When I first got into clay about two years ago I read a book called Shoji Hamada: A Potters Way & Work by Susan Peterson. I then went immediately into the kitchen and took all the dishes out of my cupboards for a thorough examination. Why did I pick up certain dishes more than others? Why was this bowl my favorite? Why did I dislike this particular mug?
This led me into a deep dive of ceramics and discovering my own tastes and preferences. I discovered Chanoyu (The Way of Tea), Matcha and in particular the Chawan (Tea Bowl). There are endless variations of the same vessel, and to me that makes it something magical.
The only place to see and purchase Chawan that I knew about was to look to one of my favorite places: Etsy. There I found literally thousands of Chawan. I had to have one. I had to have one from someone that embodied the same tastes as myself so I could further know what this was all about.
In my search for the start of my collection I came across the bowls of Jeff Guerrero and found myself drawn to the simplicity and elegance of his work. This bowl was the first in my collection and remains one of my favorites. I use it often.
Since then I have purchased several more Chawan and Yunomi (informal tea cup) from Jeff because they just speak to me somehow. Seeing pictures is one thing but drinking tea from a bowl involves all five senses. The sight of a beautiful functional piece of art. The sound of the water being poured and the Chasen (bamboo whisk) frothing the matcha. The shape and texture of the bowl in your hands and the heat of the tea. The smell of the tea before it hits your lips. And finally, the taste of the tea which is unlike anything else.
I have spoken with Jeff on several occasions and I appreciate his ideals, his generosity, and his work. I find it fitting that I should interview him first. After all, he gave me my first taste of what a good Chawan should be. He has also given me lots of good advice in regards to my own work. I wanted to get to know him a little better so I thought that this would be a fun way.
In my limited time here on earth I’ve found that passions sort of have to “catch” you at the right time. Once they do, you know you have to follow and there is very little choice in the matter. How and when did you find clay as a passion?
I haven’t been a potter for especially long, but my introduction to ceramics was rather serendipitous. In 2007, I was hired to teach digital arts at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a non-profit arts center in Pittsburgh. MCG was started as a ceramics studio, and so clay is central to the culture there—the founder is a potter, my boss is a potter, and so are a number of my friends. I tried my hand at the potter’s wheel, and because my existing skill set helped me have some early success, I got hooked pretty quickly.
A few months after starting, the National Ceramics Convention came to Pittsburgh. At that time our studio was hosting a month-long residency
for Hiromu and Mieko Okuda, ceramic artists from Shigaraki, Japan. I spent a lot of time with them, in the studio and in the cafeteria. Hiromu is from a family who create pottery for the Japanese tea ceremony, so that became an important component of his residency. They both make conceptual ceramic art, but I was drawn to the notion of teaware. I was astounded by the value, not just monetarily, but by the way functional pottery was celebrated as art.
Can you tell me a bit more about the how, what and why that draws you to teaware and what, if you can put it into words, do you feel when you hold a nice chawan, made either by yourself or from another maker?
Following Hiromu’s residency, my interest in Japanese tea ceremony was piqued. I attended several cultural events and invited the Japan-America society to demonstrate for my students. Eventually one of the performers suggested that I inquire about lessons from her teacher. It was then that I truly fell in love with tea ceremony, mostly because it was unlike anything else I had ever experienced. Nothing in my life was so austere yet pleasant—rigorous yet beautiful.
My initial interest in tea ceremony stemmed from the ceramics involved, but further study revealed the interaction between many elements—wood, cloth, metal, clay, flowers, paper, water. Surprisingly, the tea bowl is typically not as revered as other implements, even though high-quality tea bowls often command more than $1500.
As for what I feel when I hold a nice tea bowl, unfortunately, I’m afraid I don’t really have the kind of philosophic/poetic commentary that people might like to hear. A good tea bowl is usually light, aesthetically pleasing, and properly shaped for its specific function. I aspire to make good tea bowls, but I have no delusions about my place as in the world of ceramics. I enjoy what I do, and I sell my work at a very reasonable price.
That’s what all philosophic / poetic people say 😉 What do you strive for in your work? Ceramics is not something that you pick up, master in a few days and then you’re finished. Much like the Martial Arts, it’s a lifestyle, a choice to pursue something that has no end. There is ultimately no completion, no finishing, only onward for as long as you choose to travel the path. So along the same lines, what is “that certain something” that keeps you coming back?
The short answer is that I like making good pots.
I’ve learned a lot from my friend Tadao Arimoto, a master woodworker here in Pittsburgh. One of the things he’s taught me is what it means to be a craftsman. It’s not just about you and your work. It requires an intense respect for your craft, the materials, the end user, and your fellow craftsmen. I strive to be respected as a craftsman. I know that I’m not a master craftsman yet, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever deserve that acknowledgement, but I like to think that I’m at least a journeyman who’s on the right track.
Ceramics continues to fascinate me, both technically and aesthetically. As frustrating as the technical challenges can be, I enjoy problem solving. And while I’m not a mad scientist in the studio, but I do a bit of experimentation. Even an ordinary kiln firing may yield unexpected results, and when I pull a “jewel” out of the kiln it’s like Christmas morning.
Of course, my interest in Japanese tea ceremony fuels my interest in ceramics. As my studies progress, I continue to learn more about the craftsman’s role the this tradition. It seems that there’s a nearly endless variety of tea ware, which keeps things interesting, to say the least.
How do you stay motivated? I find the before work ritual to be of immense importance to getting started and sticking with it. How do you deal with the ups and downs and breaks in between inspiration?
I don’t really have a problem with motivation. I enjoy making pottery, and I’m anxious to grow and improve. Unfortunately, between my day job and my freelance obligations, I have limited time for pottery. And because of my particular studio situation, I have to make hay in the sun. So I’m often scheming and daydreaming about pottery while doing my day job. It also helps that there’s a financial incentive to create new work, though I try not to let that be too much of a driving force.
Where do you see yourself in the next few years? Are there any upcoming projects you hope to start or do you let it flow organically, one thing taking you to the next?
In five years I just hope to be doing what I enjoy doing. Of course I hope that I’ll be better at it, and that my work reflects the time I’ve invested. If all goes well with my tea ceremony studies, I should have learned a great deal more, and perhaps my work will be in greater demand. Hopefully I’ll have added some new forms to my regular repertoire. Maybe by then I’ll have a different studio situation—maybe not. I’ll just be happy if I’m able to make some nice pots in the future.
Here is a small sampling of Jeff’s work.
You can see more on his Etsy page – https://www.etsy.com/shop/GuerreroCeramics
His web page – http://www.guerreroceramics.com
And his Facebook Page – https://www.facebook.com/guerreroceramics