By Leigh Morrow
Pottery has long been considered an art form in Mexico, and in Oaxaca, women have reigned supreme. The Aguilar family is perhaps one of the best known of the pottery families. The dynasty began with potter Isaura Alcántara Díaz as a young girl, learning the traditional pottery making techniques of the Oaxaca Valley, which were originally mostly limited to making utilitarian items. She began to experiment with decorative human figures, imaginatively capturing the daily activities of pueblo life. Women in indigenous garb were portrayed in every aspect of life and her work deeply influenced her children and grandchildren, who continue today to shape Oaxacan folk art. However, like most pottery art, once a piece is broken, it loses its value.
Beautiful pottery pieces have become worthless with a careless slip of a wrist, angrily, often sadly, discarded by the owner. But what if there were another technique, which could not only make these broken items whole again, but transform these broken pottery pots or bowls, cups or plates, into even more authentic, beautiful and original art?
This art of repair, called Kintsugi, has wonderful possibilities.
The Japanese concept allows broken pottery to be born again, and in its rebirth and regained usefulness, create profound beauty in its salvaged state. This repair method celebrates each artifact’s unique history by emphasizing its fractures and breaks instead of hiding or disguising them.
Legend has it that Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun of the Ashikaga shogunate, after breaking his favourite tea cup, sent it to China to get it repaired. Unfortunately, at that time the objects were repaired with unsightly and impractical metal ligatures. It seemed that the cup was not repairable, but its owner decided to try to have some Japanese craftsmen repair it. They were surprised at the shogun’s steadfastness, so they decided to transform the cup into a jewel.
The Kintsugi art of repair was born. The glue traditionally used to bring the pieces together is the toxic sap from the Chinese lacquer tree. Initially, this sticky sap was used for its adhesive qualities to create war and hunting weapons. The sap contains the allergenic compound urushiol, the same oil found in poison ivy.
Kintsugi then incorporates a precious metal – liquid gold, liquid silver or lacquer dusted with powdered gold – to bring together the pieces of a broken pottery item and at the same time enhance the breaks. The technique consists in joining fragments and giving them a new, more refined aspect. Kintsugi translates to “golden joinery”l; beautiful seams of gold glint in the cracks of ceramic ware, giving a unique appearance to the piece. Every repaired piece is unique, because of the randomness with which ceramic shatters and the irregular patterns formed that are enhanced with the use of metals.
More importantly, with this technique it’s possible to create true and always different works of art, each with its own story and beauty, thanks to the unique cracks formed when the object breaks, as if they were wounds that leave different scars on each of us. While this ancient art includes the idea that flaws and cracks add to something’s value, and the living story of an object’s life brings meaning, there is also a larger parallel to draw when you apply these repair practices to nature. If we view our planet as a rare sacred antique vessel that needs artful repair, perhaps our imagination could more easily devise creative ways to help heal Mother Earth.
Each of us has some gold or creative spark to give golden light to our world. Lately the world’s troubles are so profound, the work seems daunting. Yet golden repair will only work its magic, if we believe there is something worth preserving. Women are artful in the talent of mending and repairing. If we believe our earth for future generations is worth preserving, like a treasured ancient bowl of life, then we must each find a small crack and begin the mending. Our light is needed more urgently as the world grows darker, daily.
For those of us who suffer breaks of the heart or spirit, Kintsugi offers us the idea of reclaiming these broken pieces, instead of hiding them, or denying them, and becoming whole in a different more beautiful way with the liquid light cast from the art of repair. The idea of golden light for renewal is as old as life itself. Renewal is present in almost all religious practices and customs as we instinctively gather in the darkest times to give forth light and renewal. Just think of Christmas and Hanukkah, Solstice celebrations, festivals of light, and New Year’s. If we all did small yet significant Kintsugi repairs, we could collectively achieve much. We would heal ourselves as we repaired the fractures in our families, communities and the vessel we call planet Earth.
The art of Kintsugi, whether repairing pottery, the planet, or ourselves, teaches us many things. On one level we shouldn’t throw away broken objects. When an object breaks, it doesn’t mean that it is no longer useful. Damaged parts can become valuable. In addition, the art of repair also teaches that the breaks that occur during our life, while we craft our story, can be woven beautifully back into our history, making it all the richer. This is the essence of resilience. It is only from our cracks that the light can shine from within. As Leonard Cohen said, “There is a crack, a crack, in everything. That’s how the light gets in” (“Anthem”).
Leigh Morrow is a Vancouver writer who owns and operates Casa Mihale, a vacation rental in San Agustinillo, Oaxaca, Mexico.