By SHANNON GEISEN
In the heart of ancient Mesopotamia roughly 1,400 years ago, Babylonians placed earthenware bowls upside-down on the thresholds of their homes, each bowl inscribed with a personal prayer for protection against illness or misfortune.
Jews, Christians and other Babylonians living between the 6th and 8th century CE believed in the healing power of these incantation bowls.
Thousands of the clay vessels have been unearthed – often illegally – in what is now southeastern Iraq, south of Baghdad.
Fast-forward to the year 2010.
Nevis art teacher Tiffany Besonen and English teacher LouAnn Shepard Muhm are attending a two-day symposium, called “The Artist in Society,” at Concordia College when one of the lecturers speaks about incantation bowls.
Artist and poet are instantly inspired.
The results of their collaboration – “Reassurances: Incantation Bowls, Reimagined” – recently had a month-long gallery exhibition at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Penn.
“This wasn’t a religious effort,” noted Besonen. “It’s a merging of two art forms: prayerful poems and sculpture.”
“It was therapeutic,” added Muhm.
They began to flesh out ideas, reinterpreting the bowls “with our own words, forms and images,” writes Muhm on her blog, louannm uhm.com.
“We started talking about fears: Fear of being creative, fear of not being understood,” recalled Besonen. “We seem to live in a culture of fear. Everyone is afraid of everything, so the timing seemed right.”
Muhm studied transcriptions of the Aramaic text on the original bowls as well as examples of prayerful poetry from modern-day writers.
“I originally conceived that these poems would be about contemporary fears – terrorism, chemicals, technology, forgetting to buckle your child into a car seat,” she said.
“What I found was that our fears are universal. Every fear arises from these three: fear of suffering, fear of isolation and fear of the unknown. They’re ancestral. They come from our lizard brains.”
After “much struggle,” Muhm wrote five poems, which Besonen then transcribed onto delicate bowls that she herself sculpted out of sewing pattern paper and adhesive.
“You’d think a bowl would be easy to make, but it’s not,” said Besonen, “especially when it’s made out of something fragile.”
Crows and foxes emerged from Besonen’s imagination as central illustrations for the bowls.
“They somehow became the characters of these poems,” she said. “In some cases, they represent the fear itself. In others, they are us, empowered to overcome fears.”
Rather than being exact replicas of Babylonian incantation bowls, “the spirit and form are true,” said Muhm.
Their bowls contain incantations against cancer, violence, poverty, ignorance and loss of hope.
A chance connection at the 2013 Governor’s Fishing Opener in Park Rapids led to their exhibition at Cedar Crest College.
Upon learning of Muhm’s and Besonen’s art collection, Odegaard led a community engagement project in conjunction with their exhibit at the campus.
“Community engagement connects us in unexpected and lovely ways,” writes Besonen on her blog at tbesonen.blogspot.com, where she documented the project as it unfolded.
Cedar College students and staff sculpted their own incantation bowls. Muhm and Besonen invited them to share those creations at the exhibit as well.
“We didn’t know what to expect really,” said Besonen.
Over the course of their two-day visit to the college, there were 20 bowls…50 bowls…100 bowls accumulating in the exhibit entrance. They were made from paper pulp, clay and mixed mediums, all etched with writing against fears.
“That many people taking on fear collectively has an effect, a positive and hopeful effect,” said Muhm. “Art therapy is a way people can experience art without standing outside of it and looking at it.”
“We heard these great stories about bonding while they made the bowls,” said Besonen, adding that one university department used the project as a team-building activity.
Muhm also taught a workshop in incantation writing, via Skype, to Cedar Crest students.
A Minnesota State Arts Board grant “help to give myself time and space to do the work,” she said.
Region 2 Arts Council and Five Wings Arts Council grants also funded the joint project.
The duo hopes to exhibit their collection at other universities, particularly in Minnesota. They are currently writing proposals that include the same community engagement and participatory elements.
“We both have gifts and we are combining them, and that’s powerful,” said Besonen.
“It’s exciting when LouAnn hands me a poem,” she said. “It’s just exciting, but it’s daunting, too.”
“You’re trusting someone else with your work,” said Muhm, “but you also have a responsibility to produce quality work.”
“We inspire each other,” said Besonen.