My three rakuyaki teabowls
My three rakuyaki teabowls

B-cat and I finished a four-week pottery class at the Shadbolt Centre. Most of our four classmates were retirees who had sold at least a few pieces of pottery; we were the only beginners.

The theme was Japanese-style teabowls, with raku firing as an option. Here’s the process:

  • Kneading white clay into air bubble-free logs
  • Slicing logs into 200-gram to 1-kilogram segments
  • Throwing clay into teabowls on pottery wheels
  • Carving feet & signatures into bottoms
  • Waiting for bisque firing
  • Glazing and decorating bowls
  • Raku firing bowls (or waiting for the electric kiln)

Popular as it is, rakuyaki doesn’t produce food-safe results, so B-cat and I sacrificed our smallest (i.e. least useful) and homeliest creations to it.

Raku teabowl
Copper highlights on my bowl

With the class starting at 10 am to 1 or 2 pm, B-cat and I were late to all but one. Maybe that was why the instructor, a retired teacher, disliked me. (Or was it because I half-joked it was “cheating” when he helped with my first bowls? Or the opposite — that he felt my first bowls were largely his handiwork?) I first noticed this in the second class and would forget and be reminded each following class.

Although his face lit up whenever he went to B-cat’s side to chat or answer a question, the instructor frowned and repeated, “What?” whenever I asked something*. B-cat and I both mumble, but I did my degree in English and he has a slight language-related disability, so our respective speaking doesn’t account for the difference.

*I’ve read a study that suggests white people, given voice samples and photos, have more difficulty understanding speech when they believe the speakers are non-white, even when the belief is wrong. It’s subconscious. I’ve never encountered this ’til now, but it makes sense here.

My rakuyaki bowls
My rakuyaki bowls

The instructor praised every piece B-cat made, including one that B-cat rushed and then half-jokingly destroyed, and complimented/encouraged our classmates in a normal way. He literally never said a single nice thing about my work.

Before you think I’m a needy, narcissistic Millennial, let me point out that my mother never praised me either (haha) and my father was strict but fair. I’m a newbie — I expect to be bad at pottery! I don’t need unwarranted praise or constant attention, and I don’t need everyone to like or be interested in me.

But when an instructor refuses to say anything encouraging or even respond when I compliment his work or compliment someone else’s work to his face, it’s a bit much.

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After bisque firing & glazing, before raku firing

After the third and fourth classes, I mentioned this to B-cat, who said, “No way! Mine are the worst. You make beautiful bowls! He loves yours!” He’s kind and optimistic like that.

After the last class, B-cat said, out of nowhere, “You were right.”

“What do you mean?”

“I tested him today. You were right. What’s wrong with him?”

That day, we raku fired our bowls and used them in a tea ceremony hosted by the owner of O5 Teabar. This Vancouver tea shop is where the instructor of our Japanese tea ceremony class at Nikkei Centre buys her maccha. During the firing, B-cat pointedly complimented one of my teabowls to the instructor.

The instructor said, “Hn.”

Later, during a lull in the tea ceremony, I was studying the crackled glaze of my bowl (it looked like sugar) when the classmate beside me complimented it while turning to our instructor on her other side.

The instructor said, “Eh.”

B-cat washing the charcoal off a hot raku bowl
B-cat in a borrowed sweater, washing charcoal off a hot raku bowl

The traditional Japanese art of rakuyaki (楽焼) involves hand-forming clayware which are fired into burnt-looking pieces and cooled. In the art of tea, prized bowls are “rustic” and round, with simple ornamentation. Fancy bowls and ones which flare out from base to rim are more Chinese in origin/influence.

In Western-style raku, teabowls are more elaborately decorated and colourful. The bowls are taken red hot out of the kiln and placed in sawdust, newspaper, etc. for burning before being quickly cooled. Only small, exposed areas become black.

B-cat removing a bowl with tongs
B-cat removing a bowl with tongs

We were the first to use Shadbolt’s new raku kiln, which looked like an oil drum with a top that moved by pulley. I wasn’t allowed near it because my stupid knees were exposed (unaware of the fire hazard, I thought a long-sleeved cardigan, long socks, and closed-toe shoes would’ve been enough… They certainly were for the weather!).

While the others slaved over the fire, I helped make newspaper rings and take pictures. Once the bowls glowed like molten glass, “we” picked them up with tongs, tucked them into the paper nests, and turned trashcans over them. After a once-over with a torch, the bowls went under the hose.

B-cat taking a bowl out of the flames
B-cat taking a bowl out of the flames

Rakuyaki teabowls are porous and fragile because of the clay types, firing temperatures, and crazing (tiny cracks). Although Shadbolt’s glazes are lead-free, I wouldn’t drink from these bowls again.

It was an interesting experience, though. The other faculty members at Shadbolt joined us for rakuyaki and tea, and they were experienced and helpful. If only one of them had taught our class instead.

Foot of the bowl
Foot of the bowl

It was neat how different the bowls were.

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One bowl from each student & staff member (B-cat’s is 2nd from left, mine is 4th)

After the tea ceremony — more an extensive tea tasting — we filled out evaluation forms. Because the instructor was present in the small room the entire time, and because my problem was with the way he treated me as a student rather than the way he taught, I left positive feedback.

B-cat did the same, but he had actual complaints about the teaching: he felt the instructor didn’t know more about teabowls than anyone else with Google search, he felt put off by the “teabowl styles” handout the instructor printed from a random website, and he didn’t like how, when asked technical questions, the instructor always said, “Just do what feels nice. There are no rules.”

Decent advice for a master or monk, sure, but not for someone starting from scratch.

The green topcoat was green on another bowl but blue on this bowl because I applied it as an undercoat
The green topcoat was green on another bowl but blue on this one, where I used it as an undercoat

I enjoyed the class with B-cat. We made 29 teabowls together instead of buying generic Chinese-manufactured ones, and my friends were already asking where they could enroll. I grew up by Deer Lake, literally one row of houses from Shadbolt, and always loved taking art classes there.

The rest of our bowls will be ready by Sunday.

For the curious, here are B-cat's rakuyaki bowls
For the curious, here are B-cat’s rakuyaki bowls

And don’t worry about me, I felt a little better every time the instructor said ra-KOO for raku (pronounced laku) and kay-OH-lin for kaolin (pronounced COW-lin) clay. You can’t imagine my glee when I discovered that the stamp he used to sign his pieces, the one he got in Japan but didn’t bother to learn to read, says “u” (う, pronounced like an incomplete “ooh”).

It makes a short, meaningless sound, just like him!

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