Tea Ceremony Special

Those lucky enough to have watched or taken part in a Japanese tea ceremony will know its peculiar intimacy. As the ceremony unfolds a strangely profound connection develops between host and guest through the calming ritual of each of its movements: the delicate swish of a matcha whisk; the graceful lowering of a wooden ladle.

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Making a chawan – the bowl used for the preparing and serving of tea in chadō, the ‘Way of Tea’ – is one of the greatest challenges a potter can face. To be suitable for the tea ceremony, potters must work their chawan forms to demanding specifications: the bowl should be light enough to handle with ease, yet heavy enough to have presence in the hand; too thin, and the tea will lose its heat too quickly; too thick, and the bowl will feel clumsy and unwieldy, the heat failing to penetrate to the hand as it is clasped.

Practitioners of chadō often have strict standards for the vessels they use, and will look carefully at three areas of a chawan with particular scrutiny: the rim, which must be smooth enough to be wiped clean in the ceremony and avoid snagging on a guest’s lip; the interior surface, which should be uniform so as not to damage the light blades of the whisk; and the foot, or kodai, which must accommodate the host’s fingertips as they hold the bowl between the thumb and fingers of one hand.

Perhaps most important of all, the potter must offer in a chawan something of themselves. The very best chawans are thought to have captured the essence of their maker, something deep and personal in their form and decorative gesture that could only be of that person, sometimes at the expense of practical consideration. Between these opposing limits – between artistic and functional balance, the requirements of the ceremony and the impetus to offer something unique – the individual spark of a potter is often kindled.

It is no surprise that with the international and intercultural movement of ceramics in the last century, where the cliché of ‘East meets West’ has evolved and branched out into more complex aesthetic senses, more potters have undertaken the task of making chawans and, more generally, tea bowls. In a world of increasing mechanization and digital industry, the intimate, tactile warmth of tea served this way seems ever-more vital.

Presented here are five potters from around the world, each making tea bowls according to individual styles and influences, mixing the hand-me-down techniques of national tradition with signatures of personality to create pots of intimate feeling and worth.

 

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