Dr Bonnie Kemske talks about researching The Teabowl: East & West

Dr Bonnie Kemske talks about researching The Teabowl: East & West, which will be released on 24 August

At this moment I’m preparing talks about The Teabowl for various venues and events in the UK and USA, and it’s been a good way to look again at the questions that prompted the book.

The teabowl has become an established feature in the ceramics world; every year sees more and more teabowl exhibitions around the world, and every ceramics fair has its share of this now ubiquitous form.

What defines a teabowl? What is its original role? How has that role been challenged as the form has travelled from East to West? Does the original aesthetic live on in contemporary teabowls, or has its meaning been lost in translation?

I came to this book with a very personal perspective. With a practical knowledge of clay in my hands as a ceramicist, I knew the pleasure derived from a well-made bowl. As a tea ceremony student of many years, I knew the pleasure of holding that warm bowl in both hands and sipping the slightly bitter matcha we prepare. As a writer, I was challenged to bring to the reader a sense of what I felt – the teabowl in its tactile ceramic glory, the teabowl steeped in 500 years of history, the teabowl esteemed and valued, and latterly, the teabowl as it has evolved outside tea ceremony to include Western values and aesthetics, such as salt-glazing and smoke-firing, and humour and subversion.

The teabowl’s move to the West has given ceramicists around the world the opportunity to play with the form. In this photo I am using Yuwan (Play bowl) by Hoshino Kayoko in my tea practice. In my searches I discovered teabowls that will never hold the bright green matcha, bowls never to be cradled in the hands. These bowls challenge the form’s intent and cultural heritage. It’s unlikely that Eddie Curtis’s Teabowl from The Blast series will ever be used to make matcha, yet it retains the essence of the teabowl’s mystique. 

Other contemporary teabowls have superimposed a vastly different aesthetic onto the form, sometimes in ignorance, but often in defiance. Philip Eglin’s untitled teabowl, decorated with drawings of generic popes and scantily clad figures, certainly illustrates this! Eglin uses humour in a way that subverts the teabowl’s legacy.

Some potters have abandoned the solitude usually associated with the teabowl, using repetition to create larger and sometimes confrontational displays. Steven Branfman’s installation Kaddish Chawan, where he showed the teabowls made on each day of the year following the death of his son Jared, highlights the power of the teabowl as a narrative medium. In this photo the teabowl  created on Jared’s birthday is in the foreground.

The teabowl will always be alluring and enigmatic, that’s part of its definition, but today it can also be funny, elegant, political, reflective, off-putting, charming, provocative, expressive, or challenging. So if you’re someone who makes, writes about, collects, is learning about, or just likes ceramics, take note. Searching out this iconic ceramic form, no doubt you will find teabowls that elicit at least another 100 descriptors to add to the list.