Poetry in objects pulled into our reality Mar 11, 2024   Ceramics, Japan, Tea

It is an interesting thought that a few hundred years ago, the son of a merchant walked into the workshop of a roof tile maker and asked him to make him a tea bowl.
The son of the merchant was Sen no Rikyū, of course, and the roof tile maker was Chōjirō.

At first the idea seems strange. Why would a roof tile maker be a person to create ceremonial tea bowls?

Bowls are some of the oldest human inventions, of course. And by the time of Chōjirō they were quite refined objects. The ones from China were so advanced that even now some of the oldest ones appear to come from a parallel universe or some magical alien world. The Korean bowls have a quality that brings them closer to Earth. Their proportions and materials have a beauty that somehow taps into the proportions and the warmth of mother nature.
But roof tiles?

When I close my eyes and imagine looking at the roof of an imperial palace in Kyoto, the picture in my mind is of architecture that in so many ways loves to play with light, but even more so with shadows. The roof is such an important element of the building. And it is a part that has to both experience the merciless heat of the sun and the rain and snow again and again and again. And again.

The tiles are humble objects, repeated, repeated, repeated, perfectly. Glazed perfectly. Produced perfectly. They need to fit and interlock perfectly. A model for industrial prefabrication, done by hand.

It takes just the right amount of fire, flames shaped by just the right kiln, over a specific amount of time, often a long time, to create these humble, incredibly important objects. Humble but vital.

And so, taking the material quality of a roof tile and turning it into something that holds on to a liquid rather than repelling it, to make it as raw inside, so it is quiet when the rain hits, making it in a way that insulates from the heat; All of these aspects taken together are just ingenious innovation and transfer of design.
From the imperial roof into the hands of a tea master and his guest.

The more I think about it, the more ingenious this all becomes. And Chōjirō was a brilliant craftsman too. He was perfectly aware of the scale of his project. When making tiles for a roof, it takes thousands of perfectly matched objects that are only seen up close by a select few. Most of the time tiles are seen from afar, from an awkward angle, en masse.

The bowls are different in almost every way. Not only are they seen up close. They are designed to be held. They need to perfectly speak to one’s hands. They need to be a certain way when lifted, a certain elegant weight. They need to have a certain set of characteristics when held, smelled and touched with lips.
Lips on a roof tile? Yes, the wind and rain and sun get to kiss them.

The complexity of a tea bowl is hard to understand. It is a humble object, but it is also a gateway to a universe of ideas and experiences. Designed to be used in a context that happens between people; designed to ignite conversation.

Me drinking tea out of a Raku bowl probably lacks the level of respect which the object was designed for. But I still fall through the loop of thoughts every time.

I have been lucky to be allowed a tiny bit closer to the creation process of tea bowls. And with every one I make I am also reminded of something passed on to us, even generations later, and also in places of which Chōjirō probably did not know much about.

The way of the clay has emerged for me more and more now. The ground appears clearer now. No pun intended. I am being pulled into some kind of wisdom that is much older than even the names of the countries from which the most famous ceramics have emerged. And I am seduced to a certain level of playfulness.

I am a person of the 20th and 21st centuries. And so many of the methods and ways I can use are in some ways shortcuts. In some other ways they are perhaps stupid distractions. But I do have the highest of respect for what Sen no Rikyu and Chōjirō have dared to do. In an environment of power and wealth, they somehow managed to understand that the biggest treasure for us is the intimate relationship, the closeness to others. They understood that the highest value is in objects which are useful and well designed and connected to the best qualities of nature.

The profound wisdom that radiates to us from objects these men have created and from objects inspired by them in centuries since is astonishing.
Creating something that without speaking, speaks, calmly and deeply. And in a language that is beyond language. Objects that predicted the age of machines and yet already managed to stand firmly as a counterweight to them.

I do not know how many times I have watched the sequence of how a raku bowl emerges out of the fire and then glows and breathes beneath it. How many times I have watched it then go into water, emerge from the water. The sound of its interaction with the surrounding air. It’s a similar sound to that made by lava, as it erupts onto the surface to create land.

Landscapes and worlds in deceptively small objects?
Humble and mighty at the same time?

It’s an interesting thought that all of this emerged, probably from observation, thought and conversation. And it is astounding how much of it has been literally been passed on from hands to hands to hands. From mind to mind to mind.

So much so, that the thought glows of something divine creating poetry to entertain herself in this slice of time we perceive as our reality.

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