The seven elements of shibusa are simplicity, implicity, modesty, naturalness, everydayness, imperfection, and silence. They are adapted from the concepts authored by Dr. Soetsu Yanagi (1898–1961), aesthetician and museum curator, published in the Japanese magazine Kogei between 1930–1940.Wikipedia
Madame’s orchids have all come into flower within a week of one another. We thought we’d lost them at one point, after she repotted them and they went into a two year sulk; but we don’t give up that easily and today they looked as lovely as ever. They’re not the least bit rare or (normally) difficult, in fact they were all bought from the supermarket years ago, and I guess some people would have thrown them away as soon as the flowers finished.
Coincidentally, after an evening of synthetic violence on the telly we went to bed and I picked up my ancient copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book”, published in 1940, for a sane read before sleep. I found this book when I was barely twenty years old on the shelves at Filton College one summer afternoon in a serendipitous moment, and I read half of it standing, leaning on the stack. I was totally grabbed by it in spite of not understanding any of the technical stuff – initially, I think, because having just escaped from a couple of years of mind sapping factory work, Leach’s account of the quiet routines of an artist’s workshop and, perhaps in a more subtle way, the pervasive sense of an undisclosed spirituality spoke to a deep need in me. Many years later I wrote a piece for the BBC World Service (known to insomniacs everywhere) attempting to explain how the book had inspired me. A week or so later I had a letter from a woman who asked me if I knew that Bernard Leach was a Baha’i and even led a gathering in St Ives. We met up couple of weeks later and she explained that she was a Baha’i too and she was surprised that I hadn’t known about Leach.
I was greatly surprised – not about the spirituality but more because if I’d thought about it properly (or at all!), I would have assumed he was some form of Buddhist or Taoist. In any case, my ideas about Buddhism, Taoism and Baha’i at the time were as uninformed as they were about pottery.
So the first time I ever saw the word shibui was a quotation from Soetsu Yanagi in the introductory chapter of A Potter’s Book – ‘Towards a standard‘. The orchids today seemed to embody all seven aspects of shibui as described by Dr Yanagi. There’s another Buddhist term that carries some of the same load – it’s tathata, usually translated as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’. I like the idea of ‘thusness’ because it’s a quality that I’ve found in plants, in ceramics and occasionally even in human beings who we describe as being at home in their skin.
Around the time as a teenager when I walked away from my last factory job and decided to get a proper education, Madame (aged about seventeen) decided to challenge my forthrightly reactionary view of art and with a good deal of prodding from her, I had a revelatory moment in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery while looking at a painting whose subject – the backs of old and run down Georgian houses – was uncannily like the view from the window I’m now sitting in front of. People often assume that we’re lucky to live overlooking the Green, but the room I write in looks out on a reminder of the first painting I ever properly beheld that possessed the ‘thusness’ of the thing in itself; the paint, the canvas, the brush stokes; whilst referencing but not slavishly imitating something else – the rooftops and backs of houses.
From there it wasn’t long before I found a second painting – this time completely abstract – by Paul Feiler, that evoked the colours of rusting ships in the docks. I was hooked instantly by the restrained, almost austere range of the earth colours – and here are two more significant references to ‘shibui’ – restrained and austere. So the progression to stoneware, not least Chinese and Korean stoneware came for me in the confluence of colour with process, because the austerity of the ceramics that most move me is not something that technique can put there. In a parallel with gardening, all I can do is create the conditions for the miracle to take place – accepting that failure is a big part of the act – and accept the success as a gift from the sun, rain and earth on the allotment.
In the studio, a far more intense parallel process takes place between the earth (clay) the sun (the fuel used to fire the clay all, ultimately derives from the sun), and the water which both creates the clay over geological time and provides the lubricant between the particles which makes handling and shaping possible. Both gardening and ceramics are best seen as an intervention in the natural order and – surprise surprise – in all the greatest gardeners, potters, artists writers, singers and scientists, the accumulated wisdom and experience are occluded by the thusness of the result. It happens too in watercolours in which any attempt at labouring the paint leads to failure. There is a boldness that only comes with years of practice and the practise of loss can’t be avoided.
I remember once buying some strings in Bristol and an utterly decrepit man shuffled in and took a guitar down from the display. I was waiting for someone to come over and throw him out but I went from scorn to rapt attention in two bars as he began to play. Who was the fool then? I’m probably labouring this point too much, but shibui, or tathata, are the gift of simplicity; not showing off, scoring debating points or grandstanding technique. So I’ll finish with a quotation from a novel that manages to nail something of what it means to be an artist. Gully Jimson would laugh heartily at me but somehow in the confluence of technique, experience, (almost always) implicit spirituality and sheer grind is the secret we search for but can never find util we stop looking.
That’s it,’ I said. ‘It’s the jaws of death. Look at me. One of the cleverest painters who ever lived. Nobody ever had anything like my dexterity, except Rubens on a good day. I could show you an eye—a woman’s eye, from my brush, that beats anything I’ve ever seen by Rubens. A little miracle of brushwork. And if I hadn’t been lucky I might have spent the rest of my life doing conjuring tricks to please the millionaires, and the professors. But I escaped. God knows how. I fell off the tram. I lost my ticket and my virtue. Why, your ladyship, a lot of my recent stuff is not much better, technically, than any young lady can do after six lessons at a good school. Heavy-handed, stupid looking daubery. Only difference is that it’s about something—it’s an experience, and all this amateur stuff is like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. It may be clever but is it worth the trouble? What I say is, why not do some real work, your ladyship? Use your loaf, I mean your brain. Do some thinking. Sit down and ask yourself what’s it all about.’Joyce Cary “The Horse’s Mouth”