|In the mid-1800s American ceramics drew from the simplicity of Chinese and Japanese ceramics. Inspiration also came directly from the growing interest in the collection of Oriental ceramics among American museums and private collectors. One hundred years later, the 1950s, became a decade of liberation for the American potter. The dominate influence came from Japan and their Zen Buddhist theories. Daisetz Suzuki best explains this phenomenon: "Evidently beauty does not necessarily spell perfection of form. This has been one of the favorite tricks of Japanese artists – to embody beauty in a form of imperfection or even ugliness. When this beauty of imperfections is accompanied by antiquity or primitive uncouthness, we have a glimpse of ‘Sabi’ in it. ‘Sabi’ consists in rustic unpretentiousness; apparent simplicity of effortlessness in execution, and, lastly, it contains inexplicable elements that raise the object in question to a rank of artistic production."
This appealed to the American potter in the 1950s – Japanese pottery offered the American potter aesthetic values different from those of the West. Above all, Zen was the key to breaking with the formalist regime of European object and its demands for perfectionist craftsmanship. Through Japanese pottery they were able to glimpse a new value, based on risk and expression. For most American potters the first contact with Oriental philosophy came through Bernard Leach. In 1940 this English potter wrote “A Potter’s Book”. In late 1949 Leach visited the United States and toured from coast to coast, drawing large crowds. He returned again in 1952 to do a speaking tour in the United States. This time he brought with him two close friends, Shoji Hamada, soon to be named Living National Treasure (1955) of Japan and Soetsu Yanagi, director of the National Folk Art Museum of Japan and the founder of the Mingei craft movement. Leach spoke of what the Orient had to offer the West; Yanagi explained the mystical principle of Zen Buddhist aesthetics and Hamada demonstrated throwing and painting pots. The seminars at the Archie Bray Foundation in Montana and at Black Mountain College in North Carolina proved to be particularly influential.
The first reaction in American ceramics to the influences discussed in the many seminars across the country by leading Japanese scholars was imitation. This resulted in many American potters making pilgrimages to Japan to learn how to copy Japanese wares, while others simply copied from examples in books and museums. As in all things first tried, the production was not of the best quality. The primary experience for the American potter was the recognition of the complexity of the Japanese ceramic aesthetic. The pouring of colored pigments one over another, gestural painting, a random use of color and pure abstraction had been explored by Japanese potters for centuries. In time a greater understanding of the nature of Japanese objects and their beauty began to emerge and the quality of the pieces produced in American improved.
In a Japanese tea ceremony, "the emphasis is on the interaction between the host, guests, and tea utensils. The host will choose an assemblage of objects specific to that gathering and use those utensils to perform the tea preparations in front of the guests. Each tea gathering is a unique experience, so a particular assemblage of objects and people is never repeated. The guests are expected to abide by tea room etiquette with regard to the gestures used to drink the tea and the appreciation of the utensils. When presented with a bowl of tea, a guest will notice and reflect upon the warmth of the bowl and the color of the bright green matcha tea against the clay before he begins to drink. The ceramics used in this context—tea bowls, water jars, flower vases, tea caddies, and so forth—are functional tools valued for their practicality as well as artworks admired for their aesthetic qualities."
Above paragraph from: Willmann, Anna. “The Japanese Tea Ceremony.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/jtea/hd_jtea.htm (April 2011)