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.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Euan! Nice post. I taught my first class this fall: Anatomy of Japanese Pottery. For the last class I showed a slide show using the Yoshidaya Kutani show in Kasama to illustrate the importance of foreign influences in the best Japanese work, and then slides from an Idemitsu show about Shino and Oribe work, to show the important influences of Raku and Sen No Rikyu on the kinds of pottery we most love in the West. To finish up before the pot luck, I showed them how to do informal matcha, like I learned at the monastary and from studying woodblock printing with Tetsuo Itoi. I stressed the health benefits (of which there is a growing awareness here) and also the importance of whisking tea in a tea bowl, to know how well it works. Was a nice preamble to the pot luck.