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Wabi-Sabi Wednesday: Good Vibrations for Japan

3/23/2011 10:11:59 AM

Tags: wabi-sabi, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, Kiki Smith, Shiho Kanzaki, Etsy, Teahorse Studio, Cynthia Cusick, Japan earthquake relief, American Red Cross Japan Earthquake/Tsunami Relief Fund, Soetsu Yanagi, Robyn Griggs Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailOn Wabi-Sabi Wednesdays, I feature excerpts from my upcoming book, Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House, which will be released in April. 

“Machine-made things are children of the brain; they are not very human. The more they spread, the less the human being is needed.”

—Soetsu Yanagi


Nearly everything in our homes is made by machines, which is perhaps why we’re so touched by goods that remember the hands and the heart that made them. Many Eastern religions, Shintoism in particular, believe that everything—from the human being to the speck of dust—carries a vibration. A piece made slowly and lovingly by hand, rather than by a jarring and impersonal machine, holds the steady, solid vibrations of its maker. “The making of ceramics and our attitude toward living are closely related,” potter Shiho Kanzaki says. “An attitude of disarray toward living can cause us to make works that have a ‘wrong spirit’ or are without soul.” Imagine the spirit that lives in plastic gadgets made by soulless machines run by sleep-deprived wage slaves in the Philippines.

Surrounding myself with things that real people made invites a tiny piece of each craftsman into my space, subtly changing the energy. I bring honor into my house when I serve potatoes in the purple bowl thrown by a potter from my hometown in Iowa or place flowers in the balloon-shaped water jug made by a man I met in Asheville, North Carolina, fired in a kiln powered by methane gas from a landfill. When I brew tea in my mustard yellow pot, I remember one of one of the best days I spent in Japan. I’m drawn to all of these things for their beauty and utility, but it’s the people who made them—and the stories behind them—that make the difference.       

American sculptor Kiki Smith says pottery’s magic is its utility. “The owner acts with it in a direct way: own it, use it,” she says. “In that way it is like jewelry. One doesn’t simply stand back and observe and admire as one is likely to do with a painting or sculpture.” Touching and interacting with fine, heavy pottery and hand-stitched textiles gives me something to appreciate every day. My sister Stefanie’s hand-stitched quilts keep my kids warm at night and remind them of family, in Iowa, who loves them. When we watch TV, we wrap up in afghans so finely crocheted (by my grandmothers and a friend) that they’ve stood up to being TV room blankets in a house full of kids for 16 years. The sea-green water jug made by the potter in North Carolina takes center stage on the credenza in my little townhouse. Its narrow neck forces me to be sparing with the branches or flowers I choose for it that week. (It would never accommodate a cellophane-wrapped “garden bouquet.”) It looks great with three early pussy willows or one bare winter branch, which saves me a bundle on grocery store flowers and keeps me in touch with how the seasons are changing right outside my door.

 etsy vase 

Etsy, one of my favorite sources for buying handmade items with soul, is offering an extensive list of items whose sales will benefit Japanese earthquake relief efforts. Cynthia Cusick of Teahorse Studio will donate $60 of the $75 retail price for this coil pot to the American Red Cross Japan Earthquake/Tsunami Relief Fund.  

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