Consider the Bowl

Forget bowling alone: the MoCC gathers bowls to reveal the beauty of one of the necessities of home life.

By Kristin Belz August 15, 2013 Published in the August 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

The exhibit of bowls at the Museum of Contemporary Craft includes this table full of bowls which may be borrowed and used at home.

Image: Kristin Belz

A house, to be a house, requires basic elements: shelter and comfort (walls and roof, let’s say; bed, plumbing, water, heat and light are nice; perhaps a table and chair); and sustenance: food and drink. For the latter, a fork, knife and bowl would be appreciated.

Of all these household basics, there is something special about a bowl – the way we use it, holding it in our hands, intimately, protectively. Do you have a favorite bowl at home? One for ice cream, one for cereal, one for spaghetti? One for salad? One for the dog and one for mixing cake batter?

The current exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Craft (in partnership with the Pacific Northwest College of Art) makes us think about the basic qualities yet endless variations in the bowl as an object of both utility and beauty. It is an art object we use at home every day.

The MoCC exhibit (on through September 21) is also an all-out attempt to engage the museum-visitor not just as a passive viewer but also as an “experiencer” of the objects being displayed. You go to the museum to check out the bowls in the exhibit, but you can also literally check out one of its bowls. Yes, “check out” as you would check out a book from the Multnomah County Library. In fact, the County library has a side-exhibit and corresponding set of bowls to be checked out at its Central Library location.

Does touching harm the art object, or does a Do Not Touch sign make the object art?

Image: Kristin Belz

Such a relationship to the displayed object can be confusing – look but don’t touch; look and touch; look, touch and bring home. But it’s worth the confusion. The table of “reference copies” of the artists’ bowls which may be checked out of the museum are all displayed with touching (and holding and perusing) encouraged, while others of the bowls are enclosed in glass cases, and still others open to the air but with prominent (albeit hand-written) signs warning “Touching harms the art.”

Which begs the question: when is a bowl art, and when is it not? Is a bowl not one of the ultimate examples of an object made to be touched? Do I harm it as an art object every time I touch it? Questions like these are welcome, though, because they make us consider our quotidian home life with a fresh perspective.

Museum staff report a strong public interest in taking the bowls home. Scores of people, mostly museum members, have done so. (So far, no breakages.) This being Portland, 2013, the intense attempt to engage the viewer in experiencing the bowl of course includes both physical and digital experience. Folks are encouraged to photograph their borrowed bowl however they use it at home, and share their photos and comments on the Museum’s Tumblr site.

Is your cereal bowl art? Thinking of it that way might make tomorrow morning’s oatmeal taste that much better.

See the exhibit (and lending library of bowls) at the MoCC through September 21, 2013. And read our review of the previous phase of the exhibit, which included more bowls from the personal collections of well-known Portlanders. 

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