Grounded in Tradition 

Exhibit illustrates the preservation of ritual in contemporary Japanese pottery

Exhibit illustrates the preservation of ritual in contemporary Japanese pottery

Japanese Pottery: Work in Traditional Styles by Modern Potters

Through Dec. 6 at Vanderbilt Fine Arts Gallery (closed through Nov. 24 for Thanksgiving)

For information, call 322-0605

When it comes to tea, Southerners don’t stand on ceremony. About the only rituals we observe are lots of ice and declaring our preference for sweetened or unsweetened.

In Japan, though, tea is more than a beverage; it’s a tradition. An integral part of that tradition is the tea ceremony, a precise ritual of serving and drinking that is equal parts spirituality and sensuality. Bowls, jugs and flower vases used in such ceremonies are currently included in a stunning display of contemporary Japanese pottery at the Vanderbilt University Fine Arts Gallery. But unless you’re up on the intricacies of Japanese folk art or tea drinking, you may find the misshapen, rough-surfaced tea pottery hard to appreciate, especially since it’s displayed alongside dozens of perfectly shaped and elegantly glazed examples of non-tea pottery. Dr. Milan Mihal, professor emeritus of art history at Vanderbilt, concedes that the ceremonial pieces come off as the ugly ducklings of the exhibit—at least at first glance.

“Tea ceremony pottery is very challenging to Westerners because to us these pieces look like kiln rejects,” Mihal says. To the Japanese, however, the beauty of the tea pottery lies in its simplicity and rusticity; the imperfections in shape, surface and coloration are meant to arouse both the spirit and the physical senses. “The tea bowls, for example, are very sensual,” he says. “In the tea ceremony, you pick up the bowl with two hands. The bowl then rests on the palm of the left hand and you can feel what the Japanese call the ‘bare bones’ of the unglazed clay. The right hand grasps around the glazed portion of the bowl for a different feeling. Then there is a third tactile sensation when you put your lips to the bowl to drink.”

Even the flower vases used in the tea ceremony room have a rustic look to them. The ash-coated vase by Naokata Ueda featured in the show is a classic example: “It’s typical of the over-firing and imperfect glazing [used in tea pottery],” Mihal says. “It would be used for a very, very simple flower arrangement in the tea ceremony. Because it looks like it is from the earth, the vase would not compete with the flowers in any way.” Mihal himself recalls attending a tea ceremony in Japan and seeing a similar vase used to hold a single, deep-red camellia bloom, freshly cut and still dripping with dew. “Then I understood the aesthetic of these vases,” he says. “Seeing the tea pottery out of context, as you do in this show, it’s hard to appreciate it.”

More impressive to Western eyes are works like Sueharu Fukami’s astonishing pale-bluish-white bowl with sides that shoot up and out from a 4-inch base to a rim diameter of nearly 3 feet. “The piece tapers to almost paper thinness at the rim,” says Mihal. “It’s a tour de force for a potter to be able to throw this piece, especially when you consider that it was at least a quarter larger in size before firing.” Other eye-catching works include a large flowerpot by Hakushi Ono that shimmers in tones of deep gold and bright lemon-yellow, and a bronze-colored jar by Hiroaki Morino with a design of clouds and waves in deep blue. Many of the works in the show are by potters honored as Living National Treasures by the Japanese government, an official designation that confers not only prestige but also a lifelong stipend to recipients.

While many pieces in the show have a very contemporary look, there is also a strong streak of tradition at work in them, according to Mihal. A lidded celadon pot by Uichi Shimizu takes its inspiration from a traditional medicine storage jar, while a lidded box by Katsumi Eguchi takes its repeated leaf-like design from washi, handmade Japanese paper. “It’s important to note that these are not slavish imitations,” Mihal says. “Japanese potters adapt and reinterpret styles and techniques that are hundreds of years old. Yet what they do is so innovative that the works look contemporary. That’s why so many American potters still go to Japan to study.”

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