In 1999 I traveled to Japan to participate in several exhibitions hosted by my dear friend Mr. Shiho Kanzaki. I arrived with gifts for all the many people that were required to make this amazing opportunity a reality for me.
After I arrived and was unpacking, I discovered that 4 of the side-fired cups that I’d brought as gifts had been broken by the baggage-handling process. Without a thought I dumped them into the waste basket in my room. Sometime later that week, someone came to my room and took out the trash.
After a remarkable 6 weeks in Shigaraki, two exhibitions, travel, fine food, new friends…my visit came to an end.
As often happens there were some “parting gifts” given by me to my hosts; and some gifts were given to me by my hosts. Among the parting gifts I received, I discovered the 4 cups….but they were all reassembled and mended with silver.
I was rather astonished, as I’d thought that putting them in the waste basket was the last I’d ever see of them. Mr. Kanzaki laughed, as he noticed my incredulity, and said: “Now, even better than when you brought them!” Remarkable: gifting back to me, the cups I’d brought as gifts…only now more valuable than they originally were.
The Japanese have a long tradition of repairing pots with gold; it’s called “kintsugi” or “kintsukuroi”. Curtis Benzele tells it this way: “The story of Kintsugi may have begun in the late 15th century, when the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a damaged Chinese tea bowl back to China to be fixed. It returned held together with ugly metal staples, launching Japanese craftsmen on a quest for a new form of repair that could make a broken piece look as good as new, or better. Japanese collectors developed such a taste for kintsugi that some were accused of deliberately breaking prized ceramics, just to have them mended in gold.
“The term “kintsugi” means ‘golden joinery’ in Japanese and refers to the art of fixing broken ceramics with a lacquer resin made to look like solid gold” (….and often actually using genuine gold powder in the resin). “Chances are, a vessel fixed by kintsugi will look more gorgeous, and more precious, than before it was fractured.”
Some contend that many Japanese have come to cherish the imperfection of a broken pot repaired in this way….seeing it as a creative addition and/or re-birth to the pot’s life story. Others say that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.
It is said by some that the real Japanese purist will only use kintsugi to repair a very old and very valuable ceramic work. However there is a wide spectrum of thought on this point: many potters from all around the world repair ‘new’ works that come from the kiln with a flaw or crack. Sometimes the pots are just so convincing that they beg to be repaired and honored, despite the flaw….or perhaps, because of it.
Contemporary potters use lacquer, epoxy, gold dust, mica dust, copper dust, silver dust, gold leaf…just to name a few of the materials of choice for repair. Historically, I suppose, the “museum quality” repair utilizes real gold in some fashion….although of necessity, it is always infused into some kind of liquid matrix to fill the crack.
It may be that this love of gold repair has led, at least in some indirect fashion, to the use of gold luster as a decorative technique in making new ceramics.
Here is a piece of mine utilizing gold luster for decoration.
Don Pilcher completely covered this piece with gold luster for dramatic effect.
Here are a few more examples of the repair work I have done.
The pot, above was made in Sweden and needed to be repaired as a result of the airlines’ baggage handlers.
A firebox pot that got knicked by the stoked wood, and then stuck to the floor.
This tea bowl came out of the kiln with these cracks that had pulled apart during firing, and then re-sealed themselves to the bowl, leaving 2 huge gaps in the wall of the pot.
This side-fired wood-fired vase had gotten so hot during firing that the sea shells supporting the sideways pot, actually melted through the wall of the pot. You can see the gold leaf repair near the center-front of the pot about a fifth of the way up from the bottom.
To see the value of a broken pot helps us to see with new eyes. We see value where we may only have seen trash or detritus. Perhaps we are less ruthless with broken things….more gentle with those around us who experience brokenness…..less fearful, more hopeful when we ourselves experience brokenness.
May we all indulge in ‘golden joinery’.