A flask is more than a flask. A flask is the starting point for a whole Knights-of-the-Round Table place-setting, with regal green tones. It’s donut or duck-shaped, with a decorative stopper.
It’s small and metal and hangs from a chain; it’s whimsical and features a mid-century image of a man and his glass.
For Karen Keenan, who co-taught a flask-making pottery class with Bob DeArmond at the Duluth Art Institute this past winter, the flask was a purposefully narrow topic that, as the class went on, became more complicated. One day, she brought an example of a flask to class, and it had a funnel attached.
“It was like, ‘Oh yeah!’” she said earlier this week, offering a preview of the show. “This is the typical flask that anyone would imagine. If you’re going to use a container like this - whether it’s for honey or vinegar or maple syrup, all the kinds of things you’d put in a flask - you just can’t put it in there easily.”
It was, mentally, a game-changer: A flask requires a funnel.
“That opened up the whole notion,” Keenan said.
DeArmond was eager to get back in the studio. It has been long enough that his own home space requires some upkeep, and he hadn’t taught in decades. He saw a value, he said, in sticking to something as specific as a flask.
That specificity became key.
“It gave them parameters they had to work with,” he said.
But with individual people come individual ideas. One artist focused on decanters. And when DeArmond and Keenan introduced the idea of throwing a donut - a circle with a hollow center - quite a few students latched on to the concept.
Dan Neff’s two flasks are made in his signature blown glass. Bob Husby’s flask is wearing a cowboy hat.
Denise Perry didn’t make a flask. The fiber artist created a system for carrying two flasks - a cotton variation on a modern hiker’s hydration system. It’s paired with mittens and a sweater.
“You give people a little theme, and they just run with it,” Keenan said.
Keenan started thinking about flasks - and then kept thinking about them. She considered them as a simple, practical container for carrying things from Point A to Point B. Then she thought about the adjacent tools. The exhibition includes photographs from the class’ process, a flask from the early 1900s and articles about the first known flasks.
And as the show unfolded and more items were submitted, Keenan said she began to think about the trend toward slowing down and intentionality.
“People are wanting a connection with local artisans, local food distributors and makers, recognizing that what we can do with our hands is a critical element to who we are as humans,” she said.
She considered the Swedish feminist writer Ellen Key, the architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and the composer Carl Orff - all people who believed in simple beauty.
“I think there is a huge shift right now in society,” she said. “We’re trying to figure out what the heck does the digital world mean to us. At the same time Shopko is closing, this is opening. What does that say?”