The Creative Heart

I watched as my son, Alex, carefully undid the wrapping, opened the wooden box, and lifted a corner of the quilted cloth. On his face, I saw a strange look of disbelief. “It’s broken,” he said. Now it was my turn to be stunned. The beautiful ceramic bowl sat in broken shards on its rose-colored cloth. I was crushed and horrified. It felt like a betrayal.

A few months ago, I wrote a blog about Kintsugi — the Japanese art of repairing a broken bowl with gold. For Christmas, I offered a Japanese tea bowl that had been repaired using this method, to Alex and my daughter-in-law, Connie. I felt it would be a meaningful gift as they embarked on married life together. With baby Vita now a hear and half, a new baby on the way, and the opening of a store in Asheville, North Carolina, East Fork Pottery, their life is full. I thought of the Kintsugi bowl with its veins of gold as a symbol of creatively and beautifully overcoming challenges.

A week later, I was still feeling badly about how my gift turned out. I thought to myself, I should make something with these shards — a sculpture — and give it to them. I mentioned my idea to Alex and he seemed a little put off — then he said, “Yes, um, we should do a repair.” And I understood that he wanted to repair the bowl himself. I had kept it anticipating that I would return the broken shards to the gallery, but they graciously refunded the price I had paid. We decided to talk about it in early January when we will next be together.

Everything in our world is impermanent. Wood turns to ash and fallen leaves to compost. The broken pot shards can become something else. Accepting change is about no longer being stuck in what was, but moving on. This moving on is the awakening of our creative heart.

I know that my well-being depends on feeling that I have connected to that place of creativity inside my heart. With days of less meaningful doing, I begin to fall into this dark abyss of my own mind. I become disjointed, my body altogether not my body, my limbs connected like a puppet. I don’t act with spontaneity and wholeness. I can be in the most beautiful place and if I don’t feel connected to it, I can’t appreciate it because I block the beauty from entering my bones. I can be in the most loving relationship and not allow this love to enter.

Each creative act makes use of something that is unresolved in our hearts. Each creative act makes the world whole. In this new year, let’s make whatever is broken whole again. We don’t, in fact, can’t know what it will look like. Who would ever imagine that a river carved a canyon that enthralls millions of people thousands of years later. I can’t imagine what will possibly come out of this box of pot shards, but this is precisely the process that heals broken places and turns them into art. 

In this new year, I’d like to remember that broken bowl when I find myself slipping away from my creative heart, when I feel alone and cut off.  For I know that in doing the work I will find my way back. We all share this longing that is deeply human, that beseeches us to be fully our own life, to belong completely to the entirety. Our longing is the gift we can offer.

When I started this weekly blog, Apples, Art, and Spirit, one year ago, I thought it would be a one-year project and I would be using the orchard as a springboard to write. With 2016 being a year of no apples, they have been a very silent partner. I’ve decided to commit to another year, and hopefully with some good winter chill, we will have an apple crop and there will be more apple-inspired writing. Please join me, share the blog with your friends, and together let’s lift the corner of the new year, white, and pure, and unknown. It’s ours to create for the very first time.

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.