Pittsburgh Potter Jeff Guerrero Explores Japanese Tea Ceremony
Jeff Guerrero is a graphic-designer-turned-potter who fell under the magical influence of the creative atmosphere of Pittsburgh’s Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. Founded by the iconic Bill Strickland in 1968, MCG offers after-school art instruction in ceramics, design arts, digital arts, and photography for local youth. About ten years ago, Guerrero was hired to teach in the digital arts department. He recalls, “It was the year that the NCECA conference was in Pittsburgh, and Manchester was one of the host organizations. I found myself rubbing elbows with the who’s who of the ceramics world. I couldn’t help but learn pottery.” In March of 2008, MCG had husband and wife potters from Shigaraki, Japan in residence. Guerrero was inspired by their work and befriended them. Hiromu Okuda was of the 15th-generation in his family to make pottery for use in Japanese tea ceremony. This happenstance was to have a defining effect on the aesthetic that Guerrero developed as he progressed through his ceramic journey.
Guerrero took advantage of pottery classes at Manchester while he was on the faculty. One of his co-workers had a fondness for traditional Japanese ceramics, and shared his knowledge with Guerrero. “I found it very interesting,” Guerrero says, “and started to learn more and more about it. It was an evolving process, like a chain, that led from one step to the next.” His interest expanded to Japanese history. He says, “So much of what I thought I already knew was really a superficial knowledge. For example, I thought I knew about raku, tenmoku, and Mino-ware [all distinctive types of Japanese pottery and technique], but I learned the extensive history and origins of these traditions.” He explains that the raku technique popularized by Paul Soldner “is based on the technique used by the Raku family in that it uses low-fire glaze and the pots are pulled glowing-hot from the kiln, but the Raku family did not invent that technique. A famous tea master named Sen No Rikyu went to an immigrant roof-tile maker and asked him to make chawan [tea bowls]. So that technique was likely used in China and/or Korea prior to Japan. And the immigrant tile maker was awarded the seal “raku” which he subsequently adopted as his family name.”
Guerrero’s understanding of pottery benefited from his expanding knowledge of Japan, a knowledge that is enriched by his good friend and ceramics collector, Katsuko. He says, “She is from Karatsu, one of the most famous pottery villages in Japan. Over the years she’s given me many pieces from her hometown and elsewhere, and has been a kindhearted patron and sometimes critic of my work.” He was also fortunate to be able to travel to Japan, visiting important pottery studios, kiln sites, and tea shops.
Locally, Guerrero sought out classes in the Japanese tea ceremony and was fascinated by the long and unchanging history behind it. The first time he participated in a tea ceremony he was immediately struck by the quiet, austere nature of the ceremony. He began to seek it out, as an alternative the frantic pace of Western culture. He says, “It was unlike anything I’ve ever done. In America, we often value the loudest, the newest, the most outlandish. The tea ceremony values understated kindness, quiet respect, and simple beauty.
There is so much history in the ceremony. As Pittsburghers, we think the Steelers’ six Super Bowl wins are history – mere decades. But this is something that is unchanging, written in stone, for centuries.” The ritual of the ceremony and its participatory nature evoked almost a religious sense for Guerrero, with the vessels and containers taking on a sacred quality.
As a potter, Guerrero tries to incorporate this sacred quality into his pieces. He focuses almost exclusively on functional pottery, hoping to elevate the mundane through a manifestation of beauty. He speaks of the history of tea vessels and their importance in the feudal Japanese society: “A military general would order his army to attack a territory but demand that the enemy’s dogu [tea ceremony implements] be preserved and brought back as spoils. It would be the high-ranking soldier’s greatest hope to be rewarded with a treasured item such as a ceramic tea container or carved bamboo tea scoop. These vessels were sacred art objects, but they were actually used.” He equates modern day ceramic art with a similar elevated purpose. “I have a shelf in my kitchen,” he explains, “that has nine coffee mugs on it, made by nine different artists. When I choose a cup, I choose it with an awareness of its creator. In the same way, when I make a mug, I don’t want to make twenty of the same mug.” Guerrero’s pieces are endowed with a quality that is inspired by and brought to life by his study and appreciation of the Japanese tea tradition.
Guerrero teaches both pottery and graphic design at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. He creates most of his own work at The Union Project, located in Pittsburgh’s Highland Park neighborhood, where he also teaches. He credits Union Project’s former ceramics coordinator, Justin Rothshank, with inspiring and empowering him to use ceramic decals. This allowed Guerrero to apply his experience in graphic design to clay. “My role as an educator in ceramics evolved out of my need to get away from the computer,” he says. “I find adult students harder to mold, with their many preconceived notions and higher standards for what looks good. Young people are easily pleased by their own work. They have greater freedom. My philosophy is to inspire more than to teach.”
Inspiration is at the heart of Guerrero’s work, infusing life into not only the creative process but into the created object itself. He transfers the allure of the unchanging tea ceremony with its beautiful, age-old vessels to a creative process that takes age-old earth, forms and hardens it, and animates it with a useful and inspiring life.
To learn more about Jeff Guerrero, visit http://guerreroceramics.com.
Jeff Guerrero’s pottery is available at https://www.etsy.com/shop/GuerreroCeramics.
He also is a participant in the Highland Park Pottery Tour each fall. See http://highlandparkpotterytour.com.
To learn more about the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, visit http://mcgyouthandarts.org/about-mcg.
To learn more about the Union Project, visit http://www.unionproject.org.