“To me the greatest thing is to live beauty in our daily life and crowd every moment with things of beauty.” (Soetsu Yanagi, quoted in Bernard Leachâ€™s A Potterâ€™s Book, p. 7)
I make porcelain, wood-fired teapots with wisteria handles. It is an exercise in which design, craftsmanship and aesthetic considerations are inextricably intertwined.
The teapot form has particularly difficult aesthetic issues because of the demands of functionality. The pure outline of the pot is necessarily interrupted by elements that allow function – spout, lid, lugs and handle. The design and construction of each element should incorporate the aesthetic and functional judgments necessary to achieve harmony and balance.
A further issue is surface finish and clay. I chose to leave the surface of the pots unglazed (the insides are glazed) and fire them in a wood burning kiln for three to seven days, because of the appeal of the wood-fired surface and because the ash from the burning wood settles on the relatively flat tops of the pots and melts, forming a natural glaze. (I designed and am in the process of building a wood-fired kiln in upstate New York. I will keep you advised on the progress.) I chose the clay I use, porcelain formulated with a specific kaolin, because the clay responds beautifully to the melting ash and atmosphere of an extended firing in a wood-burning kiln.
The aesthetic judgments I make in forming my teapots are strongly influenced and informed by Japanese attitudes towards life, beauty, art, and ceramics. “The Japanese through the tea ceremony and an all-pervading domestic aestheticism, did not see art [and function] in the Westâ€™s dualistic terms. To them, art and life were one …” (Garth Clark [an important American ceramics dealer and writer], American Potters, pp. 24-5). Soetsu Yanagi (an aesthetician and compatriot of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada) explained that the tea ceremony does not ” … consist simply of drinking tea but seeks to plumb to the depths the meaning of beauty,” and its aim ” … is not merely appreciation but rather the experiencing of beauty in the midst of daily life, not merely seeing but also acting.” (The Unknown Craftsman, p. 147). The tea ceremony aroused a keen interest in the utensils involved, taught people to look at and handle the objects carefully, and inspired a deep interest and respect for the objects. It also formulated a standard of beauty, “shibui“, encompassing quietness, depth, simplicity and purity, an aesthetic that resonates with me.
Clark observed, “…Eating and drinking provide a potential source of ritual in our daily lives. It is in this area of psychological need that we look to the potter for utensils to enliven our daily lives through art.” (Clark, p. 26), and ” … it is sensuality, the pleasure one receives in use, which separates good [pots] from great… The investment of human spirit and aesthetics by the potter is what raises the bar the last few inches.” (The Studio Potter, June 2006, p.6).
I believe the most complete way to experience one of my teapots is to use it on a daily basis. Look at it from all angles in natural and artificial light, touch the different surfaces, pick it up feeling the weight and balance, turn it over and look at the foot (being mindful of the lid), add tea (loose tea works well because there is a hand-built strainer in each pot), move the handle to one side and add hot water, let it steep, pour into your favorite cups, listening to the sound, watch the stream of tea as it fills up the cups and cuts off at the lip, and drink and savor the tea. I find that this ritual encourages good conversation, focuses and sharpens the senses, and enhances the taste of a good cup of tea.