Wednesday, May 6, 2009

So, what is your favorite shape to make?

This is a question that I get often. For me, it's not a difficult one.

Do you know what a tea bowl is? No, no, not a tea cup, you Anglofiles, a tea bowl! The tea bowl is, with out a doubt, my favorite thing to throw. The tea bowl is the Asian vessel for tea. It is closely connected to the tea ceremony and to nature, a spiritualized sense of nature. You would never guess it but there is a lot behind a simple tea bowl. So much, in fact, that I will barely touch on the subject here.

Mel Jacobson, whom I've mentioned before, took me on as an apprentice the summer before my senior year of college. I lived in Minnesota, where he lives and works, and worked in his studio. He was in the middle of a big project involving a ceramic chemist, Joe Koons. They were atempting to recreate a Chinese glaze (temmoku variations), used on tea bowls, that has been lost for centuries. While I was useless on the chemistry end of things, Mel confidently took me on to throw tea bowls like crazy. It was our job, in potting, to recreate the shapes of Chinese tea bowls with similar bodied clays and try to recreate the atmosphere in the kiln of the ancient potters. Joe would send us the specs and the glazes (all top secret, of course). Mel, having studied in Japan, taught me Japanese throwing techniques to make pots the same size and shape, using ribs and tombos (the tools to the right). We made hundreds of those dang things and I still hadn't had enough.

My senior year of college, I created my own senior honors seminar along with my professor, Kathy Rhoades (I've mentioned her before). My school didn't offer any sort of major or minor in Art, so I enthusiastically paved my own way. I came up with a focus of study: Tea Bowls! I chose Japanese tea bowls and researched the history, the ceremony, the traditions, wrote a long paper, and made the ceramics to match. At the end of it all I put up a solo art show, sent out invitations, and gave a presentation. The amount of work that went into that was overwhelming and felt great. I threw, trimmed, glazed, broke, and loved a lot more tea bowls in that whole process.

I learned that the two main shapes, the 'v' and the 'U' (for lack of a tiny picture), are summer and winter, respectively and represent the mountain (upside down, of course), a sacred structure in nature. Tea bowls, the very special ones, even had a birthday! Certain ones were only used on their birthday for the tea ceremony and you could tell "how old" a tea bowl was according to the stain of tea in it's surface. Also, remember the post about repairing ceramics with those gold viens? Tea bowls were respected. They wanted that bowl. And, oh, the list goes on!

The muscle memory in our bodies is amazing. That little quip, "its just like riding a bike", is very true in ceramics. The tea bowl is my bike, for sure. I just get right on it and my hands and brain remember, instinctively, how to ride. I even get that sweeping feeling, like riding a bike, smooth sailing, it feels good, it's a pleasure to throw. No matter how many I make, striving for that perfect form, repeating the shape over and over, each bowl carries its own story. And hopefully, like Bernard Leach challenges all potters, that joy will shine through and give joy to the user.

[I think this will give way to a longer post on Bernard Leach's book, The Potter's Challenge. I am loving it. It speaks to so much more than pottery.]

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