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The Healing Art of Kintsugi

All things, and people too, can be beautifully restored after brokenness, as this stunning exhibition in Richmond reminds.

Dorothy Woodend 7 Jul

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

Kintsugi is the Japanese art of fixing broken pottery with gold.

As the Richmond Art Gallery’s new exhibition Imperfect Offerings amply demonstrates, the 500-year-old Japanese practice can be applied to more than broken cups and plates. Turns out, it also works for people.

After her marriage ended, artist Naoko Fukumaru moved to Vancouver looking for a place to start over. “As an act of care, kintsugi is more than a metaphor for rebuilding,” she says. “I was restoring myself too.”

Born in Kyoto, Fukumaru trained as a conservator in the U.K. Her work has taken her around the world from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to Italy, where she contributed to projects like the restoration of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper and the tomb of Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun.

After settling in Powell River, B.C., she came to kintsugi somewhat mysteriously after receiving an email from a local potter who wrongly thought they’d missed a workshop in the technique offered by Fukumaru.

It proved to be a moment of supreme serendipity. Fukumaru dedicated herself to learning the practice, applying it to an astounding array of different objects, like crab shells and glassware. The results are startling in their beauty and variability, spanning not only different geographies but also different times — from Roman glass circa 200 A.D., to pre-Columbian bowls to Delft pottery from the 18th century.

One of the most striking things about Imperfect Offerings isn’t just the range of the 200 artworks on offer, but the concept itself. Unlike other methods of restoration, kintsugi isn’t meant to disappear or be invisible. Just the opposite. The traditional practice involved dusting tree sap with powdered gold, using the veins of bright metal to join cracks and shattered edges.

The intent is to make repairs visible, and in so doing to celebrate intransience and fragility. In this aspect, kintsugi is both practical and poetic, not hiding brokenness but bringing it out into the open to find beauty in imperfection. As Fukumaru says, “Nothing is perfect.”

One of the first non-traditional objects that Fukumaru applied kintsugi to was a sea urchin shell, after her cats decided they liked the taste of it. Recombining the fragmented pieces required the artful use of both gold joinery and textiles. The result is a singular convergence of organic form and creative discipline, held together with singing tension that brings to mind some rare form of musical instrument.

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Naoko Fukumaru, Ocean Scars, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In addition to her work with kintsugi, Fukumaru’s creative practice encompasses textile works informed by natural imagery, as delicate and complex as the organisms that they reference.

The Richmond exhibition also features ceramic artists Jesse Birch and Glenn Lewis.

Lewis, 86, was part of the first wave of B.C. potters who studied and worked together in the early ‘60s at Leach Pottery in the U.K. Bernard Leach, called the father of British studio pottery, proved influential for a generation of Vancouver artists.

Lewis apprenticed with Leach, and when the pots he made in the U.K. arrived back in Vancouver broken and damaged, he set about restoring them through the process of kintsugi. Imperfect Offering includes an entire wall dedicated to Lewis’s ceramic work, accompanied by his photographs.

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Glenn Lewis, installation photo of The Poetic Process (2019) at Franc Gallery, Vancouver. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jesse Birch, currently the curator of the Nanaimo Art Gallery, followed in the footsteps of artists like Leach and Lewis. In honour of the exhibition, Birch created a tea set to be used by the gallery staff.

Birch fashioned five different teapots with the aim of letting the right one present itself during the firing process. When he accidentally cracked the lid of the chosen pot, he reached out to Fukumaru in hope that she could repair the broken part through the alchemy of kintsugi.

As Birch explains in his artist’s statement, this final bit of providence was meant to be. “Since I am giving the pot to the gallery, I thought it would be nice for a golden trace of the overall exhibition to carry into the lives of the workers and visitors to the gallery.”

Imperfect Offering presents a long and occasionally staggering list of works from other ceramic artists, including Wayne Ngan, Heinz Laffin and Shoji Hamada, among others. While Hamada or Ngan might not be household names, in ceramic circles their work is revered for its craft and beauty.

In putting together the show, the Richmond Art Gallery exhibition tips its hat to the past, in particular to the Belkin Gallery’s 2004 exhibition Thrown that featured some of the same artists.

Running throughout the Richmond show is an odd vein of serendipity, not unlike the connective gold traceries that bring together the different objects themselves. As Fukumaru explains, her introduction to kintsugi via the mistaken email wasn’t the only instance of happy accident.

A chance encounter with the daughter of famed ceramic artist Wayne Ngan led to an extraordinary collaboration. When she was invited by potters Jan Lovewell and Ron Robb to go through their discard pile in preparation for the Richmond exhibition, Fukumara found a piece of stoneware fashioned by Ngan in the 1970s.

Fukumaru gave her young daughter the yellow vase to help clean. Strangely enough, an unexpected visit from Gailan Ngan, Wayne Ngan’s daughter, happened almost at the same time. Upon seeing the piece, Gailan exclaimed, “This is my father’s vase!”

With help from his daughters, Fukumaru reached out to Ngan. The artist was battling cancer at the time and wasn’t much interested in Fukumaru’s kintsugi project, but a studio visit had a transformative effect. The pair decided to work together in March 2020, although COVID put a stop to this.

Ngan passed away in June 2020, but Ngan’s family allowed Fukumaru to repair many of his works, including a 500-year-old Nanban teapot that Ngan had found buried in the roadside dirt in Japan and brought back to Hornby Island.

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Works by Jesse Birch: Left: Cup (inverted), woodfired stoneware with shino and ash glazes, 2020. Cup (inverted octagon for Richmond Art Gallery), stoneware with black glaze, 2021. Photos courtesy of the artist.

Some of the most impactful items in the exhibition are also the humblest.

Broken and discarded bits of pottery unearthed from Slug Pottery, a pottery studio founded in Roberts Creek, B.C. in 1968 by artist Mick Henry, makes up the centrepiece installation in the show. In the gallery, the Slug Pottery excavation, comprised of a giant mound of stuff, radiates out in an enormous circle. At first glance it seems random and jumbled, but as Fukumaru explains, at the centre of the midden is the dusty and dirty raw stuff. As it moves outwards towards the edges of the mound, the shards are cleansed and shining, a visual indicator of the process undertaken to bring the broken back to wholeness.

A quote from Bernard Leach has particular resonance to the Imperfect Offerings exhibition: “Good pots require an ardour of vocation and the devotion of a lifetime.” Perhaps even several lifetimes. This is where kintsugi comes to bear. Unlike paintings or installations, pottery is often meant to be functional; it has a job to do, whether that’s as a plate, a vase, or a tea set.

Many of the objects in the show carry with them the lived experience of history. Vessels for daily life, burnished with care and long use. As Fukumaru says, the act of restoration isn’t simply therapeutic, it also has a kind of magic as a form of resurrection, a way to return an object to reverence and usefulness. It’s a potent reminder that even the most broken things still possess beauty.

The art of kintsugi also has a way of bringing people together. This is made clear in the continuity of B.C. ceramicists included in the show, brought together through Fukumaru’s care and tenacity. “Each pot has its own story,” she says. The same applies equally well to people.

'Imperfect Offerings' runs until Aug. 22.  [Tyee]

Read more: Art

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