"Is There a Place for Zen Pottery in Western Society?"


Bonita Cohn is an American potter, residing in San Francisco, California. She is not a Zen Buddhist, describing herself as a "pagan eco-feminist," but chooses to use elements of Zen within her work, and her approach to her work.  She exhibits with the Baulines Craft Guild, and the California Association of Clay and Glass Artists.  Cohn creates functional objects, such as bowls, vases and bottles, in stoneware clay, which she throws on the wheel. Although, she usually fires her work in a gas kiln, she has taken part in numerous wood-firings. Due to the "palette the (wood burning) kiln itself brings to a blank piece," and allowing the fire to effect the work in "its organic way," Cohn believes Zen has come to her through her work, and by identifying with Zen; she uses a Zen attitude in elements of her approach.


"Winter" 3.5x4 inches (Collection of the Artist)

In wood firing, pots are placed within the kiln chamber with the thought to their relationship to the flame and "fly ash." The pots contact with the flames produces "flashing," and the amount of fly ash determines the consistency of the glaze on a ware, as the "fly ash" fluxes when in the chamber and creates a natural glaze. Cohn describes wood fired pots as having a "front and back."

"I think of pots as stones in a river; heavily impacted on one side and quiet on the other."

She expresses how with the woodfiring "life's dualities are all there."

In her tea bowl, entitled "winter," duality is expressed aesthetically, by rough and smooth. The glaze of the tea bowl is smooth, shiny, and bright in one place and dry, and textured in another. The two contrasting surfaces are wrapped around the circular form, and the fluidity of the circle infuses the two contrasts.

Cohn creates a foot-ring on her tea bowl by trimming away the clay when it is leather-hard. Her tea bowl   ("Winter") has a ridge where the form curves in  at the bottom. The ridge further enhances the fluidity of the piece, the spontaneity of the piece, and also suggests the way she has approached the pot, and the process of trimming. Cohn chooses to use a Zen approach to centering the clay on the wheel. When centering one must concentrate wholly. If we are off center, we virtually feel lopsided and eccentric; we cannot work unless the clay, in finding its center, centers us. Eastern ceramists often meditate before throwing. This allows one to find the mind"s still center. They believe that when the mind is clear the forms can flow freely, effortlessly, and with out force.

The act of firing creates a dualism within the ceramists themselves, during a wood firing: "the relaxation of awareness in which we become so absorbed as to lose oneself in a trance-like meditation, is the exact opposite of the particular and focused attention and control which the firing involves. A clear affirmation that what some may perceive as tedious, repetitive activity, can become a vehicle for a transcendent state in which somehow transmits itself into the pot."

In "Dragonfly," Cohn expresses how she embraces the idea of beauty within imperfection. This is largely to do with the wood firing: the amount of "fly ash," and spontaneous "flashing." However, Imperfection within one's works is also a reflection of the maker.

Dragon Fly
Dragon Fly, 22" (in a private collection)

The maker must have the strength to follow their intuition, and leave an object imperfect, whether it is a blemish, or crack. Cohn recognizes the strengths with in the rough textures created by the firings, the beauty of an asymmetrical form.

She has learnt from experience that ceramics has the ability to teach such things as: "letting go of the outcome - in order to have something."

Bonita Cohn's work is a further example of Zen's universal nature, as she is not a Zen Buddhist, but by embracing Zen in her approach, her work displays the "moods" of Zen art.

Excerpted from the dissertation written by Laura Anne Frodsham, Ceramics Department, Duncan Jordanstone College of Art and Design, England.
Posted with permission of the author.