Tea Bowls For a Specific Purpose

The tea bowl and, more specifically, the chawan (a tea bowl intended for use in tea ceremonies) has been the most intimidating vessel I have ever set out to make. In fact, my ceramic series, Vessels For A Specific Purpose, began with my research and design of tea bowls. I was fascinated to find a vessel that was a perfect blend of cultural traditions and deliberate design choices. The Japanese Tea Ceremony has been around for centuries and is a very elaborate process. It involves carrying out many steps smoothly, with an economy of movement; therefore, the star of the show, the tea bowl, has to be just right.

Tea Bowl
Tea Bowl by Mark Wilhelm

First of all, the overall feel needs to be balanced so it feels good in the hand. The weight should feel like it is in the center of the tea bowl so that it rotates in all directions around a central point. The detailed had me hooked because, not only do I love the idea of making useful items, but, as a sculptor, I also love the idea of making the idea feel and function flawlessly.

A tea bowl must feel good in the hands!

Second on the checklist is the size of the tea bowl. The first few teacups I made (after my research I dare not call them tea bowls) were much smaller than a traditional tea bowl. A chawan should be roughly 8cm tall and 13 cm wide! Which, as it turns out, is the golden ratio. This isn’t a hard and fast rule, of course, but the widely agreed upon ratio for beauty couldn’t hurt, huh?

The golden ratio in action.

Third—let’s talk shape. There are a wide variety of external shapes, but regardless of the external shape, the inside of a tea bowl needs to be rounded and have no rough spots. A rough spot could snag the bamboo whisk, possibly breaking it and leaving unwanted surprises in your tea. Further, if the inside isn’t rounded (meaning a smooth slope going from the vertical to the horizontal bottom of the tea bowl) it can make it difficult to get the tea completely mixed up, leaving lumps of powder behind and ruining the experience.

Another feature that is expected in a tea bowl is called a tea pool. This is a small depression in the bottom of the tea bowl where the remains of the tea can ‘pool’ when the tea is finished. Wonder where it gets its name?

It’s easier to see the tea pool before the glazing process.

And finally, the carved foot on the bottom of a tea bowl gets a great amount of attention and is an opportunity for me as the potter to really put my own spin on it.

The carved foot adds an extra bit of personalization to the process.

But even this feature isn’t just for looks, as it does have a specific function. The tea ceremony requires the one serving the tea to do very specific motions with the tea bowl while holding the it between their two first fingers and their thumb. Therefore, the foot of the tea bowl must have enough variation of shape to make it easy to grip.

A tea bowl is designed to be gripped in a specific way.

The ease of use of a tea bowl is very important because a tea ceremony is a series of complicated motions and the person performing it doesn’t want any surprises. That’s why tea bowls are literally rated on a difficulty scale. More on that in a future blog post!

I truly enjoy making all of the different pieces in my Vessels For a Specific Purpose series. However the tea bowl has been the most challenging and in turn the most rewarding so far.

-Mark Wilhelm

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