Repairing the Broken

 “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong in the broken places.”

                                                                           —Ernest Hemmingway

In the Japanese pottery world there is an old tradition, Kintsugi (golden joinery), of repairing a broken pot with gold. The pot might have been a prized tea ceremony bowl, revered with the eye and treasured with the hand. Instead of tossing the pot broken by some mishap into the rubbish pile, the pieces would be fitted back together and held by lacquer mixed with gold powder. Kintsugi became an art form. A newly repaired bowl with threads of gold has more appeal than the unbroken one.

  Teabowl,  Yamamoto Gempo (1866-1961) photo courtesy of Backmann Eckenstein Newsletter

Teabowl, Yamamoto Gempo (1866-1961) photo courtesy of Backmann Eckenstein Newsletter

Kintsugi is connected to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi. Wabi might translate as loneliness or solitariness —the sight of a lone crow on a crooked branch or a plum blossom peeking through light snow. Sabi refers to objects that exude the well-worn, rustic patina of age.  Wabi-sabi informs the aesthetics of the traditional Japanese arts. An object doesn’t need to be discarded because it is worn and old. On the contrary, we treasure it even more.

I lived in Japan in my early twenties, and I consider wabi-sabi to be a strong influence on my own aesthetics. I love using old tools, worn objects, and wood in my art. Wood, its knots, rings, and branch collars, carries the history of the life of the tree. Similarly, pottery carries its past; the clay was created in the earth hundreds of years ago. We have an intuitive attraction to that which is old and from the earth. We trust its wisdom. Without knowing about Kintsugi, when I made my first large-scale outdoor sculpture using tree logs from a hundred-year-old maple that fell in a winter storm, I gold leafed its sawn surfaces to highlight its beauty and give it new life.

The repairs of Kintsugi draw our attention to the impermanence of life. In fact, it is emphasized and celebrated. The repairs to the bowl add to its beauty. How is it that our culture wants to deny this reality? From blemish-free apples to wrinkle-free faces to the ideal relationship, we are directed to strive for perfection as if it was attainable and permanent.

In the third stanza of Jane Hirshfield’s poem, For What Binds Us, she writes:

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

I can recall as a child sitting with friends as we showed off our scars and shared our battle stories.

I have a tea mug I use every day. It’s one that my son, Alex, a potter and the founder of East Fork Pottery, made over ten years ago when he was a freshman at Guilford College. It’s the only piece of pottery that still exists from that time. At home, we keep all of our mugs on two open shelves in the kitchen. When my beloved Alex mug is on the shelf and a houseguest decides to choose a cup, they infallibly choose this one. There is little about it that would make you prefer it from among the two shelves of mugs. Yet there must be something that communicates, whether it is our intuitive attraction to the patina of age or the subtle power of something treasured. No one seems to be concerned with the hairline crack down the inside of it. I care for this mug tenderly.

  Mug , Alex Matisse, fourth from right on bottom shelf  

Mug, Alex Matisse, fourth from right on bottom shelf  

Eventually, my Alex mug will likely break. I will need to learn how to make a Kintsugi repair in preparation for that day. 

The gold we need for each repair is available in many forms — a hot bowl of soup, a knitted scarf, a poem, acts of courage, love and compassion — we can see them all as gold threads we offer to heal this earth and each other.