lot about this process through this project’s development. Participants commented about how meaningful it was to receive the bowl. Some began thinking about who they would give it to right away and others admitted they were reluctant to send it off. One participant, after a reminder that it was time to pass the vessel along, replied: “Come and make me!”. I laughed out loud when I read that!
As Rumi wrote, “there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground”. In the Patra Passage experience, there have been myriad ways to experience the bowl and any use is correct. They were cherished, ignored, broken, played with in the sandbox, viewed as inanimate or animate art, considered confusing or even too precious to even take out of their box. They were often used in contemplation or in actions of the deeply sacred. They have been present at the beginning and end of lives and marked many important life experiences. There were Patra bowls used in wedding celebrations and reunions, present at life’s conception and at babies’ births, clasped during grief, illness, recovery, and death. Participants included a wide range of ages: one Patra bowl was a newborn’s first gift, one came to a five year old, while several others were gifted to people who had reached their mid-nineties.
The Patra vessels have traveled at different speeds – a few changed hands only twice, while one had ten recipients. They moved across 40 states in the US and to eleven countries around the world. Some bowls stayed within a family circle; a few bowls spent the whole year with musicians; some were extremely photogenic; some connected to animals; some given names; a few participants took the vessels on daring adventures (one even rafted down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in a Tupperware bowl); while others sat quietly at home active in more subtle ways. Some vessels were written about, some photographed, some stories told publicly, some privately, some mute. More often than not, vessels were just held in stillness as a reminder that whatever one faced, there was enough for the day.
An important aspect and artifact of the Patra Passage is this interactive website. Many of these personal stories can be read on the 108 Vessels page where each Patra has its own page with contributed photos and written commentary. There is a public form page as well. Though a new experience for me, I wrote several blog entires during the passage as pertinent thoughts arose.
Vessels are instruments of keeping – whatever we deal with has to be contained in some way. Each participant’s encounter, whatever that experience may be, is as much a part of the object as its physical materials. The “art” of the Patra Passage is what has been brought to the bowl. In this way, it cannot be absent even when the vessel moves on. This continues to be a mighty collaborative co-creation and I am thankful for all the ways people have participated in it. I have hopes that its resonant experience will continue.
The vessel concept is one of our earliest learned ideas. Whether a simple domestic bowl or sacred offertory, container for body or soul, the archetypal bowl finds complex expression in many important traditions. The tea bowl in Japanese chado, The Way of Tea, equates the empty vessel with a free and clear mind and the receiving receptacle for positive energy. Buddhists use the bowl to reflect upon the paradoxical koan that emptiness is form and form emptiness. Throughout history the vessel acts as a multivalent symbol with a deep connection to the human psyche. Carl Jung wrote that the inexplicable and mysterious unconsciousness of our minds is projected into a dark empty vessel; Stephen Hawking describes timespace as being shaped like a vessel; and the Sufi poet Rumi writes of the soul in this shape:
I was walking at dawn
with a monk on his way to the monastery
we do the same work I told him
we suffer the same
he gave me a bowl
and I saw
has this shape
…being partly in the middle of being
partly in myself and partly
Lewis Hyde describes historic cultures that use circular giving (where the gift circulates three or more times) as a way of bonding community. Notably mentioned are tribes of the Pacific NW – the Kwakiutl, Tlingit, and Haida – who had early traditions of giving a “copper”, an engraved plaque, at potlatch ceremonies. The more often the copper was given away, the greater its value as a gift. The object stayed in motion ever increasing in worth, even if broken.
The Patra Passage involves the circulating of 108 hand-built ceramic vessels seated on small paintings and presented in handmade wooden boxes similar to Tomobako used for housing tea bowls. The first recipients, initially chosen by the artist Lynda Lowe, were presented with their Patra in a ritual ceremony on September 28th, 2013 at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, WA. Participants were allowed to keep the vessel for a self-determined amount of time, maybe a few days but no longer than four months. They were then asked to gift the vessel to another recipient of their choosing and explain the purpose of the Patra Passage. The next participant keeps the Patra and re-gifts it to another recipient they’ve selected. During this year-long cycle each vessel would conceivably been presented at least three times before being shipped back to the artist.
The essence of this project is the experience and its expansion. The value lies within the context of meaningful encounter. The Patra bowls are meant to be symbolic contemplative objects, cradled in the hands, closely examined, and used to prompt meaningful reflection. Consider the vessels collecting and containing stories. They began as eroded rock, were formed by hands, and transfigured by the fire. They have lived in unnamed places and have been witness to the lives of people who have held them. These collective experiences form an integral part of the Patra Passage and have become part of their pulse and purpose. It is the intent of the project and this website to collect some of their stories from participants and the public.
I began the full time work on The Patra Passage a year prior to the launch of the vessels in September, 2013 although the idea for the project began many years before that. Where I am first aware of vessel images entering my mind and my artwork was during a visit in 2000 to the Tashilhunpo monastery in Shigatse, Tibet. Walking through those dark quiet rooms with their filtered light and peculiar scent of yak butter lamps and burning sage, I was transfixed by a line of simple bowls on an altar table. Were the bowls and their various contents offerings, or something which to receive? Being unfamiliar with their purpose at that time, the image was powerful and mysterious. The vessel soon evolved into a compelling metaphor in my work that represents the continuous fluid act of giving and receiving. The bowl also serves as a reminder to be receptive to the offerings of the present moment.
Over the years, the simple vessel has continued to be a central figure in my paintings, my predominant studio practice. However for the Patra Passage the use of a dimensional physical bowl that could be held comfortably in hand was important as carrier for the concept. I decided upon making 108 because it represents an auspicious number in many cultures and emphasizes the value and commitment involved in continuous labor cycles. After finishing the bowls, I recognized how difficult achieving this number could be. There was a lot of opportunity for experimentation with the media and process, and immersing myself in the meditative aspects of serial work and its occasional tedium.
The haphazard anomalies arising from hand-construction and smoke-penetrated pit firings fit my idea of achieving a bowl that had humble, primitive qualities. Applications of gold, silver, and copper leaf, patina work, as well as the inclusion of diagrams and text were meant to prompt metaphor and suggest ritual purpose. Together, these contrasting qualities achieved an interesting visual tension – a reference to a simple earthen offering and to a venerated object. The painted bases that the Patra vessels rest upon signal that these are not just functional bowls, but also contemplative objects. Largely, the making of these vessels was a contemplative act of gratitude, one that focused on disseminating good will. I honor the many connections with people and places that have brought the Patra Passage into being.
Each bowl is formed by hand, refined, coated with layers of thin clay slip, and bisque-fired in a kiln. More surface work is developed with stain and ink and kiln-fired once or twice again. The final firing is a smoky wood firing where the vessels are placed on top of sawdust with kindling layered over them. During this firing, copper sulphate and salt are added to the smoldering wood which volatilizes turning the flames green and blue and lending subtle color streaks to the clay surface. The fire burns about two or three hours until there is nothing but ashes surrounding the bowls. Areas of carbon penetration on the bowls range from light gray to black.
The fired surfaces are further embellished with drawings, silver, copper and gold leafing, then treated with patinas (details below). Each Patra vessel sits on top of a 5″ square painting related to the vessel, wrapped in silk, and presented in a handmade wooden box.
Vessels are tied in silk and presented in a handmade wooden presentation boxes, similar to the traditional Japanese Tomobako boxes that house valuable tea ceremony bowls.
The internationally renowned Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington hosted the launch of the Patra Passage September 28th, 2013 where participants in the first wave of recipients received their vessels in a ritual send-off ceremony. The museum also hosted the final exhibition Patra Passage Full Circle in 2015 featuring the returning bowls after their year-long journey, along with the artifacts, commentary, and experiences of the 501 participants. At the exhibition’s opening more than 200 of the Patra Passage’s participants gathered for the weekend’s special offerings. We were so honored to have Phil Cousineau, acclaimed author, explorer, documentary filmmaker, and host of the PBS television series Global Spirit as guest speaker during these events. The weekend included a dialog between Cousineau and Lowe, and an interactive panel discussion and storytelling of Patra Passage experiences between participants. To watch the Lowe and Cousineau video interview, click here.
Museum of Glass Patra Passage send-off and final exhibition. For additional photos of the exhibition click here.
All net proceeds from the sale of the Patra bowls have been given to two great regional and global community serving, not-for-profit organizations.
The Patra Passage happily donated $20,000 to Save the Children. Save the Children’s mission is to invest in childhood – every day, in times of crisis and for our future. In the United States and around the world, they give children a healthy start, the opportunity to learn and protection from harm.
The Patra and Passage happily donated $20,000 to the Museum of Glass. The Museum of Glass supports the arts and community both regionally and internationally. A Patra Passage fund has been set up at the museum to fund exhibition development and further scholarship for artistic excellence.
The Patra Passage is a non-profit enterprise. Vessels sold for $1,000 each. A few vessels are still left for sale (if interested please inquire by email).
With much gratitude to the Patra Passage Patrons:
- $10,000 and above
- Joan and Jim Hunter
- Anonymous gift
- $5,000 – $9,999
- Tremaine Foundation
- Ester Saunoras and Dick Cogswell
- Mimi and Herb Simon
- Gary May and Veronica King
- Corry and Donna McFarland
- Annie and Steve Norman
- Ken and Karen Bergren
- Patricia Rovzar Gallery
- Joyce and Neal Arntson
- Ann Kumasaka
- Janet and Peter Stanley
- McKeel and Soon Hagerty
- Janeanne Upp and Dale Meyer
- Lyn McCoy and Richard Szeliski
- Lynn and Kathy Sommers
- Glenn Janss
- Karl and Christine Anderson
- Concrete Tech, Tacoma
- Kit and Gary Severson
- Corky and Laird Brown
- Arden Gallery
- Ann and Irwin Sentilles
- Allison Black and Jeff Goldberg
- Melissa Weinman Jagosh
- Diane Fitzgerald and Burt Richmond
- Dot and Jim Fitzgerald
- Ann Marie Borys
- Faith O. Miller
Special thanks to Lee Ater, exhibition design, Derek Klein, filmmaker, Ann Kumasaka, booklet design
With much gratitude to the Patra Passage Volunteers and Assistants
Robert and Helen Litman
Website photo credits: Darryl Schmidt – ArtCapture, Adam Hoff, David Madeira, Lynda Lowe
Booklet design: Ann Kumasaka a.k.a. design, Seattle, WA