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Wisdom and Whimsy in the Ceramic Art of Julie Bagish

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Japanese Accents: This series of articles showcases Southern California artists whose works integrate elements of Japanese art and design yet speak boldly about our contemporary SoCal lives. Some are Japanese-American; others have no blood connection with Japan but have discovered something Japanese that resonates with their artistic vision.

In the leafy backyard of a quiet residential street in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, a fist-sized lump of grayish-white clay is being coaxed downwards and then drawn up again repeatedly on a gently spinning wheel. Seasoned fingers then hollow out the lump, gradually transforming it into a bowl form. Too small for soup or cereal, the bowl, once glazed and fired, will fit snuggly into a pair of cupped hands and will host the whipped powdered green tea drunk in the Japanese tea ceremony.

The rustic tea bowl and other earth-toned vessels of Japanese inspiration are the clay creations of Julie Bagish, a Los Angeles-based artist originally from Portland, who has been creating ceramics rooted in Japanese traditions for over 30 years. "Japan changed my life," claims Bagish. "I had no idea I was going to be an artist, let alone a potter, until I visited Japan." She and her husband moved to Kanazawa, the capital of Ishikawa prefecture on the Japan Sea coast of central Japan in 1969. While her husband researched at Kanazawa University, she studied flower arranging, basket making, calligraphy, and most significantly, ceramics. Her first teacher was Kimpei Nakamura, who was trained in the local Kutani tradition (best known for colorfully enameled porcelain wares) but made modern abstract ceramics. "He just let me explore with clay," Bagish explains. "It was my second teacher, Issei Takamitsu, who taught me how to throw pots." Bagish went on to study under Iida Seppo and other Kutani potters for about 6 years.

After returning to the U.S., Bagish began to study the tea ceremony, and over the next 25 years, mainly under the tutelage of Madame Sosei Matsumoto of the Urasenke School, her tea practice literally shaped her ceramics. "I learned that when you pick up a tea bowl, it should feel like it's floating on your hands - not too heavy." For several years now, her tea bowls, tea caddies and other tea wares have been so thoughtfully balanced and decorated that tea practitioners in the U.S. and Japan have commissioned them for use in formal tea ceremonies. Her other Japanese-inspired vessels display a similar wisdom about the relationship between form and function. For her sake sets, she not only considers how the bottle will pour, but also decorates the cups to provide the drinker with something interesting to look at when the cup is empty. "Sake drinking is like tea drinking," she explains. "When you drink sake with someone you are sharing a unique moment with them - this includes the space, the snacks and the ceramics themselves."

Though steeped in the centuries-old wisdom of Japan's tea ceremony, many of Bagish's ceramics also overflow with a sense of playfulness. Bagish, who is in her early 70s but still sports cheerfully dyed red hair, is clearly comfortable with whimsy in her life and work, and this is particularly apparent in the name of her gallery, the Growling Fish Gallery, after the fish motif that recurs throughout her work. What is surprising to many people is that Japanese traditional culture is also rich with playfulness and humor. For centuries, a playful sensibility called asobi, has been summoned up by Japan's writers and artists, even tea masters and Zen Buddhist priests to help convey heavy spiritual concepts. Many of Japan's traditional ceramics display this lightness - such as blue-and-white porcelain bowls adorned with plump, cartoon-like rabbits and the crookedly imperfect forms of old tea jars and tea bowls. Bagish's tea bowls and sake bottles, often decorated with fish, frogs or rabbits, either stamped onto the clay as it dries, or painted on with colorful pigments, resonate closely with this aspect of Japanese tradition too.

Tea Bowl with Fish Patterns (2011) by Julie Bagish, glazed porcelain.
Tea Bowl with Fish Patterns (2011) by Julie Bagish, glazed porcelain.
Japanese Tea Bowl (2010) by Julie Bagish, glazed stoneware.
Japanese Tea Bowl (2010) by Julie Bagish, glazed stoneware.

This sense of whimsy is portrayed most brazenly in her figural sculptures - forms that have little to do with the tea ceremony, but echo the ceramic burial figures of Japan's distant past. Her squat, square-headed figure B1f2 has the startled expression and truncated legs of a character in the cartoon South Park, but with considerably more aesthetic charm, most notably in the delicately impressed patterns visible under a soft celadon glaze. Her work Female-Samurai 2, melds together the striped pattern of a samurai's kimono with the voluptuous female form of ancient ceramic fertility figures, with glass spangles, borrowed from South American design highlighting her full hips.

"I love to bring together influences from different cultures and different times in my work," explains Bagish. Lately, she has been inspired by the work of a 19th century Japanese Buddhist nun called Otagaki Rengetsu. Rengetsu was a poet, calligrapher and potter, who combined all three talents by decorating her tea ceramics and sake bottles with poems inscribed in exquisite calligraphy. Channeling this romantic Japanese female artist, Bagish started inscribing her own clay vessels with haiku poems, which are traditionally written with a strict syllabic structure of 5-7-5 and contain clever wordplay and references to nature. She inscribed one tea bowl, shaped out of a rich, chocolate-colored clay and coated with a plain, white slip, with a haiku verse that portrays the tea ceremony as a dance, punning the Japanese word for tea, "cha," with the Cuban dance form.

Cha cha cha; 3 steps,
Boil the water, whisk and serve
Ocean's odor sent.

By contrasting the austere tone of this tea bowl with a clever, upbeat haiku, Bagish takes her place among the descendents of Rengetsu and other celebrated Japanese ceramicists. To their wise and playful legacy, she adds a witty worldliness that can no doubt be attributed to life in Los Angeles, which can be lived in several cultures at once. Here in L.A., we talk often of cultural fusion. In the ceramic works of Julie Bagish, Japanese tea ceremony, haiku poetry in English and Cuban dance are literally fused together at temperatures of over 1,000° Celsius to form elegant vessels to contain our food, our drink and our multicultural spirit.

Julie Bagish's ceramics, mosaics and prints will be on view at the Silver Lake Arts Collective's annual exhibition Spectrum 2012 at Citibank in Silver Lake from Saturday October 10 and can be seen at her Growling Fish Gallery and website.
 

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