Wednesday 29 September 2010

Making Tea Bowls

Yesterdays rain is gone, and a cool breeze brushes my face as I rake the chestnuts and their prickly pods from the front lawn. I have seen the older children off to school, but Sean insists on helping with his own small rake before he leaves. When we are done, and I have swept the drive, we stand back and survey our handiwork. Satisfied, we shake hands, his tiny five year old hand enveloped in my gentle grip, and he merrily goes off to pre-school with Mika. As I put the tools away I notice a blush of red among the foliage of the woods.

It is not the autumn leaves that one might expect, but the berries of the Sansho, the native Japanese pepper. I collect them in a bowl and wash them before putting them out in a woven bamboo tray to dry. As they dry they will split, revealing the black seed inside. We will remove the husks, separating them from the seeds and stems, and it is these red husks that we will grind into the fragrant sansho pepper. The seasons march on.

The light is soft through the studio doors as I spiral wedge the ten kilograms of clay, one hundred times anticlockwise, reverse the piece of clay, one hundred times more, then finish in a cone. I place the clay on the wheel head and top up the water in my throwing bowl. The throwing bench is clean, and I place my favourite ware board beside the wheel. (Yes, I have a favourite ware board, but that's another story.) Beside the water bowl I place my one ended throwing string and my sponge, as these are the only tools I will use today. I am ready to begin.

I throw a little slower than I would perhaps for other forms, letting the clay find it's centre beneath my fingers, letting the marks of the process remain on the clay. I do not measure, at least not with a ruler. I feel the amount of clay that I can hold comfortably in my hand, I lift it and belly it into a form which will be good for whisking the tea. The curve of the bowl must fit the hand, the lip must be comfortable to drink from, the inside must have somewhere for the tea to settle. There are names for all the parts of a tea bowl, just as there are names for all the parts of a tree. A tree however is not constructed from parts, it grows as a whole, and it cares not for the words we use to describe it. To make a tea bowl according to a formula of parts is to make a bowl which is about "tea bowls", not to make a bowl for tea. And so each bowl I make is different, an exploration of form, surface and space. The kiln will finish them for me, but for now I seek only to embrace this moment and release it into the clay, giving form to the forces of nature.

The making of tea bowls is not a simple thing of measurements and rules. There are a plethora of books about tea bowls, with photographs and measurements of classic examples, and these are useful as a guide. But they are useful in the same way as a wine guide. It gives an intellectual framework perhaps, but understanding only comes through the drinking of the wine. How much greater must the understanding, the knowledge and the skill base then be in order to make a fine wine? It was for this reason that I became a student of the tea ceremony some years ago, as I had been asked by many Japanese friends to make tea bowls yet lacked an understanding of their use and the philosophy of tea.

By studying the art of tea I began to understand that the tea bowl is part of a greater art work, an installation if you like, in which both the server and the drinker of the tea actively participate. The bowl is the focal point, the conduit through which all of these aspects interact, but it is dependent on the rest of the whole. The tea ceremony is a celebration of experiencing the simple sensual beauty of the moment. Thus the season, the weather, the ambiance all become vital players. I received these licences to practice the tea ceremony from the Urasenke school of tea on October 10th, 1998. I will be learning for the rest of my life.

The making of tea bowls is, for me, a quiet and gentle thing. Just as a tree cannot be forced to grow, just as a child must be nurtured, the clay must be allowed to take form. It is my task to stay still and wait for the bowl to find a shape that fits my hand, and to know when to release it. It is about being aware of the changes happening before your eyes and recognising the moment, and it is like holding a child's hand firm enough to guide it, but never too tight.


  1. Beautiful post and photos of the pods and fruit of the trees; I never knew there was a pepper tree native to Japan. I like making pinched tea bowls letting the clay seek its form.

  2. thank you Euan - a gentle reminder that making pottery is an ancient tradition and the art of the tea ceremony just one way practicing clay reminds us to breathe deep and think of the single thing we are doing in the moment.

  3. Catherine Midgette30 September 2010 at 01:28

    ~ you write almost as beautifully as you throw! I always enjoying whatever words you manage to let flow effortlessly onto paper......
    I'm sure the tea bowls will be wonderful!
    Miss you, Catherine

  4. Thank you for the explanation in such musical writing. I can feel the clay between my fingers as I read your words. I would love to see them when they are finished.

  5. Quietly inspirational

  6. Thank you all.
    It is important, I think, to understand the why as much as the how. One of the things which I carry with me from my study with Shimaoka is that the more beautiful the process is the more beautiful the result.
    The Sansho pepper is similar to szechuan pepper which is used in chinese five spice. The pods are all bursting and the shiny black seeds are peering out like obsidian beads. The tea bowls will be ready to trim tomorrow. I will do a follow up entry soon!

  7. Dear Euan

    If you could name one book which has inspired you the most both in your approach to pottery and to the way you live your life what would it be?

  8. This is wonderful post. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and those beautiful images. Thank you. Also reminded me when I used to do ‘tea ceremony club’ at jr. high in Japan... good old memories xm