O‘ahu potter Bob McWilliams has a secret—one that has kept him and his group of artist friends close, focused, progressive, and productive for a quarter of a century: chanoyu. More than any single thing, chanoyu is a synthesis of the many arts surrounding the Japanese tea ceremony, including ceramics.
Long before the matcha meets hot water, and people come together to enjoy it—for an informal gathering, or chakai, or the more formal chaji—wet clay must pass through an artist’s hands. On O‘ahu, there are no hands more practiced than those of McWilliams, Carl Fieber, Ed Higa, Ken Kang, Philip Markwart, and Yukio Ozaki, whose chanoyu crafts go on view at the Art School November 4-23—perhaps for the last time.
“It can be really huge,” says McWilliams, discussing the ceremony by phone in early October. “There are all kinds of ceramic implements. Originally it was almost all ceramic—tea bowls, the little caddies, futaoki (lid rests), all kinds of little things, as well as fresh water containers and waste water containers.”
For McWilliams, Markwart, Fieber, and Higa, the exploration into creating these implements goes back 25 years to a small show in a gallery in Kaka‘ako—helped by curator Keiko Hatano and inspired by Hawai‘i Craftsmen’s annual Raku Ho‘olaulea. After a few small shows, they were joined by Kang and Ozaki and moved the show to the Art School, where it’s been held biennially for the past 20 years.
“We all liked tea ceremony and raku firing, and the juxtaposition of those,” McWilliams says. The contrasts between the formality of the tea ceremony and the wild variance resulting from raku firing styles opened up a world of techniques and philosophies that have intrigued the group ever since.
“It’s based on Zen and the wabi-sabi outlook on ceramics, where asymmetry and irregularities are OK, and maybe even revered, to make each piece unique,” McWilliams explains. “There’s just so much to a tea bowl, and it’s kind of the central figure to a tea ceremony, at least from my perspective it is. The host or hostess picks a tea bowl for the guest and that becomes the center of the tea ceremony for the guest. Tea is made in that for the guest and presented to that person, and they get to look at it and drink the tea and have that whole Zen experience. It just became a never-ending process of trying this and trying that, doing all different kinds of tea bowls.”
McWilliams, who teaches ceramics at Punahou, has personally been creating in clay for 40 years, and finally feels that his exhibitions in “the way of tea,” a literal translation of chanoyu, will end this year.
“This is possibly the last exhibition,” he says. “We really honed our work and our cooperative effort to a really high quality. But most of us are getting older and don’t have the stamina we used to have to set up an exhibit.”
Who can blame them? Collectively, the group’s ongoing output, from the 80s to the present, bore the brunt of sustaining a tradition that has deep roots in Hawai‘i, and has connected many local families to ancestral traditions in Japan. You can show your appreciation, and feel a touch of Zen, by checking out the group’s exhibition this November.
Want to go a step further? There’s a tea ceremony class at the Art School. Or you can take a ceramics class at the Art School, Hawai‘i Potters Guild, or through the University of Hawai‘i—all of which have teachers versed to some degree in tea ceremony ceramics. Who knows—maybe you’ll want to stick with it, and O‘ahu’s chanoyu shows won’t yet go gentle into that good night.