Tacoma News Tribune, February 13, 2015
Giving (and losing) art: Lynda Lowe’s “Patra Passage” project, opening at the Museum of Glass this weekend, creates deep connections with 108 clay bowls. By Rosemary Ponnekanti
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.”
INTERVIEW WITH LYNDA LOWE
A conversation between Lynda Lowe and Melissa Weinman about the Patra Passage September 16, 2013
MW: First, I want to talk about who you are as an artist. Vessels have been a significant component of your symbolism and visual vocabulary in your paintings and now in the Patra Passage. I understand that your interest in the vessel began with your travels to Tibet and other Buddhist countries. How about we start with your experience in the village of Shigatse, Tibet where you’ve said that The Patra Passage perhaps had its origin. Could you describe your experience there?
LL: Travel has always opened me to human themes and is a reminder of our connectedness. Especially important are many of the world’s ancient sacred sites – spaces where people have come for centuries to be contemplative. There’s quietude in these places, a shared energy and sense of joining hands with others who’ve come before and will come after. The vessels first entered my consciousness as an image during a trip to Tibet. It was my third trip there and I wanted to get further from the tourist path to see the country. In 2000, my husband David and I motorcycled from Lhasa to Kathmandu, Nepal.
During a stop in Shigatse, I visited Tashihunpo monastery. It was quiet and I was wandering alone. My sensory memory of the place is very vivid: the strange pungent fragrance of burning butter lamps, the smoky light slanting into the darkened room, and the feeling of being in a very ancient, alive place. The stillness.
I was transfixed by simple bowls lining an altar table; some filled with water, some with millet, a shell in one. I wasn’t familiar with Buddhist customs and practice at the time and wondered whether the bowls and their various contents were something given or something to be received. The image was powerful and mysterious. I think this is where I first came to understand the bowl as a reminder that giving and receiving are a simultaneous fluid act. MW: What is the meaning of the word patra? LL: Patra refers to the name of the alms bowls that monks carry in many cultures to gather daily offerings of food and other gifts, an act that creates interconnectedness within a community. This fits the origins of the Patra Passage. In Sanskrit patra translates as “the vessel that never goes empty”. Whatever is received in the bowl is considered enough for the day, a reminder of the offerings of the present moment.
MW: Are other vessel traditions and archetypes important to you? I’m thinking of the Japanese tea ceremony and how it relates to this – the idea of non-dualism and the connection between matter and spirit, inside and outside.
LL: Absolutely. In Chado, the Japanese tea ceremony, a small tea bowl is the center of a ritual meditation on emptiness and purpose. The empty tea bowl represents the mind cleared of negative thoughts and influences; as the bowl is filled, the mind is the receiving receptacle. Chawan tea bowls are often humble, irregular, perhaps even cracked. They possess a quiet beauty found in nature’s transient cycles of growth and decay – very Wabi-Sabi – an aesthetic that values beauty in imperfections.
MW: The bowl is such a familiar object. It is in every domestic household across the world. It’s almost so vernacular it is nearly overlooked or invisible.
LL: I like the everyday nature of bowls, their familiar presence as well as their ritual significance. In an exhibition at Gail Severn Gallery in 2010 where I first displayed Patra vessels, I overheard a person describing one as “a nut bowl”. That was a kind of silly gift to me. Perception is everything. The bowl embodies the whole range, nut bowl to Holy Grail. I hope that the Patra vessels represent more than a snack dish, but I leave it to the beholder.
MW: I know you call The Patra Passage an experiment. So how does this experiment work? How does the action of giving and receiving function in the Patra Passage?
LL: Over the period of a year, the vessels will be given and received by at least 325 participants. The trajectory of the experiment is deliberately unknown, the experiences with the vessels unknown, even return isn’t a certainty. I have to remain unattached to the outcome, but this also means it isn’t limited to just my imagination. I will call whatever happens a success just because it happened, and didn’t stay a static idea in my sketchbook. Already it has accumulated so many worthy experiences.
MW: What excites me about the Patra Passage is the confluence of an idea that has been so important to you, specifically generosity or giftism with its manifestation in the physical form of a handmade vessel I admire that you are compelled to divert from your usual painting practice to find a different artistic expression that better fits the project’s concept. You’ve succeeded in creating art that has a rare sort of experience as its content. Let’s talk about these two elements in order to get at the “art” or at what really is the “gift.”
LL: The Patra bowls are a vehicle, or a vessel if you will, for the art. The art is really “you”–in the plural sense. Each giver and receiver is what this project is about at its core. The experience you have with the object is the art and the gift. MW: So the Patra vessel is still not the gift, but the opportunity for it. The fluid action of giving and receiving characterizes the experience—the art.
MW: I know Lewis Hyde’s book, The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World has really moved you and influenced your thinking. Hyde documents cultures that re-gift objects, and asserts that the object increases it’s worth each time it is given to another, even if it is broken. Why do you think that is so? I’m viewing the vessel as the matrix that channels the flow of exchange.
LL: Lewis Hyde’s writing is so insightful. It assisted me with fine-tuning this project and opened pathways to many new ideas. Both Lewis Hyde and Marcel Mauss describe cultures where acts of giving create collective energy and interconnectedness within a community. Some objects increase in value as they are circulated. Maybe there is even something metaphysical about this that exceeds the physical boundaries of the gift, which is why broken pieces were still often considered valuable. Japanese tea vessels are sometimes repaired with gilding in the cracks, highlighting repairs with gold. Relevant to the Patra Passage, I’ve already experienced the value of its growing community outweighing the objects given.
MW: I want to talk about a quote by Lewis Hyde that you included on your website:
“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?”
I am intrigued by the notion of receiving a luxury object, a one-of-a-kind, hand-made work of art as a gift that I never had to pay for, but also by the privilege that I will have of giving it away to someone else. There’s something about the extravagance of it that conjures the sense of a blessing, although I’m a bit challenged by Hyde’s assertion that by giving it away I will have “really owned” it. The action you are describing in this project is what Hyde calls “transcendent commerce,” isn’t it? What does that mean to you?
LL: I like your description of blessing and it does relate to Hyde’s notion of “transcendent commerce” in the sense that a gift may point to something beyond the known. But Hyde asserts this involves an expansion of self. This is the gift, not “the stuff “ one owns. When giving goes as much as possible beyond the personal ego, when an object passes through someone and both giver and receiver become part of a continuum, this is where the blessing may occur. I’m mindful that this isn’t always what will happen in the passage. Some bowls will be seen as only decorative objects, or a bit of ephemera.
MW: Many people do value objects that have been pre-owned. I’m thinking of the gowns and paraphernalia once owned or worn by celebrities that are auctioned for hefty prices. Or the trophy cups – sacred vessels, again – that are passed on from victor to victor bestowing honor or privilege on the temporary holder of the object. These phenomena raise questions for me. Does its provenance make it more valuable? Does its uniqueness influence its worth? Is its value as a gift related to our own sense of worthiness to receive?
LL: Since there is no monetary amount placed on a Patra vessel – they aren’t purchased; their worth is determined solely by the recipient. It raises interesting issues and questions. Does the fact that it was previously owned make it of greater or lesser value? Perhaps after spending time with a Patra vessel, cupped empty hands might symbolically be just as significant as the object itself evoking an experience with the contained, not the container. Transience is a theme attached to this passage. Do we ever really “own” something? I hope we’ll receive participant feedback about these questions.
MW: We may be getting into the metaphysical here, but Hyde’s statement, ”The gift finds the man attractive who stands with an empty bowl he does not own,” seems to suggest that the gift is an animate seeker for a place to rest, to bless. Do you agree and is this your intention?
LL: I love that idea! We must be seekers, emptied of expectation to see what is offered, the bowl always has contents. The initial send-off ceremony was set up to suggest that the gift was an animate seeker as well. In determining what vessel was to be given to each recipient able to attend, individuals were asked to draw a number that selected a bowl; perhaps bowls selected receivers too.
MW: You’ve long held an interest in physics, especially as it relates to perception. You wrote, “Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle indicates that we cannot observe something without changing it or influencing it. The way we question and observe is connected to the way we construct our reality.” What do you think about the vessels “changing” as they are exchanged? Will they be something quite different when they return to you for exhibition?
LL: I hope so; I know I will be. I am interested in the questions that scientists ask, particularly at the edge of the frontier between what can be known and measured and what is a mystery. Asking a lot of questions eventually lands any query on that brink. There are so many ways to perceive, many ways to build meaning.
MW: Does this have anything to do with the marks, notations and geometric diagrams on the bowls and their painted bases? You wrote, “The diagrams represent the constant buzz of information that surrounds our every experience and what is beyond easy observation.” Tell me something about their meaning.
LL: The little geometric diagrams and text that also appear in my paintings are related to my interest in science and poetry. Some of the inclusions are handwritten notes from scientists such as Newton, Galileo, Einstein and other great observers of phenomena; some are poetry or ancient language fragments; some spontaneous mark and geometric figure. They act as reminders that there are many ways to view, record, and recall experience.
MW: I’m looking at these vessels and see that they are all unique not only in their surfaces, but also in form. Why is each Patra shaped by hand and not on the potter’s wheel?
LL: Hand building is a slow practice, involving a lot of repetitive movement and labor that has a meditative quality. It was important to me that they have the direct presence of my hand with the quirks and anomalies arising from the process of construction. It’s also why the vessels were pit fired. There is something unpredictably beautiful that happens in these processes.
MW: Does the inclusion of gold and silver play a symbolic part too? I assume it is more than decorative. I’m thinking of its significance in Byzantine altarpieces.
LL: It is definitely a reference to the sacred or to veneration, as is wrapping the bowls in silk. Some of the gold leaf was brought back with me from Myanmar where men pounding layers of it with heavy mallets beat it for hours. Little squares are sold to devotees who reverently layer it on the ever more dimpled golden surface of important Buddha figures in the temples. In gilding of the vessels, it was important to me to make the leafing imperfect. They are scarred and scratched or blotched with patina.
MW: Doesn’t the sale of the Patras break the continuum of the giving and receiving? Isn’t the Patra Passage about changing the way we assign value to objects, thereby circumventing monetary exchange? Post-exhibition, why wouldn’t the vessels be gifted once again, setting in motion a timeless and continuous gifting?
LL: The continuum is extended in the sale of the vessels at the end of the exhibition. The proceeds are going to charities that assist and give to people who have fundamental need. This seems an important transformation in the cycle.
MW: Is there anything else you want people to know about the Patra Passage?
LL: Most important, that the project has been and will continue to be very collaborative. It would never have come into being without the assistance of many wonderful people who’ve supported the project and given time, talent, and financial assistance to it. The commentary and expressive contributions from participants will be valued in the same way as the passage progresses.
I have deep gratitude for this gift.
TACOMA NEWS TRIBUNE: Philosophical ceramic-based Patra Passage kicks off at Museum of Glass
Published: September 25, 2013 – by Rosemary Ponnekanti
Artist Lynda Lowe isn’t content to make beautiful ceramic bowls. She’s also interested in the very idea of a bowl or vessel: of giving, receiving, emptiness, fullness. And so the Gig Harbor-based artist is launching the Patra Passage project this weekend in a private ceremony at the Museum of Glass, to be followed next year by a public exhibition there. The goal? To give 108 handmade bowls to selected recipients, who will keep them for a while, hand them on and finally return them, to be sold for charity. Along the way, the participants (and Lowe) will observe and record their experiences and ideas about giving and receiving on an interactive website, patrapassage.com.
“The first time I was aware of a bowl as a symbol of giving was when my husband and I were in Tibet in 2000,” says Lowe. “We were motorcycling outside the usual tourist areas, and in a monastery I saw all these beautiful vessels lining the altar. Not being Buddhist I wasn’t sure if they were for giving, or if I was meant to receive (what was in them). I had this wonderful, fluid moment. That’s when the images of bowls began showing up in my paintings.”
Named after the Sanskrit for “the bowl that never goes empty,” the Patra project was inspired by both the alms bowls carried by monks and by the artist’s own gratitude for her circle of friends. Questions that arise from the project for Lowe include the concepts of attachment and gratitude, the balance between art and acquisition, and the value of art that is no longer physically present. Recipients can post thoughts and photos about their own bowl on the “108 Bowls” page of the website. Lowe is also thinking of including a “public bowl” page for anyone to post ideas onto.
“It’s not about the bowls,” says Lowe, who began making the vessels about 18 months ago. “It’s about the participants and their experiences.”
This Saturday sees the first send-off of the bowls, presented to friends of Lowe around the country and beyond. In four months’ time each of those will choose someone new to give the bowl to, in a meaningful way or ceremony; this second wave will keep the bowls for another four months before passing them on. After one year, Lowe estimates a community of around 324 people will have received the bowls, contributing their thoughts, photos and more to the website. At this point Museum of Glass curator David Francis will assemble both bowls and contributed thoughts into an exhibition, after which the bowls will be sold to benefit three organizations: the Emergency Food Network, Save the Children and the Museum of Glass itself.
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568 firstname.lastname@example.org
THE OBJECT OF THE OBJECT: ART AND INTERVIEW WITH LYNDA LOWE – BY NANCE VAN WINKEL
Numero Cinq Magazine, December issue 2013: entire interview can be viewed on Numero Cinq. The following is an excerpt:
By way of preface: Nance Van Winkle is a poet from Washington state and a Patra Passage participant. Several years ago Nance and I worked on a collaboration titled The Object of the Object for The Poetic Dialogue project exhibition In this interview Nance and I speak about both of these projects. The
There is a line in Rilke’s “The Spanish Trilogy” — “…to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing” — that rings down through this amazing interview, NC Contributing Editor Nance Van Winckel with visual artist Lynda Lowe, an interview about art, making art, and the art of collaboration. All art is, yes, about making Things. We forget that sometimes. Expressing ourselves, making a point, sending a message, selling a line, finding a market, all take a back seat to the thingness of the Thing, its sudden and utter presence, sui generis and unique. Whether it’s a poem or a painting or some combination thereof (or a novel or a figure in a block of stone…).
01 Installation view of The Object of the Object, for the Poetic Dialogue, 13”H x 20’W x 4”D, 2008
Collaboration with poet Nance Van Winckel
NVW: I thought we’d begin with a few questions about our collaboration for the Poetic Dialogue Project, a group exhibit of poets and artists who were paired to combine poetry and visual art. Since we both live in Washington, we were paired together. I remember coming to your lovely studio near Tacoma and seeing all the cool “tools” you’d collected and thinking about a poem I’d written called “Left to Our Own Devices,” which was also about tools, tiny clock-repair tools.
I sensed we were both interested in objects and, as we went on to discuss, “thingness” or “objecthood.” We called our collaborative project The Object of the Object. I particularly love the piece of yours with those calipers in it. I would suppose that as an artist you must have developed a close kinship with the “tools of your trade.” Can you describe a bit what our collaboration WAS (the series, sizes, etc.) and also talk a little about the subject of “things” and its appeal to you as a visual artist?
Lynda Lowe: The Poetic Dialogue’s intent was to have a visual artist and a poet collaborate in the creation of a new work for a traveling exhibition. It was on my mind to not just make an illustration for your poems or for you to write something in reaction to a painting, but to integrate these forms as much as possible. Since we didn’t know each other before beginning the collaboration, we spent time sniffing out the turf where we might find something common and fertile. We passed back and forth word lists, favorite readings, images, and poems to see where we might begin.
Through Rilke’s poetry we discussed the interiority of the object, its thingness: “to make the Thing, Lord Lord Lord, the Thing.”
Things contain narrative, perhaps even a kind of sentient presence. Humans make stories from, and meaning out of, even the most random collection of them. The idea seemed a good starting place as it shows up in your poetry and also in my imagery. Thus began “The Object of the Object.” Read More…