Sunday, August 28, 2011

still-sound 3. Aoud

A few months ago I met a man named Faruk who is possibly one of the most interesting people I've ever met. A businessman who sold most of his business and has more time to devote to his passions, namely woodworking and wood appreciation. He also makes and collects extraordinarily beautiful Arabic calligraphy and speaks seven languages. He happens to know everything there is to know about aoud/ oud/ agarwood/ jinko/  aloeswood (this stuff has a lot of names apparently) and collects specimens and aoud oils.

Aoud is basically the result of the aquilaria tree reacting to a fungus in the same way that grapes can magically transform into the honeyed fruit of Sauternes wines. The tree reacts to the rot by creating a resin which melds with the wood resulting in a precious substance with an indescribable scent. Aoud, which basically looks like driftwood, can then be ground into a powder and burned like incense or extracted into oil. The practice of burning aoud is relatively common in the Middle East and in Japan where it's called jinko or kyara (a particularly high grade jinko). Apparently you can't really force aquilaria trees to become aoud so when it's found in Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, India, it comes with a hefty price tag.

Because I expressed quite a bit of enthusiasm over Faruk's aoud collection and because he happens to be wonderfully generous he gave me five vials of oils; a bag full of aoud chips of various origins along with ground kyara and ground agarwood from a now extinct tree. He came across the latter in a Chinese herbal apothecary in Hong Kong and named the wood Elysium.

I wasted no time in making an appropriate vessel for these gifts. I made a covered pot in porcelain. It was my first attempt at making a lid which in reality was much trickier than I anticipated. The inside of the pot is glazed transparently and the outside is bare. The lid didn't fit exactly, in fact it's more a suggestion of a lid. To keep the inside somewhat airtight I placed a rose quartz on top to weigh it down a bit. The contents deserve better protection so I've since made several more covered pots. I'm not sure how many 'lids' have been made and tossed in the making of the final pieces. As soon as they're out of the kiln I will give the aoud a better home.

I made pouches for the ground kyara and Elysium with rice paper decorated with a little bit of sumi ink drawing and bound them with string.  I haven’t been able to meet up with Faruk recently because he's been in Asia for most of the summer but when I next hear from him I have a covered aoud jar waiting for him.

Monday, August 22, 2011

still-sound 2. Peaches

I didn't know that I liked peaches until I was in my thirties. I grew up thinking that peaches were syrupy and came in a can or that they were kind of hard and tasted like water. The first time I ate a perfectly ripe peach was in my friend Fiona’s home in Burgundy, France and I was struck by the beautiful balance of tart and sweet. And the succulence. I got it - finally. The same is true about tomatoes. I didn't know that fragrant, ripe tomatoes could be magical. I knew they were technically fruit but I didn't know they could taste like fruit. When I lived in Long Beach I used to go to a Japanese restaurant in Torrance that served a tomato salad dressed with soy sauce and sprinkled with a little grated celery. I could be wrong, but I think the tomatoes were served in a tenmoku-glazed bowl. I associate that restaurant with the black/bronze gleam of tenmoku.

When I made these bowls I didn't intend for them to be peach bowls per se. I was just trying to make bowls. I made them in late winter using black clay. One is glazed in tenmoku which is well suited to black clay. The other bowl is glazed with shino, quite thickly to allow the crawling patterns to occur. I think their hard, dark surfaces compliment the orange-red-fuzziness. As the tenmoku bowl is smaller I think it would be perfect to hold cherries as well or maybe a few satsumas in winter.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

still-sound 1. Begin

How do you start a blog? I've been asking myself this lately as I've been collecting photos and tossing around different ideas for the title. I suppose you just begin. And I decided to start with this picture.

This is a porcelain incense holder I made sitting next to the incense I recently bought. As this blog will focus specifically on the things I make on the potter's wheel and the incense I burn, this picture seemed to be the right one to kick things off. Although pottery and incense are not obviously related; they're not peas and pods or even peanut butter and jelly - I somehow associate one with the other. 

I've been making things with my hands for a long time (mostly sculpture) but I haven’t thrown clay on a wheel until this past January. The materials, methods and tools are foreign. Learning pottery when you have a background in sculpture is like learning Spanish when you can get by in French. Some words are similar but it's not just learning words, it's discovering a culture and way of thinking differently. I am starting this blog partly to keep track of my fumblings, discoveries and fascinations as I learn what to do on a wheel.

And incense... I've always had a particularly close relationship with the sense of scent. I just like to smell things. The Fragrant Arts (I think I may have just made that title up) are perhaps the most effective in telling stories in a profound, immediate and unintellectual way. I have been increasingly interested in (particularly Japanese) incense not only because of the pleasure I receive from the scents but because it helps me focus when I meditate.

The incense holder was one of the first things I made when I started throwing porcelain in the spring. I started off with simple, small objects. It’s a little bit obnoxious of me to show my rudimentary porcelain next to Sho ran koh by Kyukyodo, commonly referred to as a masterpiece in Japanese incense and according to, the very 'essence of Buddhism'. But it's my most recent discovery and I feel honored to have it begin my blog. When I received it in the post I was immediately impressed with the kiri wood box, gold-speckled label and well, its size. The sticks are so much longer than I had expected, in fact half a stick is more than adequate at a time. The scent of the unlit bundle was surprisingly edibly-spicy.

And the burn? I didn't really form an opinion at first. In fact, several burns later I still don't really have a definitive take. This is the problem with anything with a superlative reputation - you expect the earth to tremble, maybe hear the voice of God and suddenly have a new view on life. I was so busy asking myself 'is this it? is this it?' that I barely noticed the scent. It's an incense that whispers -it does not have a thundering voice. It's slightly sweet. 7-Up?  Pond's Cold Cream? It's slightly aromatic and every now and then a trail of aloeswood appears.  When the stick goes out the scent seems to disappear - it's not a lingering house guest.

Although I still can't describe with any confidence the scent of the incense, I can say that it definitely transported me to another time and place. I found myself in the house where I grew up. Suburban Philadelphia, as a young teenager, maybe 1987. I don't think the incense is even slightly reminiscent of the cologne I wore at the time (especially as it was Drakkar Noir) or the smell of my house itself, but I was transported portal-transported. At times the wisps of smoke resembled the sweet, chalky smell of the smoke machines that fog every school dance - after a hissing sound accompanies the opening chords of 1999 by Prince. I don't know if the koh artisans from Kyukyodo are Prince fans or if they went to school dances.

I can tell that Sho ran koh is going to challenge me. It's elusive, quietly beautiful and I am burning it regularly now in the desire to understand it better. I know this with certainty however; whether or not it's the power of suggestion, the meditations I had while this incense burned were some of the most focused, fundamental and complete meditations I've had so far. The very essence of Buddhism?