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.
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.
the apricot Shino glaze of a Matsuzaki chawan
Apprenticed to Shimaoka, himself the apprentice of the revered Hamada Shoji, Matsuzaki could well have made a living off the Mashiko name, aping those who came before him for easy money. Instead, he took the harder (and infinitely more rewarding) route of determining a deeply personal ceramic style quite removed from that of the Mashiko tradition.
Characterised by thick, showy Shino glazes which gather in white globules, emerald Oribe and golden Yohen surfaces, Matsuzaki’s chawans are often quieter than his larger work but sit with an emanating presence that draws the hand and eye in.
elegant porcelain tea bowl by Takeshi Yasuda
More Japanese pottery, but from a completely different background: having visited Mashiko as a student, Yasuda soon moved to England where he put to work a Japanese sense of form in thoroughly British materials such as creamware.
porcelain tea bowl with inlaid platinum (left) – porcelain tea bowl (right)
Now situated in Jingdezhen, the Chinese porcelain capital of the world, Yasuda makes highly elegant pieces in an effervescent blue celadon glaze. His tea bowls – not labeled so, as Yasuda believes any function can be applied to a finished form – demonstrate in carefully designed and executed chawan-like forms the potter’s love of porcelain’s fluid looseness and its refusal to be tamed by conventional throwing techniques.
3. Kang-hyo Lee
Lee’s Punch’ong pots reveal his roots in traditional Korean ceramics, but the dynamism of his decoration, balanced by a calm in colour and form, result in beautifully personal pots that could only be attributed to his hand.
Many of his tea bowls are decorated with hakeme brushstrokes – gye yal in Korean – white slip being scratched and swept across the surface with dry straw brushes to reveal dark grey clay beneath. The technique stretches beyond the 1500s, yet it feels energetically modern in Lee’s bowls.
reflections of landscape in a Phil Rogers chawan
4. Phil Rogers
Many have labeled Rogers and similar British potters like Mike Dodd or Jim Malone as ‘Anglo-Oriental’, but as he himself has noted the term has become a lazy catch-all that fails to acknowledge these potters’ broader influences and their unique aesthetic styles that do far more than simply put Japanese and British forms together.
Look at one of his chawans and one can see the mélange of influences in his work: foot, form and weight immediately feel Japanese in style, but decoration on the woody, olive-green glaze of pine ash brings something more British into play, perhaps even specifically Cambrian; seeing Rogers’ work in the context of Welsh valley landscapes, the spirit of that countryside is certainly reflected in much of his pottery.
Apprenticed to Phil Rogers, Hjortshøj is another potter to have successfully established a characteristic ceramic style of her own, one which carries on the mantle of past Scandinavian potters, such as Gutte Eriksen, as well as much Korean pottery.
Korean form meets European firing – Anne Mette’s tea bowls with their interiors
In their deeper V shape, Hjortshøj’s teabowls owe something to Korean teaware, and to the small-footed Tenmoku-jawan styled tea bowls of Japan which were often reserved for noble shogun guests. Her use of glazes, however, sees ‘Oriental’ styles sit side-by-side with European: black and brown tenmoku or cream-coloured hakeme on one; white and blue salt glaze on another.