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Grief Bowls project finds beauty, healing in cracks and broken pieces | The Homepage

People sit at a table littered with hot glue guns, small water bottles, paper cups and chip bags. They are focused on gluing broken bowls together.
Grief Bowl workshop participants explored the Japanese art of kintsugi, which involves breaking and creatively rebuilding a ceramic bowl, at Center of Life in April and May under the guidance of Kiyomi Knox, community engagement manager. Photo by Michael Machosky

By Michael Machosky

A bowl without a bottom is, well, a bit strange. But for Lisa Riehl -- painting shards of a broken ceramic bowl at Center of Life in Hazelwood -- the significance is there for all to see.

“To me, it has often felt like the bottom’s falling out,” she said. “Between mother’s guilt, losing people that I love…” she trailed off, concentrating on her bowl. “I’m outlining the cracks because they’re important too.”

On a Wednesday night in April, Ms. Riehl and about a dozen other women learned the art of kintsugi, a Japanese process through which an old ceramic bowl is symbolically (and literally) broken, then reconstructed into something new. With the guidance of the nonprofit’s community engagement manager Kiyomi Knox, it was also a chance to talk about the many tragedies, big and small, that Hazelwood residents carry with them year after year.

People sit around long tables arranged in a square in a church sanctuary with candles lit and stained glass windows in the background.
Grief bowls workshop in the Center of Life sanctuary. Photo by Michael Machosky

Center of Life partnered with Arts Excursions Unlimited for three kintsugi workshops leading up to a larger art show in May based around grief for Mental Health Awareness Month.

Aside from murmured conversation, it was quiet in the Center of Life sanctuary (which it shares with the Keystone Church of Hazelwood). Soothing ambient music played in the background and the lights were low.

Then, suddenly: A loud smash. A hammer struck a bowl, and everyone jumped for a second. It was jarring, but it’s supposed to be.

“The breaking of the bowl represents the traumatic events,” Ms. Knox said. “Putting it back together is like repairing oneself.”

Kintsugi originated hundreds of years ago in Japan and means “joining with gold.” It’s part of the art of fixing broken pottery — if a bowl is broken, rather than discarding the pieces, they are glued back together, and cracks are painted with gold. The gold highlights the damage instead of hiding it. The idea is that there is beauty in imperfection, and the breaks themselves create their own unique patterns and designs.

“Because it’s a gold bond, it’s stronger than it was before. There’s beauty in brokenness,” Ms. Knox said. “We know that people are grieving; we know that there is loss, but we don’t do a good job talking about it. I just wanted to provide a space for people to talk about those things.”

“We discuss that once we go through these losses, we can’t look like and be exactly who we were before,” Ms. Knox noted. “The bowl gives us an opportunity to process this as well as make something new. Sometimes we find that there will be pieces that will never fit back into the places they were before, and that it’s OK to let things go. We will also find that sometimes right when we think we have everything back in place, it will all fall apart again. And that’s how healing works.”

The show “Journey Through Grief” opened with a reception on May 12, and runs through June 7 at Center of Life in Hazelwood.

The Grief Bowls project received funding from the Staunton Farm Foundation. To learn more, contact Kiyomi Knox: or 412-294-8688.

Michael Machosky has been writing about Pittsburgh for 20+ years, for the Tribune-Review, NEXTPittsburgh, City Paper and the Times of Israel among many other outlets. He currently works for Center of Life and Markowitz Communications and lives in Greenfield.

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