Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Clay and Fire, Art and Experience

“The worst way to explain the Japanese tea ceremony is to have someone sit and watch it being done,” explained Harvey-sensei to a group of about 30 students, faculty and various community members who had come to watch a demonstration of the Japanese tea ceremony. “It seems like it takes 20 minutes to do, what? Make a cup of tea? The Tea Ceremony is not a spectator sport: You are meant to participate in it and experience it. But you can’t really participate unless you know how it’s done. So bear with me and just watch. We’ll answer questions in the next round.”

Silently, Laura and Annie entered the “tea room,” scooting in on their knees into a space defined by four and half tatami mats arranged in the middle of an art gallery and surrounded by seated spectators. After they settled, I entered the space and served a tray of sweets to Laura, the head guest.

Then the adrenaline hit.

There were 30 people watching, interested in seeing a performance of an esoteric art form that defies explanation, and I was nervous. My heart raced, my hands shook, my face felt flushed and warm. “Just like at home,”  I told myself “Just like at practice, no one but us three here in the tea room.” Didn’t work. Still nervous. Breathe. Just sit. Just make tea.

About halfway through the demonstration, as Laura was returning her empty bowl to me — a bowl that was lent to us by one of the pottery artists participating in West Coast Wood Fire for purposes of this demonstration —  I realized it was almost over and I didn’t want it to end. Laura scooted toward me with the bowl, stopped, then held it just above her knees. The colors of her kimono, the tatami and the bowl harmonized in warm, earthy tones — gold, olive, orange. She seemed to pause for a moment before setting it down, as if she knew what I was thinking, that too soon this would all be over and this brief, beautiful moment would be gone. The bowl would be washed and returned; we would not be able to use it again. The mats would be packed up and taken home. Our kimono folded, our memories fading. This was furyu, the perception of a transient moment of beauty that evaporates like steam from a kettle — and I could not demonstrate it to our audience. 

:: :: ::

This demonstration of cha-no-yu was held at College of the Redwoods in Eureka, Calif., in conjunciton with West Coast Wood Fire, a month long series of exhibits and events celebrating wood-fired ceramics and the cultures that surround them. (Read more here in a previous post.)

Harvey-Sensei, far left, discusses the tea ceremony with
students and instructors from College of the Redwoods
as well as members of the community.

Usucha-temae (thin tea ceremony) demonstrated by Holly
with guests Laura and Annie. Dave ZDrazil (in back, with camera)
and Shannon Sullivan (seated next to him)
were instrumental in arranging the demonstration.

One of the exhibiting artists, Hank Murrow of Oregon, offered to let us use a chawan (bowl) and mizusashi  (cold water container) for our demonstration. Hank formulated the clay for his chawan to imitate the "Mogusa" clay used by potters of Mino, Japan. The clay, which has prominent grains of feldspar, prevents vitrification even at the high temperatures (cone 14) reached in the anagama kiln so the ware remains slightly porous, insulating and soft sounding like Raku. (His tea teacher in Tokyo, Mr. Koichi Okamoto, told him that the whisk should sound like "rain on thatch" rather than "rain on corrugated metal," as it would with fully vitrified wares such as porcelain.)

Chawan and mizusashi by Hank Murrow

Chawan by Hank Murrow

Mizusashi by Hank Murrow

This chawan, featuring his Shino glaze, was fired for 100 hours in the back of the anagama kiln and received little ash. The clay for the body of the mizusashi is also a special mix he uses for tea ware with large grains of feldspar but the contrasting lid is made of porcelain, inspired by the tradition of tea masters who used elegant materials for lids of their rustic pieces, such as Imari porcelain or lacquered wood (as Hank said, "18th century mix-and-match"). He had intended to gild the inside of the lid to prevent it from sliding around on the jar. There are  patches of Shino glaze on the four sides where there is a rope-like texture. He was concerned the porous clay would weep, but we encountered no such problem. 

Hank's pieces were fired in the Jewel Creek Anagama kiln in Sand Lake, Ore., in view of the Pacific Ocean.

We also used some pieces made by Dave Zdrazil, one of the coordinators of West Coast Wood Fire.

Kensui by Dave Zdrazil. He said he was inspired by seeing
kensui at a demonstration we performed last January.

Chawan by Dave Zdrazil. The stripes are created
by different types of clay.

Each guest enjoyed one of Annie's delicious homemade wagashi sweets — sweet mochi wrapped around delicately pink-tinted shiro-an — and a bowl of matcha. Many students brought their own chawan, as a special part of this demonstration was for them to be able to have tea in their own recently-crafted bowls.

Student work

Student work

Later in the evening, we attended two of the three gallery openings of West Coast Wood Fire at the Fire Arts Center and Ironside Gallery, both in Arcata, Calif. (the third gallery is in Eureka at Sewell Gallery). There were so many different and beautiful forms -- vases, cups, jars, decorative pieces and beautiful chawan.The pieces are on exhibit (and for sale!) through the end of March.

Here are Hank Murrow's chawan and mizusashi on display at Fire Arts Center:
Tea caddy and chawan by Hank Murrow
Mizusashi by Hank Murrow

For more about Dave, Shannon and Hank's work, visit:

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