At an exhibition that opens Friday at the Nordic Center, 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.

This vessel was created by Karin Kraemer for an exhibition at the Nordic Center in Duluth. Clint Austin /
This vessel was created by Karin Kraemer for an exhibition at the Nordic Center in Duluth. Clint Austin /
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.

More than 20 artists will show flask-inspired pieces at "Flask - a Focus on Form and Function," which has an opening reception from 6-8:30 p.m. on Friday at the Nordic Center, 23 N. Lake Ave. The exhibition runs through April 12. It's free and open to the public.

The works

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.

Flasks created by Bob DeArmond (foreground), Liz James and James Klug. Clint Austin /
Flasks created by Bob DeArmond (foreground), Liz James and James Klug. Clint Austin /
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.

When the initial class attracted attention, Keenan and DeArmond brought the idea of the exhibition to the Nordic Center. His background is in arts administration, so he opened the show to his contacts in the arts scene: Richard Gruchalla, Karin Kraemer, Robin Murphy.

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.

The study of flasks

A flask created by Shelia Staubus. Clint Austin /
A flask created by Shelia Staubus. Clint Austin /
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?"

If you go

What: "Flask - A Focus on Form and Function"

When: Opening is 6-8:30 p.m. Friday. Runs through April 12.

Where: Nordic Center, 23 N. Lake Ave.

Gallery hours: 1-4 p.m. on Saturdays, March 23 and March 24, April 6 and April 7