When the Joan Hisaoka Gallery provided 125 local artists with white ceramic bowls to modify in whatever way they wanted, some of them acted predictably, treating the objects like canvases. One had a bit more to say about the medium: She buried her bowl, dug it up, and burned it. Another covered his bowl in faux flower petals.

The resulting exhibition, “Alchemical Vessels,” is a visual exercise in how dozens of people can look at the same thing and each see something completely different. Some artists used their bowls as bases for sculptures that spill over the sides or grow out the top. Some filled the bowls with layers of resin, others with buttons and beads or recycled glass. There’s fake fur, cracked eggshells, and at least one Styrofoam head. Many used their own experiences of healing as backdrops, incorporating stories of death, terminal illness, and wounds of the heart into their work.

The bowls, which are on view at the U Street NW gallery until May 16, will be sold piecemeal at a May 2 fundraiser for the Smith Center for Healing and the Arts’ programs for cancer patients. Each piece, born of a common origin but entirely unique in outcome, is a distillation of its creator’s practice, making for a colorful, chaotic assortment of clashing worlds.

Matt Hollis
Fake plant pieces, Hollis’ preferred medium, turn his bowl into a flower in midbloom.


Eve Hennessa
Hennessa buried her bowl in Rock Creek Park for two weeks and burned it in a campfire for a “Bad Break-Up Ceremony.” “Fire, I give to you my pain, I give to you my sorrow…Destroy if you must—I really don’t give a shit about this stupid auction,” she says in a video of the ritual.

Bita Ghavami
Ghavami’s “This Is Water,” named for David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 commencement speech, looks like a goldfish in a bowl, a symbol of new life on Nowruz, the Persian New Year.

Dana Ellyn
This adorable piglet, framed by the words “Look Me in the Eye and Tell Me I’m Delicious,” is part of a series of animal paintings by Ellyn, a vegan activist.

Thomas Drymon
Drymon swirled coffee around in his bowl, letting it stain the sides in rings of varying tones. He broke his first bowl, and its remnants sit at the bottom of his finished piece.

Lori Anne Boocks
A painter of 2D canvases, Boocks was challenged by working on concave ceramic. “I…had to rethink process because the charcoal didn’t want to adhere the same way it does on canvas or linen,” she says. “[It] reminded me of how we may have to relearn how to do things when we’re ill or recovering.”

Travis Childers
Childers built a miniature valley out of model train landscape material. “The vessel is similar to how we interact with nature, we hold its fate in our hands and can destroy it if we wish or preserve it,” he writes in his artist’s statement.

Elizabeth Baldwin
The exhibit’s theme of alchemy led Baldwin to thoughts of fire and rebirth. She used nails, beads, and shells to build a phoenix in tribute to people who’ve overcome setbacks late in life.