Monday, February 24, 2014

Evening Mist: Mottled Grey Buncheong Fa T 822

These words, from my old Sensei Hamada Shoji, keep haunting me when I think about this bowl.  It is a bowl that has some room for improvement like all of my bowls but those improvement areas all belong to me.  The clay, wheel, glaze, kiln, firing atmosphere all contributed to this bowl’s better qualities more than I. 
When I began this blog, my intent was to not review my own work.  I didn’t want this blog to be self-promoting, if you liked my thoughts, or self-damning if you thought otherwise.  That is one of the reasons I try to remain somewhat anonymous by using my artist’s name as a pseudonym.

Soetsu Yanagi once wrote:

“The most detailed human knowledge 
is puerile before the wisdom of nature.”   

I would like to be able to take credit for everything good that takes place with my chawan but the best qualities of all of the better bowls I call ‘mine’ come from nature.  That is certainly the case with this bowl.

 For some time I have been drawn to this bowl.  Maybe you other potters out there get many bowls that do what this one is doing, but me not so much.  So in my personal limited ceramic world this bowl is pretty rare.  Not that I don't get this type of spots in other ways.  

For me this particular mottling type is so unusual that I have been struggling between writing about it or not.  The things that make this chawan a little different are also subtle so you may not even care.  It is not like this is the most beautiful chawan or even the one I consider my best.  But it has gained my attention so here I am.  That said, writing about one's own work seems on the one hand pretentious and on the other hand frightening.  It is a lot like giving a speech about yourself.  Who wants to listen to it?  And if they do, what will they think about you?  So why am I doing it?  First, the credit for this bowl goes not to me but to nature.  Second, this blog title reads An Adventure Toward Insight and Clarity and this bowl has been calling to me lately to try to gain a little insight and to clarify my feelings about it.  If we don't take chances where is the adventure?

On my personal website I wrote the following about this bowl. 
   Thrown on a moderated wheel, it is stable and strong.  According to ancient Korean aesthetics, it is one of the perfect colors for tea.  The bowl follows a combination of Korean and Japanese teabowl aesthetic principals.  It both fits the hand and pleases the eye.
 The color comes from the use of one of Korea’s buncheong decorating processes.   A classic semi transparent and “dry” feldspathic glaze was used.  The kiln reduction was also modified producing unusual mottling on the clay body.
I also wrote, “. . . it reminds me of a summer fog on a misty day.”  It is one of my favorite bowls, it does remind me of a summer fog on a misty summer evening in spite of the perhaps overly gushy romantic notion that idea conveys and it is one of the perfect colors for tea.  Besides, there seems to be a chawan tradition of ‘romancing’ the bowl by naming it.  So in that tradition, just now for this post, I decided to call it ‘Evening Mist’, although the name, if any, belongs to the owner so this name might remain about as long as mist itself.  (The naming of the bowl by me may also seem pretentious but I needed a title for the post not a number.)
For those unfamiliar with my chawan, I approach them from several directions.  Some are influenced by fire, others by earth and others by air or water.  This bowl is from the water series.

The beginning of a quality chawan or really any chawan does not begin on the wheel on which it was formed but rather with the clay body.  In some ways this is an 'accidental' clay body.  I use this clay more to make some vases and larger bowls than chawan.  But I often ‘warm-up’ in the beginning of the day by throwing a few cups or a chawan or two with any clay just to get into the rhythm of the clay.  This is one of those bowls.

We sometimes take our clay bodies for granted.  I have.  But the clay speaks to the bowl’s final result as much as the potter.  It is a very important ‘outer power.’   As you can see, this particular clay body has a considerable amount of ‘grog‘ or pre-fired clay particles.  The stuff Hamada Shoji told us was ‘dead clay‘ and ‘it absorbs water’.  He was right but I still use it for some things as  mentioned.  It is one of six or eight clay bodies I use.
This bowl was inspired by a very memorable chawan ‘moment’.  Mary and I went to visit our friend Chung Yang Mo, Director Emeritus of the National Museums of Korea,  who is considered to be the premier authority on Korean ceramics, especially chawan.  He is often quoted by The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and others when there is a ceramic exhibit featuring Korean ceramics.  On this particular day, we arrived at his office, chatted for a moment and then he brought out an old late 14th century. Joseon Dynasty tum-bung-mun or dipped slip buncheong chawan.  I was stunned, and wish I had an image of it to show you.  The bowl had been brought to Professor Chung by the potential buyer with two questions, “Was it real?” and “Was it worth 250,000,000 KRW?”  That’s the equivalent of  $225,000 USD or 165,028.60 EUR.  It was real and it was a stunning bowl.  Subtle yes but stunning non the less.  I couldn’t get over that bowl and still hold the memory of it in my mind.  Prof Chung told me that a well known Japanese chawan artist was moved to tears when he saw that bowl.  Among that bowl’s characteristics was a multi-layered slip that I approached on this bowl.  I never want to copy bowls but am inspired by them.  More than that, the Joseon Dynasty bowl had a maturity only available to a potter after years of knowledgeable work.  I’m not referring to the age of the bowl in terms of it’s ‘maturity’ but to the form, decorating and firing processes that created it.  One could see / feel in that bowl a partnership and unassuming trust between the inner and outer powers that created that bowl.  Nothing was pretentious - it just happened.  But it was no accident.  It happened because of that natural unassuming trust and partnership. It was not 'intellectual knowledge' but rather the result of a natural amalgamation between and among that Joseon potter's physical, emotional, perceptual, intellectual and spiritual 'natural knowledge' or simply 'ways of being' that developed naturally through years of work.  He didn't think about it.  He just did it.    
In many ways that is both the purpose of this blog and the blogs failure.  Instead of writing, I should simply be doing.  But I have a problem. How does one who was raised in a society that seems to value only intellectual “knowledge” become 'one' with all those other 'ways of being' in an unassuming natural way and - just do it?  For me, this blog acts as a kind of catharsis that relieves not just my emotional tensions but my physical, perceptual, intellectual and spiritual tensions as well.

Hamada once said,

"Technical things are important
but you must go beyond them 
into nature."

Again, how does one who was raised in a world that sadly places an overemphasis on intellectual “knowledge” become 'one' with all our other ways of being in an unassuming way and  - just do it? 
When it comes to a chawan, from a Korean perspective at least, it must be natural and not contrived.  A chawan is a 'servant'.  As a servant, it should not be overly pretentious yet should have presence in the hands and to the eye of the user.  It should have personality but not be too proud or boisterous.  It should evoke a quiet sensitive state of mind. It is this delicate balance that is at the heart of my personal challenge with chawan. It is easy to create flamboyant, whimsical or outlandish work we call chawan.  Far more difficult is the task of creating chawan that truly serve.  

Beyond the inspiration from another work, something nearly all chawan artists do, one must also go into ourselves and embrace the limitations we are faced with.  How do you help ‘bad clay’ or even 'dead clay' take on life?  How do you move toward developing a ‘presence’ in the piece?  How can you get anything of real substance from a gas kiln when your soul yearns for wood and the nuances that alone can bring?  That is the challenge of any artist’s work to bring from the materials and conditions as much as they are able to give.  If that happens then the chawan or any work has a chance to ‘live’.  

Objectively, this chawan is large: 16cm wide 8.5 cm tall and 7cm deep inside.  

I am quite happy with the depth and interior form of this bowl.  It draws me into that deep well (too bad this isn‘t in 3D).  I also personally like a large chawan but not much larger than this one.  Chawan normally range from 12cm to 17cm wide with something like 14.5-15.5cm being the norm if there is a norm.  This bowl would be classified as an Ido style.  It was thrown on an electric wheel with moderated speed a little more carefully than necessary.*

It is trimmed with a homemade thin strap steel gub suay kal (left bent knife) that was actually made in Korea.  The kal was a little dull and chattered slightly during trimming.  Not on purpose but not avoided either.  Since I like it, perhaps it was on purpose.
Again, I like the form of the bowl and the depth of the interior but after living with the bowl for a while, for me the foot is a little too small and doesn’t have the depth of character I would like.  I must add that I thought it was fine when I made it.  It still sits quite well.
It is a ‘tight bowl‘, thanks to the electric wheel and my early ‘tight’ training with the Japanese porcelain master Inoue Manji* and my exposure to some contemporary Korean masters who work a little more controlled.  I still struggle to relax.  Only the surface and chattering of the gubsuay kal relax it a bit.  These remarks are not to diminish the absolutely brilliant and beautiful work by Inoue Manji or the Korean masters whom I greatly admire.  But I now work in a different direction influenced more by old Korea than Japan. Still I thank Sensei Inoue for the discipline he gave me and for a greater appreciation for ‘tighter‘ work by others.
That is probably why I can’t deny that I like the tighter bowl form of this chawan quite a bit, even as I now personally work to be more relaxed - but not 'faked', a topic for another post. 

In finishing the piece, it was dipped into a thin clay slip.  The Korean term for dipped slip is ‘tum-bung-mun buncheong’.  Most tum-bung-mun white slips are both white and really opaque.  This slip was neither.  Applied quite thin, and sometimes in layers that ran naturally uncontrolled nor forced, the slip becomes one with the clay body. The feldspathic glaze is also very thin.  I didn’t want a glassy shine on this bowl.

In preparing the slip, that came from another of my clay bodies that happens to shrink the same, I ignored putting it through a sieve while mentally “channeling” the Joseon potter, of that earlier teabowl I mentioned, so there are a few tiny clay particles from the undissolved slip remaining that add a little to the character of the bowl.                  
It is the kiln that is responsible for this unusual surface that was a ‘gift‘ from nature.  Sure the firing, being gas, was somewhat ‘controlled‘ and you try to accomplish certain results but until you open the kiln and the glaze cools you can’t be positive of anything, at least not in this kiln.

The surface of this chawan reflects a captured moment between oxidation and reduction much like the ip-hak chawan in my last post. This one is however quite unusual.  Unusual because this effect on other bowls most often occurs because of tiny stone particles in the clay body around which re-oxidation after reduction occurs.  In this case it happened through the thin slip and also on un-slipped clay under the thin feldspathic glaze.  The re-oxidation mottling developed because of the grog in the clay body more than because of tiny stones. the grog particles re-oxidized differently than the clay surrounding them.
Once more, I give the credit for this bowl to the outer powers more than to myself.  Can I say this bowl has presence and is not overly pretentious?  Does it have personality and is not too proud or boisterous?  Does it evoke a quiet sensitive state of mind?  I think so.  We are left with a simple, honest ‘water’ chawan with an unusual surface - like summer fog on a misty day - that for some time has been waiting to serve.  

It was recently purchased. 

Post Script:  In the last two posts I have shown two types of buncheong.  The ip-hak chawan in my previous post uses the sanggam buncheong carved inlay process while this bowl (I’m temporarily calling ‘Evening Mist‘) employs the tum-bung-mun buncheong process.  The sanggam inlay process has its roots in the Goryeo Dynasty celadon decorating processes of the 12th century.  Early buncheong decorating processes of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 -1910) were very similar to later Goryeo Dynasty (918-1392) celadon decorating processes.  The buncheong glaze moved from the difficult to achieve celadon to a variety of basically transparent slightly lower temperature and easier to achieve buncheong‘ glazes.   Buncheong decorating went through a transition from pictorial decorative inlayed slip in the earlier years to very simple dipped or brushed slip processes. It is often said that buncheong processes were at their peak in 1492.  
Although both the ‘Ip-hak’ and the ‘Mist’ chawan exhibit the re-oxidation-reduction effects.  Many buncheong works do not and these effects should not be connected to ‘buncheong’ in general
A debate exists regarding the decline or sudden end of buncheong in Korea around 1592 after which porcelain became more popular in Korea.  Some scholars, particularly Japanese leaning ones suggest that buncheong would have ended around 1592 in Korea in any case.  There is a case for that conclusion. Others, particularly Korean leaning point out that the Japanese invasion was largely responsible for the decline and end of the use of these processes. There is a case for that conclusion. 1592 was the time of the Imjin War (Bunraku War) when Japan invaded Korea and thousands of Koreans were forcefully taken to Japan. It is less well known that nearly all of Korea’s art, including paintings, sculptures, furniture - everything that was above ground was destroyed by the invading forces or taken to Japan.  Many Buddhist temples and the art in them were destroyed.  Between 60,000 and 80,000 Koreans, mostly scholar, artists and intellectuals but also women and children were taken to Japan at that time.  Among them were hundreds or perhaps as many as 2000 ceramic artists.  Those Korean ceramic artists established ceramic centers and changed the face of Japanese ceramics adding particularly to Japan’s natural ways of working with clay.  That war has gained the nickname 'The Pottery War'.  
Interestingly, just a little later there was a major fire in China and many Chinese ceramic artists also came to Japan to work.  These ceramic artists brought with them overglaze enamel decorating processes.  So today we have this strong division in Japanese ceramics between the very natural from Korea and the very controlled decorative processes from China.    
Click on the link
Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a fantastic and free PDF book on Korean arts. Did you miss it?
Both of Hamada's quotes come from my notes when working with him.  Yanagi's quote is from his book The Unknown Craftsman translated by Bernard Leach.
Click here to go to the first post.  



  1. I very much enjoyed this article.
    I thought your discourse to be very honest. personally I share much of these inner thoughts. As modern potters we are not in the same world with the same mindset as a Korean one from the 14th century.
    But we are still moved by the coming of spring, and the evening mist..
    I make a couple thousand pieces a year only a couple of these a year I think are truly miles above the rest.
    Isn't it funny how our best pots are sold or given to well deserving friends so fast. I think it is because great pots are needed.

  2. I am touched that a fellow potter would even read my posts let alone comment as you have. I find it very difficult to write about my own work. Still I believe I have to write about it on poccassion because it keeps my mind 'in the game' as it were. Pottery and especially chawan seem to want all of our attention - our physical, emotional, perceptual, intellectual and spiritual selves all want their share of it.

  3. Thank you for your very good job.
    Rafael Catalan

  4. It is most difficult writing about ones own work so I don't do it very often. I appreciate your comment.