Thursday, February 24, 2011

On teabowls, cups or "handleless mugs"

My good friend Dan Finnegan, the Virginia potter, yesterday posted a thoughtful little essay - complete with drawings and photos - on the design and pleasures of the mug. Specifically, on the curves that go into the form of the mugs he makes in the woods near the soybean fields outside Fredericksburg. He took issue with a blog post by that other thoughtful potter, John Bauman, who had extolled cylindrical mugs. Bauman responded with something like, "Your mother wears Army boots." Reasoned discourse, I call it.
OK, I'll let them fight that one between them. Both make terrific pots. But I was prompted to do this post because of the preview of coming attractions that appeared at the end of Finnegan's mug post: "Next Up - Tea Bowls: Overhyped Juice Cups."
I take this to be Dan's way of instigating yet another debate. Having been his student many years ago, and having been his friend many years since, I well know his feeling about teabowls. He disdains the form. Further, he ridicules it.
I have to say that I've never quite understood this stance, though I assume it comes from his English training. Across the water, no clay item related to drink comes without a handle. Sometimes mugs or tankards come with two. Or even three. Perhaps it's about grasping for your fifth pint of ale in the pub and being able to latch onto a handle no matter where you reach. I don't know ... maybe they just like handles.
But I was taken with the teabowl form early on in my pot-making life. Ever since then, I've made hundreds of teabowls - faceted, torqued, ragged-rimmed, dimpled, sgraffitoed ... you name it. As I write, the gas kiln in the studio has about two dozen teabowls cooling. Should be down to about 1100 degrees by now.
I like the form in part because I can make a dozen or two dozen in a short time, I can get a rhythm going in the morning and watch the forms change slightly as the pots are cut off the wheelhead and dropped onto the wareboard. Later that day, or perhaps the next morning, a footring is trimmed into the bottom and the pots are set aside to dry. I can get a lot of teabowls into the kiln and there are enough that I often test glazes on them. Right now there are a couple cooling in the kiln with a new Oribe recipe that I'm trying.
And, not an insignificant thing, I can sell teabowls. People buy mugs from me, but they also buy teabowls. But they rarely call them by that name. Usually, it's just "mug," or sometimes "handleless mug." I usually explain that I call them teabowls, but they are free to call them whatever they like.
When I have coffee in the morning at Coffee Obsession in Falmouth, I usually bring one of my own mugs, which have more capacity than my teabowls. Which means I get more coffee for my dollar. But sometimes I'll bring a teabowl, being careful to let the coffee cool just a bit so that the outside of the bowl is not too hot. (Yes, I understand that's one of the prime purposes of a handle, to let you drink very hot liquid while comfortably holding the vessel. So, it's a small sacrifice.)
My friend Janet, who sometimes comments on this blog, often sits at the same table with a teabowl and a Thermos of coffee, pouring when the coffee gets low in the cup. She likes teabowls. (She has a broad mind and also likes mugs; she's been known to show up in the morning carrying a very nice Dan Finnegan mug.)
My wife Dee uses the teabowls in our kitchen cabinets for water, iced tea, beer, port. Our wine-drinking friends were dismayed not long ago when we bought wine glasses; they liked drinking out of clay teabowls.
This is all about everyday living, not thinking at all about the tea ceremony. I have sold work that the buyers think is right for that formal and refined exercise, and I'm glad to have that new outlet. It also makes me think more carefully about the pots I have made and will make.
But teabowls for daily use - aka "overhyped juice cups" - will continue to come out of this kiln.
Photos above, top down: Ash-glazed teabowl by Phil Rogers, faceted teabowl by Mark Shapiro, squared teabowl by Jeff Oestreich, cut-rim and Shino teabowl by yours truly.


cookingwithgas said...

Oh what fun- because it is rare when I find a pot I do not like.
I like them tall, short, fat, skinny, shinny and Matt.
Some with handles and some with out.
I like handles on my creamers but that just makes sense.
I like them for different reasons and for different things.
The thing I don't like is a pot that might not be well-made but who am I to judge if it is well made or not?
So keep on making these over hyped and "prized" juice cups.
I know they will find good homes, because, if not, you would be filled to the roof top with them.

Tracey Broome said...

Great post Hollis, I for one am glad you make tea bowls because we drink out of two of yours every day!

John Bauman said...

Hey, I like your teabowl best. Beautiful shino. Wonderful shape. Of the four, yours is the one that most begs to be grabbed and held.

You prolly oughta photograph it next time with the handle facing the side. Hidden as it is behind the cup, I can't even see it.

Hollis Engley said...

Thanks, guys. And yes, John, I'll think about better handle placement for the next photo ...

FetishGhost said...

Beautifully written Hollis.
Good snort there John... I'm still chuckle'n.

ang said...

stop it your spoiling me !!! love em all..... we also call them beakers ;))

nick friedman said...

I love tea bowls, especially the feel of my cupped hands being warmed by a warm tea bowl. Now, if you use a thing called a "teapot" to serve your tea, most of the intense heat will have been dissipated in the teapot by the time it gets to the tea bowl and scalded palms will be avoided. Dan, if your reading this, google "Teapot." There are lots of pictures.