Wednesday, 5 November 2008
The Art of Tea
I was talking with a third generation Japanese potter and the curator of a major western public art gallery a few years ago, about Tea Bowls. "Why, " asked the potter, "Do western potters insist on making tea bowls when they have no understanding of their use?"
The curator and I mulled over the question and came to the conclusion that there were two reasons, firstly a recognition of the tea bowl as a pinnacle of functional art and therefore worthy of emulation, and secondly a kind of syllogism. The thinking goes like this: Great potters make tea bowls so if one makes tea bowls one must be a great potter. Unfortunately it doesn't quite work like that. One of the most important conditions of making functional ceramics is being familiar with the function.
After years of deliberation Steve Tootell and I finally did something about it. This years World Art Educators Workshop , the Art of Tea, focused on understanding the basics of tea ware and Japanese "kaiseki ryouri" functional ware through a hands on experience of their function.
Twenty participants from around the globe gathered in Tokyo at the pottery studio of the International School of the Sacred Heart on Friday morning (Oct. 24th) for a demonstration first and then hands on production of functional ware designed for a specific Japanese meal. This included slab plates, mold making, throwing, trimming and altering forms.
On Friday afternoon we all headed to Kamakura to the ancestral home and traditional tea house of Noriko Saito sensei. Saito Sensei is a Master of the Omote Senkei school of tea, and the tea room "Sai An" was the focus for revitalising the tea ceremony during the post war period. Here the participants were able to experience the tea ceremony first hand with step by step instruction. Each member took turns making the tea from the hosts perspective and also receiving the tea as a guest. Saito sensei explained the philosophy of tea and tea ware, emphasizing that a tea bowl is only one part of the greater artwork which is the tea ceremony itself, and should form an harmonious focal point without being obtrusive. Even the weather becomes part of the experience, the sound of the rain being a foil to the quiet of the tatami room, the soft natural light from the garden, the scent of the wet leaves and soil wafting in on the light breeze blending with the fragrance of the tea and the flavour of the sweets. The art of simplicity; the art of function.
With this experience fresh in our hearts, the taste of the tea still on our lips, we hurried back to the studio for a demonstration of the making of tea bowls by Masakazu Kusakabe Sensei. He analysed and demonstrated a wide variety of traditional and contemporary forms and techniques, then the participants made their own tea bowls based now upon a new understanding of their function in context.
Saturday morning we focused on the making of other tea ware, as the tea ceremony entails more than just a bowl. The "Kensui" for taking the used water, the "mizusashi" for the fresh water, the tea caddies and the lid rest, a wide variety of vessels are needed.
At lunch time we went to Nihombashi, the centre of Japan, to experience fine Japanese cuisine. Master Chef Touru Hashimoto at Kappo Toyoda restaurant explained and demonstrated the selection, preparation and serving of "Ocha Kaiseki", and we enjoyed a full course kaiseki lunch. Kappo Toyoda was established in 1863, when Nihombashi was a market place full of fresh fish from Tokyo bay. Hashimoto san is the fifth generation owner chef, and was head chef for the Japanese embassy in Germany. He explained that "Kaiseki", like the tea ceremony, was an extension and a refinement of traditional Japanese home hospitality, striving to bring peace, comfort and happiness to the weary traveller. The meal which was served utilised the vessels which had been demonstrated the previous day, once again putting the vessel into its functional context.
After lunch we moved on to Ebiya Bijutsu Ten, the antique gallery in Nihombashi where I hold my annual exhibition. Established in Kyoto in 1673, Ebiya came to Nihombashi as a purveyor to the imperial household with the Meiji emperor. Masahiro Miyake, the ninth generation owner, showed us a range of historic tea bowls, from kourai chawan, commissioned from Korean potteries by the Tokugawa shogunate, through a variety of Japanese bowls explaining their history and provenance, to two fine examples of black and red raku tea bowls. We were able to hold these bowls, feel their weight and proportions. With an understanding of their function these historic bowls brought the reality of fine tea bowls into sharp focus. Also in the gallery were a variety of other historic tea ware, include the "chashaku" tea spoons in bamboo and ivory.
Once again we returned to the studio to glaze raku tea bowls that I had prepared earlier, and sake cups by Kusakabe san.
On Sunday morning we raku fired the bowls and cups, preparing tea for each other in the freshly fired bowls. I brought out the youhen tea bowl which Shimaoka sensei had given me as a graduation present and prepared a cup of tea for Kusakabe san, and the participants each examined the bowl in context. Every one went home with a wealth of experience and information, and a better understanding of tea bowls, functional ware, and the art of tea.