How to beautifully repair ceramics with the Japanese art of Kintsugi

Imagine a loved object: a cup, plate or bowl. Maybe your favorite aunt owned it, or was it found in another country and shipped safely home? Now it’s broken, fallen into a small handful of big shards. Did you break it? Or is it worse if it’s your partner you’re trying not to scold for their occasional clumsiness?

Now imagine a centuries-old tradition of mending that adds beauty to joints. Not quite a celebration of scars, but an affirmation that things can be saved and that perfection is only ever temporary – if it exists. Welcome to the world of Kintsugi.

Before discovering the Japanese art of mending with resin and gold, I put dabs of nail polish on chipped ceramics at the edge. At first I tried to match the color to the glaze, but after a while I found it was more satisfying to highlight them with a different color. Shining it red, silver, or gold created a feeling of happiness, a sense of satisfaction in a rescue, and a reminder that this particular piece was loved enough to be saved.

A few years ago, I interviewed the artist Cléa van der Grijn. She had a vase carefully wrapped and sent home after a trip to Mexico. It had arrived, if not in the thousand cliche pieces, at least close enough. When she showed it to me, proudly displayed on a shelf, fused with veins of gold, I thought it was one of the most beautiful things I had seen.

In her book Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend, Bonnie Kemske explores this extraordinary craft, touching on history, stories, political activism and more. Through its pages, we are led to consider the cracks in the landscape, our own personal, physical and emotional scars, and to explore Japanese traditions of making and repairing in contrast to Western ones more familiar here.

Bonnie Kemske first trained as a dancer before turning to ceramics. Photography: Ian Olsson

Kemske first trained as a dancer before turning to ceramics. Her “molded hugs” are sculptural pieces, created to be hung on the body – so it’s no surprise when she says that “objects have life. We project emotions into them.

Her own home is comfortably filled with items and she describes Kintsugi as “a connection to the generations behind you and to future generations”.

Kits online

Kemske is keen to decouple his research and thinking from books such as Kintsugi: Embrace Your Imperfections and Find Happiness – The Japanese Way by Tomás Navarro, a book that promises to help you achieve joy through thick and thin. Released in 2018, it was described in a review as “the latest lifestyle trend promising to transform our lives…” No wonder Kemske, who cares deeply about the pitfalls of cultural appropriation, prefers to keep her distance.

Still, you can see how the philosophy behind the art could lend itself to flippant promises of helping each other. In her own introduction, Kemske asks us to imagine a broken dish, passed down from a grandmother.

“She had little to leave, but she knew this dish would always remind you of her. And now it’s broken. Maybe you could find a professional restorer, she thinks. “But even with the best restoration, even if it looks like new, you’ll still know it was broken…it’ll never be the same again.”

John Domenico, Kintsugi Jar II, 2016. Wood-fired ceramic with kintsugi repair, presented in front of the anagama kiln in Denver.  Photography: John Domenico

John Domenico, Kintsugi Jar II, 2016. Wood-fired ceramic with kintsugi repair, presented in front of the anagama kiln in Denver. Photography: John Domenico

The point – or one of the points – of the Kintsugi is that nothing is ever the same again. Stretch the thought, and each time you use a beloved object, you change it because it now carries the memories of every moment of use. Kemske agrees.

“An object is never finished,” she says simply. Kintsugi marks this change, beautifully.

Before meeting Kemske (via Zoom), I had purchased a Kintsugi kit online. The cute €27 white box at humade.nl contained one of those double tubes of glue – the ones that start to set as soon as you mix them. There were wooden sticks, rubber gloves and a small pot of gold. I was very excited and not very good at it. My Kintsugi was blobby and looked nothing like the pictures in the Kintsugi-is-easy companion manual.

But experimentation honed my technique, and despite the fact that trial and error also caused the discovery that my patches weren’t dishwasher safe, I had (mostly) luckily resurrected a cracked vase, a chipped bowl and a broken plate. Another kit, this one for €17.95 from sandyleaffarm.com, includes two bowls to practice on, which makes me smile that anyone doesn’t already have plenty of ceramic banjax handy. .

Urushi Lacquer

Kemske is tactfully polite about my efforts, which are more glue making than real Kintsugi, and recommends the kits from £73 (€84.50) on kintsugioxford.com, where you’ll also find advice and practical sessions. The real Kintsugi uses urushi, a material that comes from the Japanese lacquer tree and is collected by incising the bark and collecting the drops. Treat it with caution – it is toxic to most people and requires gloves and careful handling.

The surfaces of your broken object are painted with urushi, then dabbed with a thicker mixture of urushi, with the addition of flour and/or starch glue. Next, make putty, which also includes fine sawdust. Clay dust gets involved, and you’re still not ready to gently sprinkle the joints with gold.

Tea served in delicate porcelain cups repaired by Kuroda Yukiko.  Photography: Bonnie Kemske

Tea served in delicate porcelain cups repaired by Kuroda Yukiko. Photography: Bonnie Kemske

“It’s a fine craft,” writes Kemske. “It takes years to acquire the explicit and tacit knowledge necessary to become a master.”

True, and yet I feel there is also a role for the keen amateur. It’s true that the more time you put into thinking in a trade, the more you tend to enjoy the results, both emotionally and practically. But you might also want to bring a broken bowl back to life, and that’s fine too.

Reconstituted

Kemske draws my attention to Claudia Clare’s Remembering Atefeh, a 2011-2013 ceramic and performance work in which the artist created, shattered and reassembled a vase-like vessel in provocative memory of Atefeh Rajabi Sahaaleh, which was executed in Iran in 2004 for the crime of being raped. “Why would anyone want to use clay pots to tell stories of survivors of sexual violence?” Claire asked. “It’s the ‘survival’ aspect that’s important. Clay pots last a long time… They can be broken and put back together. Or there is the Dutch artist Bouke de Vries, whose works by Kintsugi create, as he puts it, “ghosts” of themselves.

Kemske is an engaging writer and expert researcher with a brilliant range of credentials, and her journey takes her from her home in Cambridge, Japan, to songs by Leonard Cohen, lyrics by Ernest Hemingway and Star Wars films.

“Ceramics are strong – they survive archaeological excavations – and yet they are fragile,” she says. “There’s this wonderful contradictory point of view, wrapped up in the same thing.”

Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend by Bonnie Kemske is published by Bloomsbury, £30

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