Tea Ceramics Exhibition: Richard Milgrim

 

Those of us within striking distance of Boston ( and who are looking for something tea-related or ceramics-related to do on a winter’s day ) are in for a treat this month. From January 15th until February 14th the Pucker Gallery at 171 Newbury Street in Boston is featuring the inagural exhibition of the tea ceramics of Richard Milgrim. The opening reception is scheduled for January 15th and from 3 – 6 pm the artist will be in attendance.

Richard Milgrim is an American potter fully imbued in the Japanese tradition of ceramic tea wares (chato)  and Chado, The Way of Tea. (Chado is a synthesis of numerous philosophies and arts which culminate into a unique method of preparing and drinking matcha (powdered green tea) known as Chanoyu, or the Japanese tea ceremony. Cultivated and nourished by the Japanese since the 1500s, the Way of Tea is a discipline which transforms simple daily activities into the fine art of life. )

He is an exceptional artist whose work reflects what he has learned and absorbed from his time studying with four different Japanese master potters. Early in his career, Richard was endorsed by Dr. Sen Soshitsu XV, who was at that time the Grand Master and Head of the Urasenke School of Tea. Dr. Sen was so impressed with Richard’s interest in Japanese tea and the tea arts, his potter’s skills and knowledge of the intricacies of Japanese tea ceramics traditions that his endorsement opened the door for a young Richard to meet and work with many famed Japanese potters.

As a result, Richard studied with Iwabuchi Shigeya, a specialist in Kyoto ceramics; Tahara Tobei, a 12-th generation master of the Korean-inspired Hagi tradition; Fujiwara Yu, a famed maker of wood-fired Bizen ware (who was later named a Living National Treasure), and Kato Koemon, a prominent potter of Shino and Oribe wares in the Mino tradition.

Since 1979, Richard has worked in Japan as a potter specializing in tea ceramics, first under known masters and then as a master himself. These extraordinary opportunities have put Richard in the unique position of being an American with a breadth of understanding and familiarity with Japanese ceramics that no other American potter possesses.

Richard approaches tea ceramics as an insider and his work reflects the complete degree to which he has immersed himself in understanding all the essential aspects of what is required of his pieces to work successfully in a Chanoyu setting: the size, proper balance, weight, form, and above all, functionality. It is because of his high level of accomplishment and because he lives a life dedicated to tea and tea ceramics that his best customers are among the most discriminating tea practioners and ceramics collectors in Japan.

Those familiar with Japanese tea ceramics for Chanoyu know that the pieces are usually large, and commanding in presence.  Richard’s work is thusly so, but my eye finds a softness in  his work rather than an aloofness or awkwardness. This welcoming quality begs the onlooker to admire and contemplate each piece individually as well as to imagine how well the piece will fit in to the context of the other materials chosen for inclusion in a particular tea ceremony. (Ceramics represent only one type of material used for Chanoyu. Other materials to be considered when planning a particular toriawase ( the selection of a combination of various tea utensils and objects chosen for a particular tea gathering ) are the iron tea kettle; chasen or bamboo whisk; chashaku or bamboo tea scoop; lacquer incense burner; woven bamboo flower container; hanging brush-painted calligraphy scroll. )

But above all else, these ceramics are appealing. I immediately want to hold them, touch their sculpted and slightly uneven surfaces, and to feel the cool smoothness or slight roughness of the glaze that drapes each piece of clay for just the right effect. The beauty of Richard’s work goes beyond their intended use for tea and will be of interest to ceramics enthusiasts in general.

Richard maintains two studios, one in MA ( Konko-Gama ) and one in Kyoto, Japan ( Richado-Gama.)  The greatest concentration of his work  is produced in Japan, but in each of his kilns Richard uses local clays and glazes that have been formulated for those clays. Hence, his American work and his Japanese works bear a distinct difference from one another. But they all exude the Richard Milgrim style and flair, making the purchasing decision even more difficult for collectors of tea ceramics or for Chanoyu practitioners seeking to add a new piece to their carefully chosen and valued collection of teawares.

Richard is a friend and a huge talent. I urge tea lovers and ceramics collectors to attend his inagural gallery exhibition. It will be a wonderful opportunity to view a full compliment of Richard’s work, and to see  how his Western and Japanese sensibilities interplay to create Japanese tea ceramics that pay homage to the past but bring the tradition forward via pieces that both function flawlessly while effortlessly pleasing the eye.

We had the pleasure of meeting with Richard on several occasions in the past two years, including on his turf in Kyoto, Japan. It was a thrill for us to spend time in Japan with Richard and his wife, Mari, who is a master tea practitioner in the Urasenke Foundation school of Chado or Way of Tea. She is involved with both the Kyoto and Boston Chapter of Urasenke. ( The Urasenke Foundation, based in Kyoto, Japan, through diligent and dynamic efforts has become the largest school of Chado both in Japan and around the world. They have branch schools in many parts of the world, including the USA. Urasenke spreads international appreciation of Chado, through Chanoyu, the Japanese tea ceremony, which is based on tenets established by the tea master Sen Rikyu (1522-1591 ) and continued by successive heads of the Sen family every generation since. )

Mari and Richard lead what I call a ‘fairy-tale’ life. They are a joyful couple and each is completely devoted to separate aspects of tea culture and Chado; he to ceramics and she to teaching the graceful art of Chanoyu. ( Chanoyu is based on tea master Sen Rikyu’s seven principals:  Make a delicious bowl of tea; lay charcoal so that the water boils; provide a sense of warmth in the winter and coolness in the summer; arrange flowers as they are in a field; be ready ahead of time; be prepared in case it should rain; and with whom you find yourself give every consideration without fuss.  Practicing these  seemingly simply activities one soon discovers how challenging it is to carry them out without fail. The Way of Tea concerns the creation of the proper setting for that moment of enjoyment of a perfect bowl of tea. Everything that goes into that serving of tea, from all of the tea utensils to the quality of the air and the space where it is served, becomes a part of its flavor.‘ )

As a couple and as artists they complement one another beautifully, and spend much of the year in Kyoto: the central place where the tea arts are taught and practiced and tea is considered an important aspect of life. Attending a tea cermony with Mari and Richard at a private temple was a privilege and joy to experience. We had a little glimpse into their life in Japan, enough to realize how very unique their world is.  With a several hundred year old tea tradition behind them, they have dedicated their lives to the gentile Kyoto world of  tea, tea ceramics, kimonos, traditions, protocol, reverence and etiquette.

You can now have a glimpse into Richard’s world by viewing his work on display at the Pucker Gallery. Come and let him tell you about the pieces. What will one see here ?  Many delightful objects and vessels essential to Chanoyu. Japanese tea fanciers and collectors of Japanese ceramics are of course familiar with the chawan, the oversized tea bowl that is most central to the shared experience or direct connection between the host and the guest in a tea ceremony.

But tea practitioners need many other ceramic tea utensils, too, so one will see several examples of the lidded ceramic tea caddie or chaire which holds the koicha or thick tea ( a very particular type of matcha used at certain formal tea ceremonies); the mizusashi, or lidded container for the freshwater; the hanaire or flower vase; and various sized shallow serving bowls as well as some sake cups, sake bottles and tea cups that could be used during kaiseki, the multi-course meal with accompanies the serving of 2 types of tea in the most formal tea ceremony called a chaji. 

Of course, any of these tea utensils could also be freely used outside the formal tea setting for everyday use.

Surpassing Boundaries:
Richard Milgrim’s
Ceramics for Tea and Beyond
January 15th – February 14th

Pucker Gallery
171 Newbury Street
Boston MA 02116
616-267-9473