A bowl can never be empty because it is always full of stories.
Those words from the American Swedish Institute could not be more true — or poetic.
To reflect on that sentiment, the institute has filled its Osher Gallery with an exhibit, “101 Bowls,” in sometimes wild and unexpected shapes and forms (paper and fiber, among them) that push the boundaries of this most everyday of objects, each with a tale that brings to life its history, maker or owner.
This is the first of a three-part series for 2018 at the ASI that highlights “The Handmade.”
We all know the shape of a bowl, or at least what passes for the object that we use to slurp soup or chew cereal.
But as this exhibit makes apparent, in its graceful and exuberant assortment that crisscrosses the gallery, the bowl is so much more.
That includes its other definition, reflected in the timing of the exhibit, which appeared under the umbrella title of “CraftBowl,” with its nod to last weekend’s big game in nearby downtown Minneapolis.
“The bowl is also a metaphor for a gathering or an event. We use the name ‘bowl’ to reference stadiums where great spectacles take place,” said Scott Pollock, director of exhibitions, collections and programs at the ASI.
Ah, yes. That big bowl. And to clarify yet another nuance for the exclamation heard when Scandinavians gather to drink: The word “skol” means “bowl,” a reference to the communal object filled with a beverage to be shared. Which takes us back to the beginning.
“The bowl is the one form that almost every craft medium touches on,” said Pollock. “They hold items that nourish our lives and are often shaped or finished with an aesthetic touch that makes them more than just functional items. They can hold beauty.”
Indeed they do. Take Phillip Odden’s basswood ale bowl (#060 in the exhibit), otherwise known as the rooster (above). Odden and his wife, Else, both experienced woodworkers, traveled throughout Norway in 1994, during which Phillip created this modern variation of a long ago wooden bowl meant for ale or mead. The style reflects a pre-Christian tradition, with the head and tail of the bird serving as its handles, which would be used to hold and pass along the vessel to others. Had this been an ancient vessel, the intricate carving, as well as the colors, would indicate that this was used for special occasions. The paint would have reflected that the owner was wealthy.
The maple sap trough (#001) from the Carver County Historical Society, sculpted from a log, begs to be lifted. But don’t. The trough was carved around 1890 by Andrew Peterson, a Swede who emigrated to the United States in 1850 and settled on a farm outside Waconia. His meticulous diary, written from the day he left Sweden until the day he died, inspired the book “The Emigrants,” by Vilhelm Moberg. His farm became one of the first research stations for the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. Find out more about Peterson at the Carver County Historical Society, carvercountyhistoricalsociety.org.
Then there is the porringer (#063), this from 1741, its maker long forgotten. Think of it as a food container, a kind of potluck enabler or cake carrier. With a cover and handle, porridge or other food could be carried to homes for any number of reasons: to feed a neighbor after childbirth, to celebrate a wedding or gather for a funeral. Note the detail on the carving. This clearly served more than function. Pollock speculated that it may have been decorated to commemorate an occasion, or as a gentleman’s gift for a bride-to-be.
“It’s a symbol of community and nourishment,” said Pollock. And one that had significance for this family, who long ago packed it in an immigrant’s trunk to bring to a new homeland.
“These are testaments to skill. Think of the science of achieving a bowl that lasts 100 years,” said Pollock. “You have to select the right part of a tree, so the wood won’t split in dry air.”
The candy bowl from the collection of the Minnesota State Fair (#101) tells a different story. From 1907, the ruby-glass-footed bowl represents a souvenir — was it for a family or an individual? — of a memorable day at the fair.
There’s a punch bowl (#098) unlike most we’ve seen. This celebrates the accomplishment of Swedish immigrant Fritz Carlson, on the occasion of his winning the Boston Marathon in 1913, the only Minnesotan to do so (2 hours, 20 minutes, 45 seconds). Really a trophy, it’s a fair guess there was something liquid in there on the winning occasion.
On a smaller scale, a tea cup (#022) — for all practical purposes, a small bowl — serves up a memory of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, when he sipped tea from it in 2011 in Stockholm, where the Nobel Prize Banquet was held. This cup, made in 1991, was part of the dinner service used at the award ceremony.
Then there’s the gravy boat (#077), from 1900, part of the Rörstrand collection of porcelain dinnerware (a Swedish porcelain company for more than 300 years) that Swan Turnblad, owner of the ASI’s mansion, used in his 33-room home.
And there’s another family connection, this with a decorated spoon and simple wooden bowl (#088) from Barbara Glaser. The combo comes from the family farm in southern Sweden, where Glaser’s grandfather lived. The painted spoon depicts a Christmas tomten, or homestead gnome. Glaser brings it out each holiday to carry on the tradition of filling it with rice pudding.
Back in the Twin Cities, Karl Benson offered a wooden bowl (#095) from his Cooks of Crocus Hill cooking school in St. Paul. Handmade in Vermont, the 12-year-old bowl was once saturated red in color. The loss of its hue came about through use. The bowl seemed to become “more and more beautiful” as it ages and has become its marketing icon, said Benson.
But the stories don’t stop there. (There are 101 to tell, including one from the Dean family kitchen.) In the Turnblad mansion next door are more examples of form, function and beauty from three master Swedish artists: Jögge Sundqvist uses wood as his medium, Ingegerd Råman designs ceramics and glass; and Bertil Vallien turns to glass. Elsewhere at the ASI, handmade bowls for sale benefit Open Arms of Minnesota.
I will never look at a bowl in the same way again. After a trip through the exhibit, you won’t, either.