A Change in Perception: The Healing of the Broken Bowl
As I was setting up my ceramics exhibition in Nanjing China in May 2019, I discovered one of my pieces had cracked during the journey. A beautiful aquatic themed, functional bowl now lay in four pieces.
I was choking back disappointment. Before it broke, it was exquisite. It had been a piece that had turned out better than I expected.
As I unwrapped it, along with a few other small fish sculptures that had broken, Gu Li, the gallery owner, looked at it and said. “No problem...we fix.”
I wanted this exhibition to go well and I also wanted to learn more about the Chinese culture so I swallowed my disappointment and told myself to be open to new ways to do things and left the broken pieces with Gu Li.
At that moment, I realized that our Canadian culture looks at broken pottery the same way, with deep disappointment; it’s ruined and that makes us very sad. We throw it in the garbage, or sometimes, we won’t let a piece go. We hang on to it and pick it up, only to be disappointed that it is broken, over and over again. We really don’t know how to go through an informed process to fix it.
Gu Li gave my bowl to his crack-fixing friend, Mr. Wong.The next day Mr. Wong brought the bowl back and placed it in my hands. When I turned it over, it took my breath away. Mr. Wong had installed 13 elegant, shiny brass staples on the bottom side of the bowl. Their colour and positioning against the textured surface brought more interest and elegance to the piece. It felt like a treasure in my hands. In our awkward exchange of languages, Gu Li and Mr. Wong explained that this staple technique has been used for more than 600 years, since the Ming Dynasty.
The art of crack fixing is something I have been interested in since my first trip to China in 2013. It became more relevant to me during my Giant Tile Project in 2018 when I learned that it is normal to have repairs done on important pieces that break during firing. However, it was my experience with Mr. Wong and Gu Li really changed my perception and understanding of this skill.
We all know that art is not just about an object - it is also about how we interact, perceive and relate to that object - how it affects our emotions. The best masterpieces have layers. Whether it is food, music, painting or ceramics, the best and most interesting work tantalizes our senses with layers of flavour, melodies, or interesting visual effects. A mended crack can bring another layer to a piece. It adds another chapter to an object's story.
The opportunity to learn crack-fixing from Mr. Wong comes at a stage when my work is evolving to sculptural pieces that incorporate painterly work which is labour intensive and time consuming. If a piece develops a crack I will be able to repair it properly. This skill will also offer me the opportunity to intentionally incorporate cracks and mends into my sculptures. As my work becomes more meaningful, I want to be able to add this additional layer of feeling and emotion. From Mr. Wong I will learn a variety of techniques including the use of staples and other repair devices, plus an age-old technique called Japanese Kintsugi. These are skills that are not currently found or taught in Canada.
There is broad interest in our ceramics community to learn crack-fixing and Kintsugi. I am excited to bring these skills back to Canada and teach the methods and the philosophy behind them. These skills will also be useful to multimedia artists, not just ceramicists. Often people come to my studio hoping I know how to repair a family heirloom. I will be able to teach classes on how to repair ceramics in an overtly visual way or in an almost hidden way.
I am fortunate to have developed strong connections in China to create this learning opportunity and strong partners in Canada that will enable me to share the knowledge, techniques and materials. My intent is to offer several different workshops on several skill levels to my community.
Imagine what artists can do - putting together artwork with beautiful lines of silver, gold and brass as metaphors for healed scars. Currently I am working with an Aboriginal education worker developing and teaching a program for Nusdeh Yoh Elementary School. This is an inner city First Nations Choice school that wants to use this art as a metaphor for healing. There is a strong focus on healing in our community.
I am very excited about this project and plan to add Kintsugi to our courses at Carlson Pottery starting summer of 2020.