by Nina Gaby
Somewhere in the barn I still have the coil-built turquoise vase I made in high school, junior year. By junior year I was already drunk on pilfered vodka or high on cough syrup by homeroom, plotting and planning my escape, creating mayhem in the house so I could get mad and run away. Which I did regularly. A child of post-Holocaust survivor guilt, born only five years after the war and the only Jew in my class, existential angst ran robust in my veins.
The vase was two feet tall, the glaze went a rough matte and a large black blemish appeared after the firing. The blemish was a mistake, leaning too close to the heat, proving to be serendipitous and magical. I loved the mistake, its irony being that it was the only thing of beauty I produced in those difficult times.
My art teacher, Mrs. Saylor, barely tolerated me. But I labored over that vase, fixing cracks and smoothing the outside with a wooden scraper, covering it and uncovering it in the slow drying process as if I were caring for a baby. The vase won a prize and soon after I ran away again, landing in art school in Jerusalem, Israel.
From that rough black blemish surrounded by matte turquoise, I discovered my love for abstract calligraphy, for boro rags, for “wabi-sabi” and mottinai, for Mark Rothko and negative spaces, and for the simple elegance of a cracked and ancient tea bowl. For the spontaneity of a mistake or two.
My art school roommate had lived in Japan and filled our room in Jerusalem with artifacts dizzying in their beauty. I found a Japanese boyfriend and travelled with him to Japan for a while.
I learned the discipline of 500 Bowls, eventually I became sober, forgave my father. I won other awards. The big one: an invitational to a porcelain exhibit at the Renwick, Smithsonian. My parents attended the opening with me. My pieces are in the permanent collection. My father died happy, his daughter no longer a problem. I became a full-time studio ceramic artist.
I grew older, my aesthetic never changed but expanded. My own porcelain work aspired to the heartbreaking imperfection of the spontaneity I responded to in the Japanese artifacts, but my work always ended up pretty, perfect, popular in terms of sales. I eventually closed my studio. I became a psychiatric nurse practitioner, working with imperfect beauty in another way, plastic like clay but different. Treating mental illness, cracks of a different nature.
And then I met Zetsu No. 8, the porcelain installations by Japanese artist Nishida Jun one hot August day at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Zetsu No. 8 is a sculptural piece in three parts, formed from massive layers of porcelain and glaze, pressed together and then left to split apart in the hot fire of the kiln. Each of the three parts is under glass, on pedestals in a darkened room. At first glance the viewer wonders if she has stumbled on ancient ruins or bombed Buddhas from some recent war. Every metaphor the viewer considers is intentional and accidental. I do not misuse the word “met.” This is a visceral, breathing piece.
As I read the wall placards I saw that the artist had died in a kiln explosion. I began to cry. It was dark and silent in the gallery and I thought I was alone. In a hushed voice behind me, a small Japanese man whispered, “Thank you.” He was standing with a woman who had tears in her eyes as well. I responded with an awkward bowing movement, momentarily unhinged, and rushed to the bright lobby to yank out my phone.
I immediately Facebooked: “To a porcelain artist this is an opera.” All the tragedy and glory. Somehow sharing on social media helped me feel less alone and help push the breath back into my body.
“Shattering, exquisite, awesome,” is how the Boston Globe described this work. This intrepid artist, at the zenith of his young career, left Japan with two colleagues to go to Bali to work with local potters to help them preserve their ceramic traditions – and was killed in a kiln accident. Zetsu, which means finality, is now a fixture in the Museum’s permanent collection. It leaves one to marvel at the connections we find when we spend time with art.
As I read the article I realized the timing of Nishida Jun’s parents’ visit to finally see their son’s work posthumously and so proudly displayed, I wondered, were they the Japanese tourists that afternoon who saw my tears and thanked me in those hushed tones? Yes, I decide now as I write this. We remember it as it should be. Nothing wasted, nothing accidental.
On the wall plaque we read about the challenges in conserving this piece which has already fractured, due to intention as well as accident, into the three large pieces. “Even after treatment, Zetsu No. 8 remains tenuously fragile due to the structural instabilities inherent in the object.” The heat of the kiln reached only so far to vitrify the glaze powder and the porcelain. The rest remains what we call “green” and pushes “the limits of ceramic technology.” My classical training would never have allowed me to think in this manner.
On the wall we read: “Nishida Jun viewed his work as “living and changing.” In his embrace of the power of nature, he also accepted entropy; the sculpture stands in opposition to basic physical forces such as gravity, mass, and cohesion.”
In the interim since first viewing the sculpture I have opened up some bags of porcelain, gotten out my old tools, allowed myself to experiment. The “short” and unforgiving nature of the Frost porcelain I am using causes pieces to crack, warp, slump. I use those imperfections, stuffing the mistakes with scraps of writing. I wrap handmade paper over scrolls of porcelain pages. I break pieces into shards and call them poems. I bind tissue thin slabs of clay with rusted wire. I embellish with my grandmother’s old buttons that I have saved over half a decade. I have mounted my own pieces on pedestals. I have won a few more awards.
Again I visit Zetsu No. 8, five years later. My daughter is now grown and lives in Boston, so I visit Zetsu often;eachtime something new pushes at me. The same big questions that have been pushing at me since childhood.
How do we explain the death of an artist such as Nishida Jun? How do we ascribe meaning to the nature of his enduring imperfection? Of the enduring loss?
I end up back at the beginning with Man’s Search for Meaning by Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl. First published in English in 1959, it is one of the ten most influential books in America. Like Eli Wiesel, the Existentialists, and Buddhist interpreters, Frankl makes his case that life is circumscribed by acceptance, by what he describes as the “tragic triad” of pain, guilt and death, and it is our job to say “yes to life in spite of everything.”
In Frankl’s original plan, his book would be published anonymously. When interviewed after millions of copies were sold, he explained that he did not see that as success but as indicative of human misery and the degree to which we are searching for answers. That suffering is inevitable but how we choose to endure it gives it meaning.
Frankl bases a final chapter on a 1983 lecture, calls it “The Case for a Tragic Optimism.” In it he reviews the basis for his theory of logotherapy, analogue to the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy I utilize today, which requires that we find a way to imbue a situation, no matter how tragic, perhaps a situation such as the loss of a brilliant young artist to a kiln explosion, with meaning. We arrive at meaning by creating work or doing a deed; we achieve that in a context. Such as the heroic young artist who goes to a foreign country to build kilns to help the indigenous potters maintain their artistic identity.
Frankl quotes a student who is paraphrasing him: The meaning of your life is to help others find the meaning in theirs. Frankl agrees. That was it exactly.
Who am I to say that Nishida Jun’s loss, doing what he most loved to do, is random waste? An act without meaning? That his works do not continue to live and move and inspire?
Because of such things, I continue my work.
“What is to give light must endure burning.” – Victor Frankl.
Nina Gaby is a visual artist, writer, and psychiatric nurse practitioner who has
worked with clay, words and people for five decades. She is currently exploring
mixed-media, focusing on single edition artist books which explore the
intersection of narrative and object and has been exhibited widely in the region. She maintains a clinical practice and her essays and articles been published in numerous journals and anthologies. Gaby published “Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women” in 2015. Her studio and home is in a 1790’s cape across from the longest floating bridge east of the Mississippi.
For more about Gaby’s work, the “500 Bowls” or the review of Zetsu #8, please go to: www.ninagaby.com.