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A World of Vessels

A World of Vessels

How this beloved and ancient form has sustained humankind and contained our beliefs about everything from safety to gender roles.
Feature Article

A World of Vessels

How this beloved and ancient form has sustained humankind and contained our beliefs about everything from safety to gender roles.
Spring 2023 issue of American Craft magazine
Mediums Wood
Lusail Stadium, designed for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar

The vessel shape of Lusail Stadium, designed for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar by Foster + Partners, was informed by Islamic bowls and local architecture. | Photo by © Nigel Young / Foster + Partners.

View from the inside of the Lusail Stadium.

The exterior shell of the stadium provides shelter and shade for visitors. | Photo by © Nigel Young / Foster + Partners.

From the earliest stages of human development, the vessel has been integral to our survival and daily sustenance, our grasp of abstract concepts through metaphor and imagination, and our understanding of the secrets of the cosmos.

The vessel offers sensual awareness of form, volume, and weight. But its material qualities are dwarfed by the role the vessel plays in our comprehension of the world. The pleasing roundness of the shape reassures and comforts us in the familiar way that some bodies gestate and nurture life. And the singular act of containment—the vessel’s principal role—prompts thinking about offering and ownership, consumption and care, transportation and traversal.

As a useful form, the vessel is a bowl, a boat, or a physical body—a temporal home for viscera and the curious energies that make us who we are. For humans, this concept of the vessel provides us with some of the most profound poetry ever written. “I am large, I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman declared parenthetically in the poem “Song of Myself.”

Certainly, human dependency on the vessel has opened up ways of thinking about our world and its mysteries that provide reason and reassurance as well as creative inspiration.

This elemental form continues to inspire artists, writers, makers, and thinkers. The FIFA World Cup 2022 teams who played in the Lusail Stadium in Qatar found themselves in a structure modeled on a vernacular bowl—a “burnished golden vessel,” in the words of UK-based architecture firm Foster + Partners, that boasts state-of-the-art air conditioning, shade, and natural lighting to host some 80,000 spectators in comfort. Over thousands of years of drawing inspiration from vessels, one would think this well would run dry. Yet we find new ways of cementing the vessel in our collective imagination, crafting tools based on old and new typologies along with mimetic objects that evoke pleasure and ideas rather than perform the services of containing, safekeeping, preserving, or transporting.

A particular ceramic bowl from the predynastic period of ancient Egypt (ca. 3700–3450 BCE) embodies many of these essences. Ample and globular, it stands on its own two humanoid feet and tips itself forward in a generous offering of its contents. Its surface is slipped, pleasingly smooth, and unadorned. Historians are unsure of the exact purpose of this anthropomorphic bowl but have identified similarities between its stance and shape and the Egyptian hieroglyphic for “to bring.” This merger of the vessel with the human body is not a new concept. Creator and nurturer of life, with the ability to move from place to place and to give of itself—the idea was as relevant in prehistory as it is now.

A bowl by Aaron Haba, guilelessly titled Vessel (2014), is also tipped in offering, though it is made of wood rather than clay. At a height of 8 feet and a diameter of nearly 10 feet, it seems to invite the universe to curl up inside. Haba was inspired by these lines, written by the founder of Taoism, Lao-Tzu:

Shape clay into a vessel;

It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore benefit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.

Vessel
appears to be a humble wooden bowl, but on an astonishing scale. Made from Douglas fir timbers that originally housed a church, Vessel is Haba’s paean to spiritual buildings and monuments. Gazed on from above or from ground level, the object’s size prevents it from being seen in one glance. When we encounter it, we consider the more cosmic attributes of containment; the vessel’s emptiness and its gesture of offering seem sacred.

Egyptian bowl with human feet made of red polished ware.

Egyptian bowl with human feet, ca. 3700–3450 BCE, red polished ware, 3 ⅞ x 5 3/16 x 5 ⅜ in. | Photo courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The acts of creation and sustenance, as they occur in the body, have defined much thinking about gender and femaleness. In ancient civilizations, as constructs of property and ownership developed, divisions were established based on who enjoyed these privileges and who should be designated as “owned.” Ensuring family lineages and securing legacies translated into the need to establish domain over the womb, and thus evolved the patriarchal society. Viewing the female body as a vessel—a subservient container—has dominated constructs of gender and race to the present day.

As such, the vessel provides important territory for interrogating ongoing dynamics of power and possession. In making her coopered vessel works, Alison Croney Moses is in constant engagement with this question. An artist whose roles—as maker, educator, community activist, mother, Black woman—intersect in all of her work, Croney Moses is acutely aware of the sensual nature of her pneumatic containers, which have increasingly taken on the figural qualities of the feminine. In My Belly (2021), a gracefully swollen belly carved and coopered from cedar protrudes into space, balancing on its own weight. The staves that form the volume radiate from the navel, emphasizing its outward growth, yet not quite joining as perfectly as we would like. This tension between the satisfyingly curved surface, sanded to perfection, and its jostled contents illustrates an important concern for the vessel maker: interior versus exterior. Our bodies change shape from the inside, through breath, pregnancy, or metastasizing cells. Sometimes, due to the physical trauma of birth or surgery, the interior parts rearrange, impacting the outer surface of the bodily vessel. This shift—the vessel finding its equilibrium—reflects truths that are otherwise unexposed.

Room sized bowl shaped sculpture made of reclaimed church timbers, carbon, and beeswax.

Aaron Haba’s room-sized Vessel, 2014, reclaimed church timbers, carbon, beeswax, 8 x 10 x 10 ft.| Photo by Aaron Haba.

Cedar wood and milk paint shaped sculpture.

Made from cedar wood and milk paint, Alison Croney Moses’s My Belly, 2021, 17 ⅛ x 9 ½ x 13 in., is part of the series My Black Body. | Photo by Stephen Tourlentes.

The “choreography of shape and space” that defines the vessel, in the words of ceramic artist Syd Carpenter, informs our relationships with the world. The spaces we inhabit or traverse mediate our sensory engagement with it. Through the vessel’s walls we absorb and digest truths, which settle and mingle with new encounters. The resulting mixture, comprising sense and experience, could be called memory.

In Carpenter’s newest series, Farm Bowls, she restores the stories and memories that have been erased from lands that were owned and cared for by African Americans. The bowls are precariously balanced (many on representations of brains, the vessels of memory) and bear the weight of farm animals, implements, homes, fences, and other tools for tending and cultivating land. The names of the landowners are carefully inscribed on the works. For Carpenter, an artist for whom the vessel provides a rich lexicon of signs and ideas, the bowl is a reclaiming act designed to hold the truths of the past for future stewards who will keep the land fertile and nourished.

The vessel keeps, holds, and remembers but remains transitory. While this is yet another reason for its alignment with the human body, it also reflects the idea of the body’s contents moving between worlds. In video artist Bill Viola’s Going Forth By Day (2002), a man is shown floating away in a small barge while two people on the water’s edge witness his departure. Viola based this five-part work on the Egyptian Book of the Dead; its wordless elegance, dreamlike pace, and layering of mythologies on a contemporary scene remind us—through this symbolic use of the vessel—how informed we are by the ancients and their understanding of universal phenomena.

Jack Larimore’s Sycamore Story (2021) relates a similar theme with poetry and reverence. In it, a boatlike form traverses the protective sheath of sycamore cambium that encircles it. Is it departing or arriving? According to the artist, a vessel is a container for living things; wherever they are on their journey, the living materials, both contained and containing, tell a story that reaches the most primeval part within us all. That part knows what’s going on, even if the concerns of our time have dimmed its acuity.

Video installation of various people traversing through landscapes showing how vessels move the human body.

A barge is pictured on the right in Going Forth By Day, a video installation by Bill Viola, 2002–2003, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. | Photo by Ellen Labenski.

The vessel brings a sense of safety; encompassed by it . . . we gain
confidence to confront the unknown.

Stoneware image representing a farmhouse and horse made of stoneware.

Syd Carpenter’s O’Neal Smalls, 2021, stoneware, 13.5 x 23 x 17 in., is part of her Farm Bowls series. | Photo by Syd Carpenter.

A boatlike form emerging from sycamore, cyprus, pine tar and bronze.

A boatlike form emerges from Jack Larimore’s Sycamore Story, 2021, sycamore, cyprus, pine tar, and bronze, 40 x 68 x 67 in. | Photo by Myles Pettengill.

Sometimes there is tension between the built world and the natural world. The depiction of a vessel traversing between these realms reflects the complexity of fears and tensions that accompany us as we live our lives. The vessel brings a sense of safety; encompassed by it, in these re-creations of wombs, we gain confidence to confront the unknown, releasing ourselves to the next world.

“The vessel has entered human consciousness from very early times as a vehicle for important and sacred ideas, often becoming a repository of value, of collective memory and experience,” wrote curator, educator, and potter Christopher Tyler. We invoke its form again and again, in the realms of our imagination as well as our quotidian lives.

In considering the vessel’s contemporary relevance, I’m reminded again of the design of Lusail Stadium. Its beauty and functionality belie the dark lethality that was invested in its construction, during which many workers died. This dichotomy shifts our focus to the most vulnerable in society. Who has access to the protection of the vessel?

sacrificed for it? And how can we draw from the comforting traditions established around the vessel, such as holding and nurturing, to build equity and create space for all people?

The vessel, as both an ancient and modern form, will not let us forget or ignore; it calls to and magnifies our humanity, and we look to future artists, makers, and consumers to answer these questions in time.◆

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