Bowls of Blessing

This is an installation which consists of twelve ceramic bowls, each one hand thrown or hand built from a 25 pound sack of clay. As can be seen from the images, each bowl is different in style and color, although there are some similarities. Each bowl has undergone a final firing in which photographic laser decals containing both images and words have been fired into the bowl.

The bowls illuminate, through original photographs and text in English and Hebrew, excerpts from Genesis 49, which consists of Jacob’s blessings over his twelve sons, the progenitors of the twelve tribes of Israel. These sayings are poetic and are therefore are considered to have been first passed down through oral tradition making them one of the oldest parts of the Bible. They are replete with references to various animals and crops, and sometimes reference earlier portions in which these sons played a role, and not always a noble one.

The project is a collaboration between Chaim Bezalel and Yonnah Ben Levy, a husband and wife team who have been collaborating for twenty years, both in Israel, where they met and married, and in the United States. However, this is their first three-dimensional project. Chaim has worked with photography and mixed media, including photography on clay as well as photography incorporated into paintings together with Yonnah. The paintings, have been produced in series such as: Architectural Elements (Classical and Arabic architecture in Israel); Pacific Scrolls (vertical and horizontal panoramic landscapes on rice paper); and others which have been exhibited in several museums, colleges, etc.

Yonnah, in addition to her painting, both individually and in collaboration, has been a ceramicist for more than forty years. She also teaches both ceramics and painting. She was inspired to create this series when she admired a large bowl with a small foot or base, which is difficult to throw. She worked in stoneware as well as porcelain, which has a greater level of difficulty. After producing one such “perfect” bowl, the Levi bowl, one of her students accidentally knocked it onto the floor while still damp. Yonnah then hand-built the top of the bowl, and this influenced some subsequent pieces. For both artists, each bowl became a meditation.

The process by which the imagery is fired into the bowl is as follows: A black and white laser printer uses toner which consists mostly of iron oxide powder. This is printed onto a film and then cut and adhered onto the bowl. In the final firing, the film melts away and the powder is absorbed into the glaze.

One of the antecedents for this project, particularly for the spiral script written inside each bowl, is the “Incantation Bowl” of ancient Babylon. “During the Sassanian period (224 CE – 651 CE) there were many Jewish settlers living in Babylonia in southern Iraq. They left behind many magic bowls like this (below). The bowls are inscribed in Aramaic with magic texts designed to protect one's wife, children, house or other property.” (Field Museum of Natural History) Some of these bowls contain blessings and others curses. We decided on the title “Bowls of Blessing” because they contain what has come to be known as Jacob’s blessings over his sons, though, as mentioned earlier, they are not all positive sayings. In oracular language and poetry, in fact in all utterances stemming from oral tradition, words seem to carry more weight; before they passed from clay to parchment to paper to the ether of the computer screen. For example, according to ancient Persian law, the king’s word could not be retracted, only amended, as in the Book of Esther. Another example is the story of the stolen birthright, how Isaac could not reverse his blessing, even though it was obtained through deceit.

The scripts chosen for the bowls are “Ancient Script” for English and several scripts for Hebrew including “sofer stam,” an ornamental scribal serif used for copying the Torah onto parchment to be chanted with cantillations according to a yearly cycle. Many of the images on the bowls were photographed by Chaim in Israel. For example, on the Judah bowl, the stone lion’s head in the center was from a Greco-Roman sarcophagus in the city of Ashkelon where the couple lived. The live male and female lions on the same bowl were from a wild animal park in Ramat Gan, also in Israel, while the wolf on the Benjamin bowl was photographed at Wolf Haven preserve near Olympia, Washington; and the deer on the Naphtali bowl was photographed in a Thai restaurant.

Incantation Bowl