Yabe Makoto, Japan
3.75 in x 6.5 in x 5 in
Gift of the artist, Yabe Makoto, 1993.289
Photograph © Denver Art Museum 2011. All Rights Reserved.
About the Artist
This tea bowl was made in 1993 by Yabe Makoto [YAH-bay mah-KO-toe], a Japanese potter who was born in 1947 in Fukushima, Japan and died in 2005. When asked in an interview why he decided to become a potter, Yabe spoke of an experience he had at the age of 17 when he went to see an art show sponsored by the Japan Art Association. He came across a piece that he said was so beautiful it hit his heart–“a white bowl, just a simple sphere with a few color streaks on it. That piece is still vivid in my memory.” A year later, as he was thinking about his future, he remembered that beautiful bowl and decided he wanted to become a potter.
During that time in Japan, people often chose to follow the traditional profession of their families, so it was unusual for Yabe to pursue pottery rather than become a businessman like his father. Yabe was initially discouraged by his mother and some of his teachers to pursue his love of pottery, but later received support after showing his determination. He went to vocational school for pottery during the day and attended college at night, where he took courses in chemistry so he could learn to make glazes. After graduating, he worked as a potter’s apprentice in Kyoto. He then moved to Boston where he gained quick acceptance from the local ceramic community while still maintaining his Japanese style and roots. Yabe worked as an instructor of ceramics at numerous schools and universities in the Boston area, encouraging his students in their love of pottery.
Yabe believed that to become a great artist, one needs to be curious and childlike, and keep trying new things. In his words, “If you become satisfied with your work, you’re just repeating the same stuff; you don’t go forward.”
What Inspired It
An artist making a tea bowl must think about many things—how the bowl will be used, how it will look and feel in the hands of the host who makes the tea, and how it will look and feel to the guests who drink from it. The base is important because the bowl must sit firmly and not tip over. The lip is important because that is where the bowl will touch the lips of the guests when they drink. The inside is equally important. When the bowl is used, host and guest will see it from all sides, including looking straight into the bowl while drinking. Inspiration may come from the practical aspects of making a bowl easy to drink tea from, but it also must come from a desire to delight the visual and tactile senses of the host and guest as they use the bowl.
The tea bowl is the centerpiece of the Japanese tea ceremony. Traditionally, a tea bowl has no handles and is made to be held in both hands. It is the most active of all tea utensils as it gets passed around to all of the guests. Each guest drinks out of the bowl and examines its shape, color, and texture before returning it to the host. Those who make tea bowls aim at making a bowl that will engage the senses of vision and touch, and small and subtle variations are often prized.
The ritual of serving tea involves a number of specific steps for the host and guests. It can last anywhere from twenty minutes to five hours and consists of two distinct stages, represented by the drinking of thick tea (about the consistency of white Elmer’s glue) and thin tea (about the consistency and frothiness of hot chocolate). Both types of tea are prepared by whisking green tea powder with water, but the powder used to make thin tea comes from plants that are younger than those used for thick tea, and more water is used in the preparation of thin tea.
When preparing for the ceremony, the host places a little mountain of powdered green tea inside a tea caddy or container. Once the ceremony begins, he removes the lid of the caddy and scoops a small amount of tea powder into a tea bowl, whisking it with hot water to create a bitter green tea. After the guests have finished their tea and the host has cleaned the utensils, the guests will often examine each item, noticing its color, shape, size, glaze, and texture. The utensils are handled with extreme care and reverence because they are often very valuable. The host chooses which containers to use based on who is attending the ceremony, the level of formality, the season, the time of day, and how each container will complement other utensils used.
Information about the Japanese tea ceremony can be found here.
Another tea bowl in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
Two examples of tea caddies in the Denver Art Museum’s collection:
This bowl appears to be made from two different colors of clay. This is done by placing one slab of clay on top of a slab of another color, then cutting and folding the two slabs together until the colors mix in unusual ways. The mixed clay is then placed on a wheel to form the bowl.
Though Yabe used a wheel to form the basic shape of his pieces, he would finish them by hand, giving them unique shapes and textures. He felt that when you concentrate on making everything the same size, shape, and weight, “you lose the feelings.”
The wide ridges were probably made using a spatula-like tool while the bowl was spinning on the wheel. Yabe may have created the angular ridges by driving the spatula into the clay after the bowl was removed from the wheel.
The zigzag line was probably made using a square-edged tool. To the right of the zigzag, there is a cross-hatched pattern or texture that could have been made by pressing something like cloth into the clay. This distinctive decoration suggests that this is the front of the bowl.
The rim, or lip, of the bowl has an irregular shape. The drinker’s lips touch the rim on the side that is opposite the front of the bowl. Special consideration is given to the texture of this portion. The shape of the lip appears to come from the artist giving it a squeeze with his hands after removing it from the wheel, forming an irregular oval shape as opposed to a round shape.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Add to the lesson by conducting your own tea ceremony, or simply serve tea. Encourage students to smell, taste and observe the properties of the tea.
- Provide students with a word prompt, (you might choose from,’ imperfect’ , ‘tradition’, ‘smooth’, ‘rough’, ‘contain’) relating to the Yabe Makoto Tea Bowl. Have each student write or draw what they visualize when they hear word prompt.
- Teach children how to make an origami cup.