Ideas I love: Kintsugi

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Several years back there was a violent death of five individuals that touched our family.  All the deaths were born out of generational trauma and the ultimate price was paid by a brilliant and beautiful young man and four members of a marginalized group of people doing nothing more than going to the doctor in another town.

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There is no need to go into more details, it’s enough to say that there was no end to the brokenness that fell at the doorstep of our lives.  We found ourselves broken with no good way to get back to being whole again.

It was during this time that I discovered the importance of taking care of myself as I took care of the children and the affected around me.  Part of the taking care of myself looked like creative endeavors.  One particular creative that was very healing was pottery.  I began spending a lot of time at a beautiful studio creating things.

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There were so many things falling apart in these years.  I needed support from friends and community, but I was a wreck most of the time, and pretty new to the community we lived in.  My family lived far enough away, and also struggled to know how to handle what had befallen us.

We found ourselves broken with no good way to get back to being whole again.  Getting acquainted with new community at a time when things are falling apart… it just doesn’t work very well.

Pottery was cathartic.  I had complete control to create these usually small things.  My children played outside where there was a park, and across the street where there was a library.  They came into the lab where I worked on the wheel or glazing or wedging or cleaning up.

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Pottery taught me a daily hands on process of loss and redemption.  Trimming through a bowl, cracks, knicks or things made a little bit too fragile.  I found myself once walking through the hall of the cultural center feeling deeply sad about a cup that I had made and was so excited about, but it had broken… now I can’t remember how.  I probably trimmed through the bottom.  I went through this process with almost every piece at the beginning.  The black glaze improperly stirred that came out ugly brown.  The cup thrown so small that it was more of a hobbit cup once it had been fired (because of the water in the clay, items created shrink up to 15 percent).  The mixed glazes that looked horrible rather than how I thought they would look.  And even if something did make it all the way through the process, sometimes they would end up in pieces on the kitchen counter with an unfortunate bump or a slippery hand.  The amount of time that goes into making just one piece is surprising… from the wedging of the clay, to centering, to pulling up into a piece, shaping and then taking it off the wheel.  There are so many points at which a mistake can be made, and even still it isn’t trimmed, finished to be smooth, bisque fired, labeled, sanded, washed, waxed and then glazed and cleaned on the bottom for the glaze fire.  It is no small wonder why my heart would sink when something came out of the kiln looking awful.

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I am not sure where I first heard of Kintsugi, maybe in one of the many pottery books I checked out, maybe from a teacher or a friend.  Kintsugi is the Japanese philosophy of repairing broken pottery using gold to fill in the cracks of where it was broken.

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Kintsugi (金継ぎ) (Japanese: golden joinery) or Kintsukuroi (金繕い) (Japanese: golden repair) is the Japanese art of repairing broken pottery with lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver, or platinum.  As a philosophy it treats breakage and repair as part of the history of an object, rather than something to disguise.

Most people, at some point in their lives will be handed a circumstance that overwhelms them.  Overwhelms their capacity to cope, challenges their mental health, leaves them gasping for answers of how to respond.  Kintsugi, using pottery creates this beautiful tangible image of what can be in the aftermath of tragedy.

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The hopeful vision of this approach to handling destruction for me seems to encapsulate the healing process of going from broken to beautiful.

Kintsugi’s first essential practice is to set aside our self-defeating emotional conclusions, the “stories” we’ve constructed about how impossible it is for us to recover from our devastations, betrayals and losses. And not only this, but to release the investments we have in keeping our lives broken as a reminder of how we’ve been unfairly treated, used or abused. Or even more detrimental, our tendency to cling to misfortunes as a way to prove to ourselves and others that we are “damaged goods,” not worthy of love, recognition or success.

The master artist can only engage in Kintsugi’s transformational process if they focus on what is possible rather than on what is impossible. Rumi, the great Persian poet addresses this pivotal wisdom in this way…“The wound is the place where the light enters you.”

Kintsugi suggests that “the true life of the piece begins the moment it’s dropped,” after which time it becomes a unique masterpiece, increased in value and impossible to duplicate.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Liudmila says:

    The whole story seems to be written for me personally.., I wish I could find something like this to heal my wounds. May be taking care of my youngest granddaughter could become such a remedy…

  2. Jen says:

    I can relate closely to these words also. Listening to Sarah Groves today. Her album “Floodplain” is speaking to my heart.

  3. vendija723 says:

    This is beautiful, Heather. By sharing your personal story, you add weight to the metaphor of Kintsugi.

  4. Paul G says:

    The image has always held power for me. I relate to your description of the creative process. Sometimes we simply have to adjust our plans and make the work that is coming forth. If that’s a collection of cups that cannot hold liquid than so be it.
    Thanks for the writing.

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