Books for Everyone!

September 2022

Tenmoku: Had to Have

It was almost noon on a recent Saturday when I emerged from my creative space (The Guest Room), and entered the kitchen. I then announced to Dear Husband:

“I had to have it.”

This retail-rationalization is not one that I often use. In fact, I very rarely employ such an emotional excuse. My favorite, over-used, standard, and predictable justification for an unexpected splurge-purchase is:

“It’s something we ought to already have.”

This Japanese bowl is not something that I ought to already have, but it is something I’ve long wanted to have. I first ate some lunch before explaining, on a semi-full stomach, to Dear Hubby the price. This amount turned out not to be ginormous, or even excessive, if one does not take into account the cost of shipping.

I first explained that the e-tailer was very upfront about the punitive UPS costs to ship this object from Japan to California: Almost half of the purchase price might equal the cost of shipping.

I didn’t blink an eye or flinch or hesitate one second at the $51 sum to mail to me the $110 ceramic bowl. The cost will be even more next month, the Realist in me warned.

The order was transacted with stunning efficiency, and I felt very pleased at my lack of emotion over the New Normal that is far from normal.

The Tenmoku Yu Kaki Bowl, Small, 29 cm in diameter (11.42 inches), 8.5 cm high (3.35 inches) is, for me, an art object, not merely a functional bowl with a glaze of which I have long been enamoured. I have hunted, and stalked, online vintage, historically vintage vases, chawans, bowls, and tea cups with the Tenmoku glaze, created by a Japanese Living National Treasure.

The price of such a desired antique Objet d’Art du Japon has consistently remained most sadly and obscenely prohibitive to me, regardless of any retail-rationalization. Ceramic objects with the Tenmoku glaze — by non-Japanese non-treasures, who are still very much alive — bear starting prices of $350, let us say, for a tea bowl that is a blatant rip-off of the real thing.

Just what is this lusted-after Tenmoku glaze?

This ceramic glaze is glossy, very dark brown or maroon in color, with edges that crystallize during firing at high temperature in reduction atmospheres; the piece is then cooled quickly. The resultant hues are magnificently complex due to that firing at high temperature of the clay that is abundantly rich in iron oxide, as well as feldspar, and limestone.

It’s all about the iron, migrating from the clay into the glaze. The more quickly that a piece is cooled, the blacker the iron-bearing glaze.

The two most common types of glaze are yuteki or “oil-spot”; the other is yohen “hare’s fur”.

Tenmoku also refers to the kind of tea bowl originally produced as stoneware in China during the southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), and imitated, during that time, in Japan. Those earliest reproductions are also called “tenmoku” in Japan. My fascination, however, has been, and remains, with the sumptuous aesthetic effects of the glaze upon the fired clay as it emerges from the kiln. That experience is unpredictable, but often astoundingly beautiful, akin to zen.

The element of randomness, of chance — is the mysterious and marvelous unknown that is not to be feared, but faced — with faith in the ways of life, the pathways of fate, to bring opportunity, not doom.

The hands of the Creator are at work, just as much, if not more, than are the hands of the artist, in fashioning excellence and in forming a seemingly unavoidable error. It is the duty of the humble artist to yield to the unkind consequence, or to at least be strong enough to bend with it; and thereby try to transform an unfortunate circumstance into a fortuitous work of wonderment. That happy happenstance nurtures the essence of Art, and propels the imaginative driving force which is a Muse.

The unknown then becomes known in a way that exceeds conscious knowledge: that philosophical sensibility awakens within me a sense of the rareness of true beauty, the honest moment when an artist bows to a Force beyond her for granting to “her” creation an exquisite element that is divine.

Good fortune is achieved much more than it is merely given. Any individual does play his own part in making, or breaking, in creating or destroying, the good luck. The successful realization of the Tenmoku glaze presents that exquisite, often elusive, element of unexpected delight that can be part-accident, part-kismet, smiled down upon someone by the stars.

The origins of the Tenmoku glaze reach back to the heart of Japanese tea culture and is one of the oldest in Japan. This glaze technique has been handed down from generation to generation, by those Japanese Living National Treasures, thereby ensuring the continuity of this cultural art. Of particular renown are the kilns that produced tenmoku, the tea bowls, in Seto, location of one of the Six Ancient Kilns of Japan, and thus called Seto ware.

The Tenmoku glaze is extremely difficult to master; consequently, the number of exceptional Tenmoku artists in Japan is now very small. I was fortunate, lucky, to have located a new version of the traditional glaze, a maverick approach to the time-honored art form which, as an American, I can heartily approve. While I deeply revere tradition, and highly esteem the sublime and unique works of the master potters, as well as their signature glazes, I nonetheless champion change as the quintessential nature of art.

Change is the engine of any art that aspires to live, even of life itself. I do not believe in change for the sake of change, or art for art’s sake; but I do believe in accepting the call for change when it knocks at the door. If change is not welcomed with that initial knock of reality, well, the stampede effect begins to gather force, and momentum, an inexorable energy. Of such impediments to the advance of time are momentous revolutions realized.

Art, furthermore, must be practical as well as useful. I invariably prefer functional art to mere museum pieces. Innovation is one form of change that must drive artistic forms from one era into the next, that future frontier. I believe my Had-to-Have indulgence is a form of that requisite innovation of an intangible cultural property that even an American can appreciate.

The Tenmoku glaze can range in color from dark plum and persimmon to yellow, to brown, to black. My Tenmoku Yu Kaki Bowl was hand-thrown at the Kuninari Kiln in Echizen, Japan by the potter-artist known as Maeda. Maeda san has livened up the usual characteristic black, red, and browns of the glaze with his addition of a golden sparkle.

A golden sparkle is a necessary change I have to have for art, and for living life, in freedom, which is my state of zen.