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Photo Courtesy of Homemade Banana

What Is the Art of Kintsugi?

Discover this Japanese pottery that is easy on the eyes and soul.
by Roxanne Robinson Dec 25, 2021

The centuries-old practice of kintsugi challenges an equally old adage that something is beyond repair. It suggests that a fix is not only possible, but results in the item being even more beautiful than the original. The idea draws inspiration from the Japanese practice of Wabi-Sabi, which finds beauty in imperfection. Kintsugi reconstructs broken ceramics for a result that is even more exquisite than the original piece. Nest Casa takes a deep look at a practice that is not only beautiful but soothing as well.

What Is Kintsugi?

It's believed that the kintsugi ceramic technique was developed in approximately the 15th century. It started with Ashikaga Yoshimasa, the eighth shogun in the Ashikaga shogunate. (The shoguns were military leaders appointed by the ruling emperor in feudal Japan and, in effect, the actual rulers of the country.)

Basically, Yoshimasa’s favorite teacup shattered. Determined to have it fixed, he sent the piece of broken pottery to China for repairs. Techniques were rudimentary and aesthetically unpleasing, as they were constructed with inferior metal binding agents. When the teacup was deemed unfixable, the shogun enlisted Japanese artisans to see if they could repair it. Recognizing his determination to see it restored—and considering from whom the request was issued—they decided to engage in metallurgy practices. The craftsmen recreated the cup as a jewel by using lacquered resin and powdered gold.

This could be chalked up to lore, but the timing of this artistic practice occurred during a dynamic creative period in Japan. Yoshimasa is credited with the Higashiyama cultural movement. Drawing upon the visual and theoretical cues of Zen Buddhism and employing the art of wabi-sabi, this renaissance ushered in chado (or, the Japanese tea ceremony) as well as ikebana (or, floral arrangements); noh, which is classical Japanese dance-drama; and sumi-e ink painting. Each of these disciplines, which primarily flourished during the shogun's reign, is still commonly associated with the Japanese aesthetic in the present day.

How Is Kintsugi Done?

As the concept behind kintsugi pottery is based on making broken pieces whole, a key component to this process is glue. While there are artisans who specialize in kintsugi, the mildly ambitious can try it at home. (If you need to break the crockery before performing kintsugi, it's suggested that you put the ceramic in a bag before breaking it.)

Today, a clear, fast-drying epoxy glue is used to reassemble the major pieces.Originally, for thousands of years, the Chinese and the Japanese used an urushi lacquer, sticky sap from the toxicodendron vernicifluum plant, sometimes referred to as the Chinese lacquer tree. This lacquer was also used in making weaponry and other decorative items.

Kintsugi can be made with natural gold powder or any tinted metal alloy powder. The main difference is price. It’s applied finely to the crack lines once the piece is reassembled. Sometimes, a gemstone or some sea glass is worked into the piece, creating a more jewelry-like and diverse sculpture than the original.

The Metaphor Inside Kintsugi

Kintsugi starts with the wabi-sabi belief of there being beauty in imperfection, but it goes beyond that. It considers an embracing of flaws to rebuild something even more robust and highlight the flaws in the process. The beautiful gold traces the break lines of the piece, drawing attention to them.

In her book Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit, Candice Kumai discovered how metaphors like kintsugi help people understand the art of healing. She sees kintsugi as a way to reframe a tragic or difficult period in life. Value is gained from the missing pieces, cracks, and chips as they can be reformed for an even more beautiful result. By giving ceramics a new life and meaning, the analogy to life is clear. It’s OK to love one’s self, family, and friends with all of their flaws and,  if life’s challenges have broken someone, he or she can be built up again—better, stronger, and more resilient than ever. As Kelly Clarkson sings, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Kintsugi proves that theory.

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