Zen + Dogs: Dog Bowl Aesthetics

Nov 25

  • Lesson from Sugi: Even dog bowls can be “shibui”
  • Sugi says, “I enjoy a lovely piece of pottery from which to sip water”

robson bowljohnson bowl

In the summer of 2012, Greg, Tom and Sugi and I were enjoying our camping holiday on Saltspring Island touring the studios of local potters. We had visited Meg Buckley, known for her beautiful and useful large bowls and tea pots. She was spending her last summer in the house on Saltspring, moving into a condo in order to be less tied to the maintenance of a large property. She urged us to visit the Saltspring market on the weekend and to look for a small stand of pots by Lari Robson. Although we had started to avidly collect Westcoast pottery, we weren’t yet familiar with Robson.

The morning was cloudy and a bit chilly even though it was the middle of summer, so Lari was huddled over a hot water bottle wearing a toque and scarf. He tried to talk us out of buying anything, saying that, with the exception of a few mugs and cups. the pots were no good. He explained some of his techniques: wood firing and salt glazing—a particularly difficult and toxic form of glazing. Wood firing allowed for unexpected patterns and colors to grace the pots. We ignored his attempts at dissuasion and bought a bunch of things including this small gray tea cup.

Recently I’ve been reading about Japanese aesthetics in relation to pottery. Robert Carter writes about Shoji Hamada, the renowned potter and Living National Treasure of Japan. Hamada, and the English potter Bernard Leach, had profound influences on Westcoast potters: Wayne Ngan, John Reeve, Tam Irving, Michael Henry, and later Charmaine Johnson, Lari Robson and others. Robson called himself a “slave to the Leach/Hamada tradition” (Carr 2012). In the language of Japanese aesthetics Robson’s pots are examples of shibui: austere, subdued, plain, simple, serene. The wood fire kiln and the use of salt glazing allowed for unexpected irregular qualities to emerge in the final pot, events that recall mushin (no-mind). The wood kiln provided an uncontrollable atmosphere, therefore overcoming the authorship of the potter.

Soetsu Yanagi, a Japanese philosopher and friend of Hamada, writes eloquently about the inherent qualities of particularly auspicious pots from Korea, China and Japan. Yanagi discusses the differences in Song era pottery in China, and the everyday use pots made in Korea during similar periods. Song pots are especially renowned for Ru ware, a style characterized by delicacy, exact shape and flawless celadon glazing which has a color close to “the blue of the sky after rain”. (Krahl 2012). An auspicious Ru dish using the name Taizhen Woshi Pen (Great Perfected Little Dog’s Dish) dated to 1761 was used by the emperor’s dog as described in the poem inscribed on the bottom of the dish by poet Yuzhi Shiji. Charmian Johnson’s azure bowls—an example shown here—follow the tradition of Ru, having perfect form, gentle texture and translucent opulence of an after-rain sky like those we experience in Vancouver. Korean ware from the Yi dynasty (17th century) used hakeme technique to brush on a light slip as a glaze, with swift brush energy. Robson used the hakeme brush technique on this unassuming little gray cup.

A few weeks after we got back from Saltspring, we got a call from Charmian Johnson who told us that Robson had recently died! We were shocked and saddened by the news and realized that the little table he had set up at the Saltspring Market probably displayed his last sale of pots. I felt extremely fortunate to have met Robson and had come to love the humbleness of his pots.

references:

Carr, Diane. “Remembering Lari Robson” in the Potters Guild of British Columbia, Sept 2012, Volume 48 No.7.

Carter, Robert. Becoming Bamboo: Western and Eastern Explorations of the Meaning of Life. Montreal & Kingston: McGill University Press, 1992

Krahl, Regina. Ru From a Japanese Collection. Hong Kong: Sotheby’s, 2012

Yanagi, Soetsu. The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty. New York: Kodansha USA, 1972.

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