Thursday 31 December 2009

Happy New Year!

It is the last day of the '00's (the Naughties), and tomorrows newspaper arrived this after noon. If only I had access to the stock exchange!

We are enjoying our "Toshi koshi soba"(Buckwheat Noodles to traverse years) in traditional Japanese style, and will see the New year in with traditional Hogmanay, Auld Lang Syne and first footer celebrations!

Happy New Year everyone, and all the best for the '10's (the Teenies)!

Thursday 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

Christmas has come once again, reminding us how important our family and loved ones are to us. This December we have spent a great deal of time going to doctors for Sean (4), who has been fighting pneumonia. Last week he was given a clear bill of health, only to have been diagnosed with Influenza today. We are praying that Santa Claus will bring him a quick recovery.

In the time between I have been trying to fill orders and have managed to deliver them in time for Christmas. Of course the kiln can't be fired unless it is completely full, so to fill the kiln I made these 300 beer cups as well as the orders.

Japan is not just the land of the rising sun, but also of the frequent earthquakes. Last Friday, just when the firing finished and the pots were still hot and sticky inside the kiln, we had two fairly large earthquakes here (the epicentre was the other side of Tokyo, but it was still significant here!). So, I waited with baited breath for the next few days for the kiln to cool enough to unpack it and assess the damage.

Thankfully we only lost two shelves of pots, and the four stacks supported each other in the kiln and the ash and glaze was just sticky enough to hold it all together! Stability is always an issue when I am designing my work, and I'm pleased to say that not a single cup in the whole kiln actually fell over!
In a situation like this it is important to remove as many pots as you can from the kiln before you disturb the shelves, just in case it all comes crashing down!

So, I am grateful for all my blessings, hopeful for a bright new year, and I pray for the health and happiness of all those I love.

I wish you all a blessed Christmas.

Saturday 5 December 2009

One out of the box

There are teabowls in Japanese history (which still exist as national treasures or in private collections) which were valued so highly that they were worth the lives of a thousand men, or a castle and it grounds. They were treasures, and therefore were treated as such. They were wrapped in cloth, beautiful bags were made for them, they were stored in boxes made to measure, signed by the maker or the tea master. The boxes themselves, having been signed by a great master, would be treasures in and of themselves, and so another box would sometimes be made to protect the first box. Thus there are some great bowls which have several boxes within boxes to protect them.

I would never presume to value any of my pots in that way. For me they are fragments of my life and natures process captured in physical form, and as such each one is an irreplacable art work. As a maker of future antiquities, knowing that the teabowls that I make may last hundreds of years, it is, therefore, important to present them in the traditional way. I am constantly striving to create the best teabowls that I can, but not all of them come out of the kiln successfully. I select out the best for exhibitions or private sale, and for these I have boxes made.

The boxes are made from paulownia wood, which is a fine straight grained softwood, resistant to rotting and doesn't burn easily. This makes it ideal for protecting tea ware. The boxes are made with slots in the base to thread cords through so that they can be tied closed.

In order for the contents of the box to be identified without opening the box, I sign the outside of the lid. The "Kanji" characters at the top right of the box say "Cha Wan", simply "Tea Bowl". At the bottom left is my signature, in English horizontally, and in kanji vertically. My kanji "釉 庵", read phonetically as "yu an", and mean "pottery glaze" and "Tea house" respectively. Were the bowl to be named or described, I would do so on the inside of the lid.

Japanese is, of course, my second language, so reading and writing do not come as naturally to me as English. Signing boxes can be somewhat of a challenge, as the characters are written in "Sumi" (charcoal) ink with a brush, and cannot be erased. You get one shot. I used to practice on paper for an hour before signing boxes, but I am much more comfortable with it now. It is important to have the ink at the right viscosity, as if it is too thin it will bleed into the wood grain, too thick and it won't flow, a piece of advice that Shimaoka sensei gave me. I grind the ink in a stone ink tray to get the consistency right before I start.

I had trouble finding a brush I liked, so I went to Yubendo in Nihombashi, a brush specialist, and spoke with the expert. After explaining what the brush was for, he asked what sort of brush I preferred to use. I said " I'd prefer to use a magic brush which makes everything I write beautiful, if you have one in stock?"
"Sorry," he said "We're fresh out of those today." After we stopped laughing he let me try several different brushes till I found one which suited me. The brush is called "大竜眉"(Dai Ryuu Bi), which means "Great Dragon Eyebrow". (It sounds better in Japanese, believe me!) It is a fairly narrow brush with a core of "Itachi" (weasel) surrounded by "Shima risu" (striped squirrel). It was rather like buying a wand at Ollivanders. As a result, however, my writing improved dramatically, almost as if by...Magic!

In the bottom left corner is my "Hanko", my stamp. This is once again my Japanese Kanji, and it was carved out of stone by a friend in Utsunomiya. The stamp ink, called "Shuuniku", is very thick, rather like printers ink, and needs the be worked with the ivory spatula before it is used.

The same hanko is used on the yellow turmeric dyed cloth that the bowl is wrapped in before it is packed in the box.

As with all of my work, my teabowls are made in collaboration with the forces of nature, and I discover them when I unpack the kiln. There are a few which really appeal to me, and it is these which I select out for exhibition and sale, these few which I take such care to box. This year I have selected out twelve bowls for my "Recent Works" Gallery blog, each with a full description, please take the time to view them. The tea bowl is part of the greater art work which is the Tea Ceremony. There are many elements which make up that work, including the tea drinker. The ceremony itself is ephemeral, and once finished lives only in our memories. The tea bowl, however, is a treasure which will last forever.