A cup of tea isn’t a simple matter, at least not to serious tea drinkers! Tea is as rich and intricate a subject as wine is for those who choose to investigate it and delve a little deeper below the surface. Drinking tea is inextricably linked with the whole eastern culture – mixture of the two principles of wabi and sabi. ‘Wabi’ is a word which denotes the spiritual aspect of life, characterised by simplicity, restraint and unadorned beauty. ‘Sabi’ represents the imperfections of life and the natural way of things in the outside world. For me, the tea bowl plays an important part in the appreciation of tea, a way of engaging with the cultural activity of the tea ceremony. By drinking from a tea bowl, or chawan, I feel spiritually connected, more relaxed and in-tune with myself.
In fact, to be precise, chawan is the name given to tea bowls used in formal tea ceremonies; for everyday drinking the Japanese use yunomi. But whatever they’re called there is something inherently satisfying about using them. I’m not suggesting that everyone have a tea ceremony each time they have a cuppa, but by taking time out to relax, prepare the tea carefully and drink out of something beautiful they are participating in something transcendent and numinous.
Of course, I don’t use a tea bowl every time I have a cup of tea, but there is something infinitely pleasurable about drinking from an attractive well-made vessel. I do try to have a relaxing cup of tea at least once a day; using my favourite oolong tea, preparing it carefully using a tea pot, infusing it for the correct length of time and finally drinking from a tea bowl.
In the studio tea bowls figure quite highly on my list of vessels to make, although most customers still prefer mugs with handles to drink from. Personally, I think the fact that there isn’t a handle on a tea bowl seems to give the act of drinking from it a more sacred quality; it’s easier to cup the hands around it in an almost supplicatory way. The heat of the tea is easier to feel, and one is aware of a ‘closeness’ to the flavour and aroma of the liquid. In making tea bowls I rarely use a gauge (though I do weigh out the lumps of clay) and, keeping the wheelhead turning a little slower than usual I allow each bowl to take its own form. In that way I feel I am putting something of myself in the vessel – it becomes more of an individual item. I’m not bothered about making it ‘perfect’. I’m happy with whatever comes off the wheel, as long as it has character and feeling. A few uneven blemishes I can live with.
I urge all tea drinkers to try having their own personal ‘tea ceremony’ once a day, drinking their favourite tea from a chawan or yunomi, taking time to relax and chill out for at least a few minutes. Try it for a week at see what happens!
In chess there’s a saying ‘a bad plan is better than no plan at all’. This is true of pottery too. On working days I don’t expect to sit down at the wheel and expect to produce satisfactory work without some kind of an idea of what I’m aiming at. Even a vague thought like ‘I’m going to throw some bowls’ isn’t enough – I need to have drawings and a visual idea of what I’m trying to produce. This is particularly true when working on surface treatment – patterns, decoration and so on. Work that has been done with an attitude of nonchalance is rarely successful and I would urge anyone who makes pots, or is thinking about it, to make drawings of what they are attempting.
Even if you don’t think you’re much good with a pencil, it doesn’t matter. No one will see your efforts unless you choose to show them. The point is that any plans or sketches you make are for your reference only. Having a visual cue sharpens the imagination, making it easier to realise what you intend, but these should be working drawings in the strictest sense – a means to an end, not works of art in themselves.
Working to a plan when glazing and decorating is particularly important. Picking up a loaded brush ready to paint a pot but having no idea of the design you intend to put on it is usually a waste of time; by having a design already on paper you at least save that precious commodity. I would encourage anyone, whether you make pots or not, to sketch. Even if you dismiss your efforts as meaningless on unworthy at the time, in months or years in the future you might think differently and the doodles you did can provide you with a wealth of ideas. Motifs derived from sketches of plants, trees, leaves, foliage, bricks, stonework, clouds, water, rocks and animals are limited only by one’s imagination.
In the last few days I’ve been out and about making notes on the landscape and textures I find interesting. I don’t have to go far; in this part of the world there’s always something that catches the eye, a dry stone wall, old brickwork, a shady corner of woodland, the gnarled bark of a tree. Inspiration for pottery designs.
I’ve also been in the studio working on some more finished pieces from sketches I did last year on holiday in Exmoor and North Wales. Drawing is fuel for creative ideas when it comes to pottery. Designs are easier to come up with when you have a bank of material to work from. Besides, it’s a habit that’s difficult to get out of once you start. For me it’s something of a necessity. The pieces below were worked in various grades of pencil, charcoal pencil and pastel pencil. Details from them may find their way onto pots eventually. Maybe not.