Photo by sahigg
Photo by sahigg

The Art of the Mistake

There are things I got wrong.

I thought the reason my dad, a potter, so rarely repaired broken pots with real gold was because of money. However, when I was at home visiting my parents in Arkansas this summer, my dad explained that traditionally, “The Japanese repair pots with lacquer and gold powder, and what I’m doing is filling it with epoxy and then using gold leaf.” And even though my dad claimed this way was “really cheap,” I should have known that my assumption that it was about money was not correct. The Wabi-Sabi aesthetic to which my dad adheres has nothing to do with cost.

Wabi-Sabi, a centuries-old Japanese belief, values brokenness and revels in imperfection, which is how the art of Kintsukuroi came about. As early as the 15th century, Japanese potters began repairing broken pots by filling their cracks with gold. Rather than hiding the wear, the history, the brokenness, the potters illuminated it. When I hold such ceramics in my hands, I can trace the golden map of their past with my fingers—there is no attempt to hide, to make new, to erase. To me, this practice translates perfectly to life: To allow our cracks to show—our wrinkles, mistakes, and failures—is a more humane and forgiving way to live.

“The difficulty was finding a pot worthy of being repaired,” my dad said as we sat on the second story porch of my parents’ house in Ozark Mountains of Arkansas looking out on fields of wildflowers. As he spoke, I watched over his children, as he called them, the dozens of hummingbirds that hovered—1,260-wing-beats-a-minute—over the feeders outside the window.

For some reason, I had never considered that the pot had to be worthy of the process, that, for my dad, it was difficult to find such a pot. “It’s not the mistake,” he explained. “It’s the quality of the mistake.” And in that split-second, I felt my worldview shift—the quality of the mistake, I should be measuring the quality of the mistake. For my dad, the quality of the mistake in a broken pot was measured via a combination of the aesthetics and the cleanness of the break. In thinking about mistakes in the framework of Kintsukuroi, I decided that the quality of my mistakes should be measured by what I learned from the mistake and how I shared it and the resulting knowledge with others. Kintsukuroi valued intention and time over the process of mass replication, which meant that only some pieces were worthy of being repaired with gold.

My dad was obsessed with Japanese tea bowls, known as chawans, and with a culture that valued both the maker and their pots. “My favorite Japanese potter, his tea bowls start around $12,000,” he said. “In Japan a tea bowl made by a master is worth $20,000 or $30,000 or $40,000.” The person who buys one recognizes the years that it takes a potter to master the art of making the tea bowl and understands the history that such a vessel carries. I had grown up with handmade pots, those of my dad and of his ceramist friends, and each time I handled them my hands carried a memory of each one. That knowledge of the makers was passed along to me, and it informed the way I saw the world. We live in an age where we have largely forgotten the life of objects and the spirit of their makers. The only language we understand is more.

“The reason they see the beauty in the pot is the way they see beauty in nature. It’s not about perfection,” he explained. Asymmetry is everywhere in nature, and in the change of the seasons we witness the impermanence of the natural world. And yet in our lives we strive for an unnatural perfection, because we are afraid to show our cracks. If an imperfection is a mistake, if an imperfection is not beautiful, then the weight of that judgment is eventually going to crush us all. The question is not if you have imperfections, but how you illuminate them, how you bring them into the world. That’s what my dad meant by a pot being “worthy.” And the fear is always that your miraculous and imperfect self is not enough, that it will never be enough.

“The whole thing is that we all have scars,” explained my dad as he ate his breakfast bread drenched in olive oil and garlic from the garden. “To me, imperfection and mistakes are what make people beautiful and what make art beautiful. Without tension, without struggle, the art isn’t any good—it’s just reproduced.” And I think physical beauty is the same, which is why the messages we receive about societal standards of beauty are destructive. TV, magazines, the very textbooks we study—they’re telling us that to be valued, we must fit into the one available mold. The end game is a world filled with replicas.

“I want to make pots with the vitality of Japanese pots but without copying them, which is what most people do.” An original pot has vitality, he explained, but when people want to copy the original, that vitality is lost. As he spoke, I sat there looking at the fields and the mountains beyond and thinking about how much of my 20s were spent trying to copy—writing styles, looks, attitudes, thoughts. But at some point, in my 30s, I got tired and I got bored, and I stopped trying to copy, trying to be what I was not. It is natural that when we recognize some vital essence we want to possess it or copy it, but there is no way to copy the quality of mistakes of others, to trace their path in a way that will produce the same results. If my dad breaks a bowl and then I break one, even if we do it at the same time and with the same bowl, the break will be different.

As he mopped up the last of his olive oil with his bread, he launched into a story about a potter in Japan who was pumping gas when a guy came up, looked in the back of his car and said, “Oh, those are some nice chawans.” My dad recounted with longing how this random guy knew the name of the potter and wanted to talk about the process of making the chawans. I knew that my dad dreamed of living in a society that recognized and valued the work of makers like himself, a society where a perfect stranger might stop to talk about the long and complicated process of craft. And I understood him, because the language of more doesn’t include stories of art and intention; replicas don’t have a history. They’ve lost their vitality and leave our hands with nothing to map, no physical memory to learn from. My dad didn’t want to live in a world that only held copies and replicas, and so in his studio in the Ozarks, surrounded by thousands of pots, by the mountains outside, he wakes up each day to create pots that will map the history of his lived experience.

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2 Comments

  • I think that in copying work on finds freedom of movement within the confines ….much the same reason that one finds freedom from within the restraints of what a tea bowl is …….there comes a time that within those restraints one finds one self and ones individuality …it is them perhaps that one removes the restraints and makes individual work but never wondering too far away ………

  • Matthew Tyas says:

    I really enjoyed this article and your insights into chawan, especially your father’s perspective and the understandings that you’ve shared. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve quoted you in a recent blog post of my own: http://www.matthewtyas.co.uk/2016/chawan-quick-start-guide

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