The Way of Tea

A yunomi by Jim Malone. A painted motif over a traditional hakeme slip decoration.

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.

A karatsu chawan from the momoyama period 

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.

Grey teabowl by Ken Matsuzaki.

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!

Choosing Kilns

Cromartie kiln

It’s not everyday you buy a new kiln. Most of the time we make do with whatever is at the school, college or studio we’re used to working in, or we’re limited to a hobby kiln or one that we can operate on a small scale. So I’ve been thinking hard about what I want for the Earth Pig studio: what I want the kiln to do and how much ware I intend to make. Of course, I want the thing to fire my pots, but what kind of clay will I be using and what kind of glazes? I’ve spent quite a while trawling through manufacturer’s websites trying to find the right one.

I’ll be using both earthenware and stoneware clays, and some of the glazes I use will need to be fired right the way up to cone 10. I don’t want to be packing the thing every day so something big enough to do a bisque firing and a glaze firing once, maybe twice a week, will be necessary. A kiln with a chamber of at least 90 litres is probably about right; enough to cater for the firing needs of the gallery, but with enough room to fire the work of students’ attending classes. In the end I’ve settled for a model from Cromartie of Stoke-on-Trent, made under license by Skutt in the USA, with a firing capacity of 160 litres. I’m limited to an electric kiln because of where the studio is situated, there’s no gas supply there so, sadly, reduction firing is an impossibility. Yes, I could have a gas kiln fuelled by bottled gas but the nature of the premises, not to mention insurance restrictions, preclude that. On the other hand, a kiln powered by electricity means I can opt for a controller which, among other things, has a feature that calculates the cost of firing.

It’s been an exciting process researching the kiln and other equipment I’ll need for the studio and, for once, not have to worry (at least, not too much!) about the cost.