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 The art of appreciating ceramics

In pottery, as with life, sometimes the most basic questions are the most important: Why is this so? Or, how did this happen? Or, what does this part mean?

What makes a good pot is a question that many of you interested in Japan's ceramic scene may have asked before.

Photo MontageWhen I first see a piece of pottery, whether it be a chawan (tea bowl), tsubo (large jar) or just a hashioki (chopstick rest), I don't immediately start asking myself questions, like: What style is it? What period? Who made it?  Is it an original or a copy? Any repairs? These questions come later.

First one must see and listen, without words. In this way of looking at pottery a slow and subtle dialogue will naturally come about between the viewer and the viewed. If a pot doesn't "speak" to you, forget it.

I sometimes wonder how the great tea master Sen no Rikyu saw things, and if, after seeing, he asked any questions at all. Sometimes the silent mind is the deepest. If Rikyu were alive today I'd like to take him shopping at Tokyu Hands or some such place and see what he'd buy. I try to be able to see beauty in the ordinary;  I'm working on it.

Just as most relationships take time to develop and grow, so it is the same with "things" that offer something for the spirit. In the same way that you cannot get to know a stranger by listening to their life story in a five-minute conversation at a bar, "listening" to and getting to know a pot takes time and a quiet mind. It's the mystery and depth which is revealed over time that makes for truly special relationships, whether it be a person or a pot -- hopefully not a crackpot or a cracked pot, though!

Many people, with the chatter of the mind in full gear, buy pots with their ears. Only after having satisfactory answers to "brand" concerns do they feel that their tastes have been confirmed and they make a purchase. Kawaiso -- what a pity.

A few potters have said to me that they like gaijin visitors better than Japanese. The gaijin, often with limited Japanese language skills, looks at a pot and decides rather quickly: Yes, I like it, or, What an ungodly piece of gomi. On the  other hand, many Japanese, and the odd gaijin as well, will fiddle with questions that the potter politely answers, wishing all the while for a silent, seeing mind.

Okay. A pot appeals to me. Now I return to that initial question: What makes it good?

The most basic, and ultimately important question: Can I live with this pot? Many times a piece will jump out at me and then, like a fireworks display, dazzle and disappear. I know such a piece would not be a "lifelong companion," as Masako Shirasu once described a pot she lived with for decades.

Since pots are basically clay, fire and the potter's skill and spirit (which cannot be hidden) I look at the clay of stoneware  pieces. Of course for porcelain it's completely different. Yet on a  Bizen, Shigaraki, Iga or other high-fired, often unglazed piece, it's the quality of the firing and the tsuchi-aji (clay flavor) that matter most. Sometimes a Shiga-raki or Bizen piece is amai (underfired); on the other hand, it might be yaki-sugi (overfired). The clay might not have been processed correctly or might have a very boring aji. Looking at the clay will  often reveal the age of the pot as well.

Next comes the form. Even with centuries-old shapes, like a tsuru-kubi (crane's neck) vase, a freshness can be felt if the potter's spirit is in order and he or she has felt the vibrance in the prototypes. Indeed, it is rare to find such contemporary potters, but they do exist.

Many potters not content to copy the past want to create something fresh and compatible with modern life. This is a great challenge. We find much originality in form but very few pieces with grace and beauty -- they are destined to become "fireworks displays."

A basic question on beauty is: Will something stand the test of  time? I once asked a Bizen potter why he continued to make pots in the same forms as his ancestors did. He replied that the simple beauty of form need not be changed if it worked well. In that simplicity was his spirit and believe me, making something so deep appear so simple isn't an easy thing to do. It takes years of  learning, and then unlearning.

Many of the pieces I purchase are for use, so the balance and weight are also quite important. If it's meant for holding in the hand make sure that it's not bulky and that the places your lip will touch are free from excess buildup of ash. The same holds true for the base -- if too rough it may scratch a table.

Certainly a critical factor in choosing a pot is price, and we all know that good Japanese pots aren't cheap. Yet, if you look and train your eye you will find good pots to fit your budget.

Which leads to an important point in deciding what's a good pot: One has to look at many over the years. I have done this at every opportunity I could.

Many times this was done sitting quietly with a book. There are many good color photo books with little text that help develop an eye for style and form. A series done by Kogei Shuppan some years ago, part of their zukan series, is one example: It covers chawan, shuki (sake utensils), shokki (tablewares) and kaki (flower utensils).

So, listen with your heart and feel with your eyes and then you'll be on the path to building a fine Japanese pottery collection.

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