Guest Blogger Kristen Kieffer talks about Oribe Ware

Serving dishes, Oribe-style Mino ware, Momoyama period, 16th c. Japan

When Ben asked me to choose a piece from ceramic history that has influenced my work, the choice was easy. Anyone who has heard me lecture about my process, or takes a quick trip through the influences on my blog knows I love ceramics and its history, but am more influenced by non-ceramic objects. However, over the years, pots ranging from Mexican Mimbres bowls to Nigerian Yoruba vessels and from Iranian lustreware to Illinois Haeger planters have influenced my forms and patterns. Lately though (if the last 10 years can be considered “lately”), I’m absolutely gaga over Oribe ware.

Most potters are familiar with the deep emerald, copper green glaze called “Oribe.” I don’t think it was until I worked with studio potter John Glick in the mid-90s that I became aware that it’s actually a type of Japanese pottery. And then it wasn’t until the early 00s that my fondness for Oribe ware began to evolve into adoration and influence. In 2003, I taught a workshop at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, which miraculously coincided in timing with the Met’s exhibition Turning Point: Oribe and the Arts of 16th century Japan. I bought the book, but am lucky to have had the luxury of seeing all those pots and shards in person.

I’ve had the picture of these five Oribe-style Mino ware serving dishes on my studio wall since that museum visit, hoping to absorb a bit of their simultaneous strength and softness into my own pots. When I find something new I love, I have two goals: figure out what I love about that object and then figure out how to apply that idea to my work. It takes me time to understand what the (often intangible) characteristic is I’d like to capture. Every object has a design lesson(s) to offer. “Is it the form, lines, attitude, texture, function…?” I ask myself. My hope is to distill a favorite object down to its design core and apply one or more of those basic elements with a combination of others. Sometimes I can’t determine what it is that I love about an object; other times, I can’t figure out how to apply that idea to my work. Some objects remain a mystery.

The surface decoration of the Oribe ware was mostly what called to me from the beginning, but it wasn’t that simple. In 2010, I began to add stripes and polka dots of color to pop out my raised, slip-trail patterns, particularly for the lighter glaze colors in my palette. It was a conscious, formal decision to add more color for fun, use the color to draw one’s eye around the form, and layer the patterns for impact. It wasn’t until after I started adding the stripes and dots that I thought again about the Mino vessels.

What strikes me most about each container, and Oribe ware in general, is how the amorphous, drippy green compliments and contrasts over the geometric form and its surface design. I have no desire to simply add drippy, dark green glaze to my pots (though I soda-fired for a decade in part because it added a similar visual softness). I tend to translate my influences for design more indirectly, rather than quoting directly. Though I love the dots and stripes and am sure those patterns filtered into my subconscious off my studio wall, I didn’t add dots and stripes to my pots because of these containers. What I really want to capture from Oribe ware (the design nugget I gleaned) is the contrast in layering: the fluid (the drippy green) over the geometric (the iron patterns). I’m a “precise” maker (thanks to Pete Pinnell for that word instead of “tight”), and while I prefer symmetry, structure and organization, I also want my work to be visually soft, joyful and elegant. So my use of fluid slip-trail lines, swirls and patterns layered over crisp stripes is my interpretation of drippy green over geometric shapes.

I don’t think anyone would look at my work and say, “I see Oribe,” nor do I expect or even want them to. As I mentioned, I’m influenced by a variety of things (Art Nouveau lines, cake fondant shapes, Elizabethan fabric textures among many others). It’s the diversity of my influences combined with my personality as a maker that results in unique work. What I want my buyers to see is me; what I hope they’ll relate to are all the bits and pieces of influence that make up “me” in my pots.

Thank you, Ben, for the invitation to think and write about these favorite vessels!

Kristen Kieffer is a studio potter, teacher, and workshop leader living in central Massachusetts. I had the opportunity to take one of her workshops in 2006. Her input helped shape the way I think about surface and texture. I highly recommend you take her workshop but if you can't make one in person Kristen's video on surface design is a great way to experience her teaching in the comfort of your own home. Click here for more information or visit her site http://kiefferceramics.com.

This post is part of a series called Turning Points where artists discuss the effect historical ceramics has had on their studio life. Check back later for more posts on this topic.

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