Wednesday, February 9, 2011


There is a chawan in the Cleveland Museum of Art, a study in the stark and simple, though inviting none the less. The chawan I am referring to is an early 17th century Shigaraki piece that was obviously made specifically for the purpose of tea. At first glance, it appears ordinary and unassuming, study it a bit more and its presence takes hold like a hypnotist conveying the sense of “Tea” and the medieval to the viewer. This is a unique work, made during the infancy of chanoyu in the early years when the rules of tea ceremony, etiquette and pottery were being codified. Despite when it was made, nearly 400 years ago, it stands the test of time and still fulfills its function as the center piece of the tea ritual.

It is a simple work and it is exceedingly difficult to make a simple pot a great pot. It is subtle, serene and contemplative in nature. The subtleties can maintain a dialogue as times change and it is viewed with new eyes. It is the essential wabi/sabi pot and is austere and noble. It appears as a near perfect construct of the various elements that make up a pot, in this case a chawan, with none out of balance or superfluous. In many ways, it is a perfect chawan

Over the many years of studying this chawan, I have often pondered its origin. The scenarios are many, but certain elements are fixed fast in my mind. There is this Shigaraki potter and part time farmer who I have always envisioned as the potter from Ugetsu. One day he is visited by a gentleman from the old capital, Kyoto. He asks this potter, have you heard of this new fashion, the tea ceremony? The mostly isolated valley potter has not and inquires after more information. The visitor explains the broad concept and steps and even about the hacked up piece of bamboo (chasen). He thanks the man for the info and goes back to wedging his clay.

Time passes and this potter takes every opportunity to study chawan when he brings his wares to Kyoto. He examines the clay, glazes, forms, feet and interiors. Very little of what he observes fits the tactile, rough and unglazed Shigaraki clay and pottery. More time passes and as he is making soba-choko, the form begins to materialize, along with the foot. After numerous attempts, the high walled, straight sided Shigaraki chawan emerges. It exudes strength and its feel is wonderful. In time, many of the Shigaraki potters are making various pots for chanoyu, though there can be only one CMA chawan and the anonymous potter who made it.

(I searched around for a photograph of this chawan, but unfortunately the only image is held by the CMA and copyrighted. This chawan can be seen in the STUDIO POTTER Vol. 19, No. 2 on page 28)

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