Kintsugi teaches the Japanese beauty of imperfectionsWhile giving instructions for beginning pottery students last month I happened to mention how handmade items are not expected to be perfect: that if we want something that looks like a set of dishes, we should go buy a set of dishes. The beauty of hand-built vessels is just that: they are handmade and as such should look handmade.
By: Sharon Cox, The Jamestown Sun
While giving instructions for beginning pottery students last month I happened to mention how handmade items are not expected to be perfect: that if we want something that looks like a set of dishes, we should go buy a set of dishes. The beauty of hand-built vessels is just that: they are handmade and as such should look handmade.
A few weeks later one of the students mentioned how much he appreciated the reference to bonsai and the respect the Japanese culture has for its imperfection. Bonsai celebrates the distorted and beautifully balanced centuries-old plant specimens that are passed along to the next generation to care for and learn from.
Another example I gave was that of the preferred irregularly shaped tea bowls, called “chawan” in Japanese tea ceremonies, and how a broken tea bowl, once used by Hideoshi Toyotoma’s tea master Sen no Rikyu, was repaired and treasured more in its repaired state than in its original pristine condition. The technique used is called kintsugi, which means golden joinery used to fill broken vessels by joining its pieces together with a strong lacquer and gold.
The story goes that a tea follower in Rikyu’s time tried to impress his teacher by bringing a small clay jar used for performing “thick tea” ceremony to a tea meeting, and waited for praise at his choice of tea caddy. But praise did not come. The guest of honor, his teacher, was not impressed, so the tea disciple broke the jar, only to have another guest gather the shards and using kintsugi, repaired the broken vessel.
The disciple attended another tea ceremony where his former teacher again was guest of honor. His teacher commented on how lovely the container looked now that it had been broken and repaired. The tea master (the guest who repaired the broken chaire) used the now gold-seamed container during the ceremony. The teacher’s comment is now the lesson: “When perfect, it had no character. Now it is lined with gold and is full of character from its maker and its repairer ... showing love from more than one artisan ...”
The lesson is one carried through life in Japan: Beauty without character has little value. A perfectly spherical pearl is less beautiful than one distorted in its struggle to survive. The same is true for the art of bonsai: A perfectly symmetrical pine or cedar tree, straight from the nursery, will begin life in a bonsai dish bent, shaped and contorted to look as if it has resisted winds and tortuous weather ... even though in reality, it has not. But given 100 to 200 years of training, it will become a masterwork of elegance and its value will be in the millions as opposed to hundreds of dollars.
It will be treasured as a work of art and like the gold lines traced on a repaired vessel, it will have grown in value because it survived and is now more beautiful than in its original state.
The same attitude holds true for people. Beauty is recognized, true. But reverence and respect are earned over time and considered far more beautiful than the “plastic” beauty we Westerners associate with youth and newness. The Freer Gallery at the Smithsonian showed a small collection of Kintsugi repaired Asian vessels recently. They are featured, though rare, in Tokyo and Kyoto’s museums and galleries. The lessons they teach are well known in Eastern culture.
If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.