by Donna Leventhal
As a member of the Mayyim Hayyim Art Committee, I am excited to introduce our “Vessels” year-long show. From September-January, “Vessels: Containing Possibilities” showcased the Raku vases of and mosaic art. Opening this Thursday and continuing through June is “Vessels: Holiness in Hand,” featuring work by glass blower Christopher Watts and porcelain potter Elizabeth Cohen.
The Art Committee’s exploration of “vessels” began with the mikveh itself. As a vessel carefully constructed to contain living waters for ritual immersion, this ancient pool was the perfect starting place. We asked ourselves: How does the act of defining space — shutting out, separating, containing — serve to create holiness?
Judaism is a religion replete with moments of separation. We separate the mundane from the special; blessing the fruit of the earth, the wine in a designated goblet, the challah between a plate and special cloth, and light itself in special candle holders. Most sacred of all is the space we carve out in time for Shabbat each week, and for the celebration of our holy days.
Defining spaces and creating boundaries is central to our Jewish lives. Vessels: Holiness in Hand brings to life this concept of holiness as embodied by objects often found in our homes. Chris Watts’ large goblets immediately command our attention. Pour wine into them, and the vessel itself is transformed. The emphasis immediately shifts from “wine tasting” to a spiritual moment. The vessel defines the substance and helps create the occasion. Watt’s goblets are full of elegant detail reminiscent of Venetian glassblowers. While traditional kiddish cups are silver, a material that reflects light, Watts’ glass goblets actually hold light, as if they are comprised of the light of creation.
Mayyim Hayyim is also fortunate to have a series of Chris Watts’ glass scrolls. The scrolls feel as though they were just pulled out of clay jars from Dead Sea caves. Unfurled before us, shimmering in the light they hold, the colorful glass presents us text to decode in line, shape, and color. The meaning is both before us and for us to make.
Elizabeth Cohen, a potter, brings a quiet sanctity to her exquisite ritual vessels. The simplicity of the thin white porcelain and the disciplined clean forms create a hauntingly spiritual focal point for ritual. Each piece is a gateway, further engrossing the participant in the meaning and intent of the ritual.
Cohen offers a variety of moments for ritual connection. There are vessels for wine, hand washing, matzah, challah, charoset, and the seder plate; each form offers the possibility of many uses. What the user chooses to place in these vessels becomes special because it is placed within. Cohen’s series of stacked bowls nestled within each other alludes to the spiritual, and yet they can be broken apart and used on the holiday table. The nesting bowls with openings are the essence of expanding infinity, the contained and containable.
On the walls, Cohen presents us with another examination of the infinite in a series of circular forms bound together within a larger circular shape. Our eyes move in and out of the many hollows that create room for reflection. On a more abstract level, Cohen brings us vessels that contain the promise of spring before us. Organic forms emerge from them and sway in an unseen breeze. What a wonderful moment they hold before us as we, here in Boston, sit immobilized by the ongoing winter.
The concept of building a “Fence around the Torah” holds a prominent place in rabbinic literature; establishing a literal or figurative vessel to protect the sacred is an important aspect of Jewish practice. Beautiful vessels create wider portals for entry, with God and with ourselves. The mikveh is not a bath tub. Challah is not a roll eaten on the street. Every moment of our lives cannot be spiritual, but we do need these moments of sacredness through separation. Through the elegance and craftsmanship in their vessels, Elizabeth Cohen and Chris Watts provide openings into the sacred that you will not want to miss.
Join us at Mayyim Hayyim this Thursday, February 26th at 5:30 pm to meet the artists and hear the stories behind their incredible work.
Donna Leventhal is a member of the Mayyim Hayyim Art Committee and curated Vessels: Holiness in Hand with Stepheny Riemer. She is a silversmith at Metalmorphasis, an art studio in Dedham, MA.