Saturday, February 13, 2010

Comments From a New Potter

   One of Korea's most respected Tea bowl master's,
Chan Han Bong, is seen here forming a Tea bowl.
He does not measure.  He simply knows the feel of the bowl.

   I recently received comments from a new potter and decided to address them as a post rather than in the comment section. 

Comment:  As a new potter I have a hard time with sizing the tea bowls I am trying to make. I am using a shrink ruler when I throw, but sometime it is still hard to see the finished bowl in it's fired size.

Response: I have come to believe that a chawan should fit your hands naturally. (Your hands - the potter’s hands.)  The old potters were not so concerned with exact sizes for tea bowls.  But contemporary artists and connoisseurs have analyzed the sizes nearly to death.  Chassabal range in size from 12 cm to about 17 cm in diameter.  The Kizaemon Ido is H. 9.1 cm by D. 15.5 cm.
   That isn’t to say that the old potters didn’t measure in some way, but obviously not because there was a ‘size’ for rice bowls/tea bowls.  I doubt that the old Koreans measured with a stick as much as we do today either.  The old potters didn’t worry about so many things.
   Forming from the mound, the Korean way (that is slightly different from the Japanese way), allows you to place your hands under and around the clay and gather just the right amount of clay each time.  Then the same movements are repeated and the bowls come out very close in size.  Potters who do this a lot can be spot on, even edge-to-edge and depth-to-depth, without measuring with a stick.  Yet, that may not be their goal.  (I couldn’t find any correct ways on the YouTube.)  But, filling ones hands with the right amount of clay is a type of measuring.  If the old potters measured with a stick, most likely they measured because one bowl was to fit inside another bowl in the kiln.  On the other hand all chawan artists know that most bowls, particularly of the "ido" type naturally fit within each other.  The early Korean potter had no shelves so they stacked their bowls within each other with wads of clay under the each foot. 
   At the same time, I personally have little against measuring with a stick as long as we are not a slave to the measurement.  Of much more importance is the feel and that should be our goal.
   Another way to look at measuring is to think about the Western and Korean need to measure.  Koreans have always been more relaxed.  Things don't fit as tightly in Korea as in the West.  For instance in the West a man's pants are measured to fit tightly and a good tailor is one who can do this very well.  In Korea, traditional man's pants are loose and baggy because a waist is something that is always changing.  Does a bowl not work as well if it is a little larger or smaller?  The feel should be our goal.  For Tea, a bowl is too large or too small not because of a measured size but because of feel.  It should fit the hand.  At a certain point the bowl becomes too small or too large for Tea depending on the feel.  
   Many contemporary Japanese tea bowl artists and their followers use a tombo or dragon fly potter’s tool.  Tombos give both width and depth measurements.  A tombo is not difficult to make and easy to find on the web. 
   It is easy to get carried away with too many potter’s tools so don’t get drawn in by all the possible tools one can find.  After a while the tools take over.  Tools are a little like too much candy.  We like the variety, but too much is not good for our health.  I say this, as one who designs potter’s tools.
   One more point, there are many schools of Tea and many types of Tea bowls.  When playing 'tag', you should not try to chase everyone at the same time or you will catch no one. 

Comment: I have been making a white slip, and after reading your post, I am going to dip some of my bowls in it. I am wondering if there is something I can add to my slip to make it glaze-like after firing?  I am using cone 10 clay body and slip and the firing is gas reduction.

Response:  As for altering your slip to be more like a glaze.  Even as a new potter, you already know what to do.   If I were a seon-saeng-nim (선생님) - teacher, I wouldn’t say anything more.  But being a Western potter, I suggest that you blend your slip with feldspar, ashes or even a glaze, possibly all or some of these together.  How much of each needs your intuition, not mine.  Whatever you decide, do what comes naturally to you.  Remember that most buncheong pieces were glazed with a clear glaze after the slip was applied.
   Dipping a trimmed bowl completely into slip may not be as easy as it looks.  Once you have tried it several times let me know how you are doing. 
   Incidentally, chassabals were/are fired at around cone 7 not cone 10.  Someday I may write about why but not now.  I don’t want this blog to become a blog for too many technical discussions.  As Hamada once said, “Technical things are important but we must go beyond them into nature.”  
I’m not suggesting that you alter your firing temperature, just letting you know. 
   It is difficult to be in touch with our natural selves.  One of the most difficult obstacles for a new potter to overcome is "being uncertain".  Conviction is close to the heart of doing any task well.  Try to find within you all the meanings for the words ‘intuitive’ and ‘natural’.  Relax.  Perhaps meditation before working and/or drinking some cups of whole-leaf green tea or a bowl of maccha will help. 
   Incidentally, just because something is done with “conviction” doesn’t make it good or even acceptable.
   In everything we do, there are several “ways of being”: emotional, physical, perceptual, intellectual and spiritual, to name the primary ones.  Each way should take its natural place in making a dawan-chawan-chassabal or tea bowl. 
   Most people are employed by these ways of being; we must employ them.  Of these ways, the intellectual is of least value for chawan.
   But, here I am, writing words and engaging in intellectual pursuit - much easier than the doing.  Much better is the doing.
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  1. Thanks so much for your help! I will keep you posted on my efforts.


  2. After reading my first attempt at this post again, I decided to try to clarify some points.

  3. the making of tea bowls, for me is a meditative process. It is a sclose to ritual as I get! There is just something about throwing bowls off the hump, they just feel right, and I always end the session feeling more peaceful and centered than when I began.I don't throw often, mostly I hand build. But I love throwing teabowls.

  4. I think you are right on the size of the teabowls should fit a person hands of today. In the past a person hands were smaller hence the teabowl size like the Kizaemon Ido was to their human scale. If we use the size of a past teabowl measurement to make teabowl today , the teabowl would be out of place. yes your message is not to be a slave to fix measurement, but use it when it is needed.

    THANKS for your insight.

    Gordon C Wong

  5. Thanks for your comment Gordon. I have made bowls the size of the Kizaemon and that size is large enough for me.
    Lately I have been working on some larger chatchan some almost border on small chawan. I'm making them because sometimes I just want to sit, relax and drink some tea and think some others will agree with me. The small cups are great but for me seem more appropriate for sharing tea in a little more formal context or if that ritual is important for you personally to enjoy your tea. These larger cups are more for personal contemplation. Some connoisseurs will look at them and say they are too small for mattcha - perhaps they are. They are not made for mattcha. Then they will go on to say the new larger chatchan are too large for nokcha and other infused teas. But I don't think so. For me size is important for formal situations but sitting by yourself or with a couple of friends drinking some tea isn't the place for too much formality. Make tea and drink it.

  6. Dear Cho Hak;
    Regarding the Matsudaira bowl and bunchong in general, I think you translated 'bunchong' as meaning 'powder'.My wife Soyoo translated it for me this way; bun refers to powder as in a woman's face powder and 'chung' is blue.After looking at hundreds of bunchong pots in museums I believe that the blue refers to the glaze used over the white slip.The glaze is clear where thin but actually has a blue green tint, almosr like celadon, where it's thick.
    Regarding how to make good teabowls,I think you need the state of mind'mu-shin' ,no-mind wherein the pots 'make themselves'.I find that my favorite bowls are usually the ones that I don't remember making.Hope I don't sound too snooty or arrogant.
    Hope to see you in Korea sometime.
    Regards, Greg C

  7. Hi Greg,
    Thanks for you comment and no it is not snooty nor arrogant. My post above was directed to a beginning teabowl artist so it leaned a little to the 'mind' side of forming a teabowl. I tried to find your email address so that I could ask you a question. I would like to use your comment as the basis for a longer post. I know I could do that without asking but I wanted to ask first. Then I will reply to the many issues you raise in this great comment. just go to my profile and email me. Thanks.

  8. Hi again Greg,
    I thought is would reply here to part of your comment and then perhaps address that other part in a post. My ‘shortcut’ explanations are catching up with me and I should try to be more precise. Your wife is correct in what she is saying. However, a little more should be said. Buncheong precisely translated means two different things that use the same Chinese character. One is white slip decoration or white powder decoration used on ceramics and the other an actress’s makeup as opposed to hwacheong or ladies makeup. “Bun” refers to white powder and “cheong” in this case refers to ‘decoration’ or ‘makeup’. Buncheong is a shortened version for a longer term buncheong hurchung saggi (perhaps more phonetically “bunjang hurhchung saggee” or something like that in our rough Anglicized version. The Korean language is much more precise phonetically. “Saggi” means ceramics as in ‘saggijang’. Note there are two similar looking and similar sounding yet different words used. They are ‘cheong’ and ‘chung’. I’m sorry I don’t have Chinese characters on my keyboard so we have to go with this very poor explanation of the differences. As noted they sound very similar and Anglicized often look the same. ‘Cheong’ means decoration or makeup and ‘chung’ is blue. Hurchung is the ‘grey blue’ caused by reduction in the kiln. That might be confused with blue but not blue glaze. You are correct. In my imprecise haste I dropped the explanation on the word ‘cheong’ meaning decoration in the term buncheong. I’ll try to be a little more precise.

  9. Incidentally, when we dialogue like this we are just sharing opinions. There is not, nor should their be even the thought of ‘arrogance’. I don’t think of my answers as being ‘right’ just that they express what I am thinking at the time. I don’t think of this blog as providing answers because I am still trying to determine what the questions should be.
    So unless you feel arrogant you are not arrogant and I certainly don’t see or feel your comments are arrogant in any way and hope you feel the same about mine.

  10. An important thing a beginner should remember is that they are not a master. (like a duck moving smoothly across the pond, you do not see how furiously the ducks legs are working.) To develop skill, working from a model, even if you make it yourself, and using a measuring gauge, is a way to develop skill. Otherwise, you let every mistake dictate the progress of the bowl. Because you don't have a master to look at your bowls, the gauge will help you. Don't let the bowls be too precious: make 100 and recycle all but the best 10. Or only the best one. If you keep at it, you can someday work like the masters.