Cracks are how the light gets in: Kintsugi & grief

Kintsugi, also known as ‘golden joinery’, is the exquisite Japanese art form that involves fixing broken ceramics using lacquer and gold. The cracks are mended, highlighted, and made more beautiful. Is this true of us humans too? Can the way you heal from the hard things in your life help you find your best self? As Leonard Cohen puts it, "There is a crack in everything, that's how the lights gets in."

The exquisite Japanese art of Kintsugi
The concept of Kintsugi is that there is beauty in imperfection (and thank goodness for that). That it is in the breaks and cracks where beauty and strength reside - once the fixing process is complete that is.
“It is Kintsugi’s capacity to encompass both a down to earth practicality and a full-blown metaphoric torrent that gives this amazing technique its powerful appeal.”  Bonnie Kemske, author of The Poetic Mend. 
The truth is that most lives involve pain and loss, and the sometimes messy aftermath as we struggle our way through the healing process.  I have always loved the story of the caterpillar, which turns to almost complete mush before emerging as a butterfly. No pain no gain indeed...

Just like with broken pots, the human fix is slow and painstaking and the result will never again be what it was before. There may be moments when binning the whole thing seems like the best option and the best you can do is try not to get stuck, keep the light in plain view and keep going.

Perhaps this is the point; that it is within those arduous periods of struggle, that we eventually find peace, acceptance and meaning. In this way our broken bits transform and become our strength, just as the golden joinery of Kintsugi turns a standard pot into a precious artwork. 
"There is a crack in everything, that's how the lights gets in." Leonard Cohen
After my mother died suddenly, my mother-in-law, a glass artist who lives close by, gave me a beautiful book called ‘Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend’. The book reminded her of me because of our shared love of craftsmanship, but also because its author Bonnie Kemske lost her brother at a young age, just as I did. The metaphor of healing by showing and strengthening the cracks resonated. 
My wonderful Mum lived next door to us and home-schooled our kids all through the Pandemic and her loss leaves a huge gap in our lives. Grief, after all, is simply Love. There cannot be one without the other.
I keep a copy of Kintsugi: The Poetic Mend book here at work and often glance at it. To be able to transform grief and loss into something beautiful and strong…  well that is priceless. 

Image: Kate Dewmartin, KINTSUGI: The Poetic Mend, by Bonnie Kemske, published by Herbert Press 2021
As a family, we experienced intense grief when my brother Sam died in a rock-climbing accident at 21 years old. I was close to my brother, we were climbing partners and good friends as well as siblings, and I found it difficult to keep my head above water for several years after the accident. I found a great deal of compassion and humility within all that pain however. I’m not saying it was worth it; I’ll miss him - and Mum - forever, but there are things I was able to learn from the experience of grief and despair; the process added something deep and valuable to my life.

Image: Kate Dewmartin. Sam and I in 1999, climbing in Australia
The Kintsugi message is poignant as it teaches us so beautifully that the cracks enable the light to get in. Which means that life’s struggles and vulnerabilities are the superpowers we should cultivate and cherish. It doesn’t always feel like that. The knee-jerk reaction to human struggle is often (for me anyway) to make my shield harder to penetrate, to close off and say, ‘I’m fine!’ even when my world has crashed at my feet and my heart feels like a stone.

My younger self put so much effort into hiding this vulnerability. The death of a loved one feels like being blown wide open for everyone to see. You are fragile and it becomes so much more important that the remaining people around you are good and kind, because the need to protect yourself is very real.

Losing love is like a window in your heart. Paul Simon, Gracelands (a favourite album of ours)
Kintsugi in the Highlands 
Anyways. A while back, I was chatting to one of our woodturner tutors based at the gateway to the Scottish Highlands, as he puts it; “All the glory of the Highlands without all the pain of getting there.” Sounds good to me. 
Stuart McLellan’s work caught my eye as his wooden pots contain ‘stitching’. Yep, you heard it right, the wood has been sewn

Image: Stuart Mclellan, Magnolia stitched hollow form by The Scottish Woodturner
“Historically, wooden vessels were highly prized. If a piece developed a crack, it would be repaired by stitching, usually with leather, and sometimes by fixing metal strips across the crack. The piece would then be used for dry goods.”

Stuart uses copper wire and I find the contrast beautiful. In fact, it is this copper stitching that attracts me to the work as a whole. As often happens, a technique borne out of economy and need becomes the art form, the most precious part of the whole artwork.
Image: Stuart Mclellan, The art of Kintsugi applied to wood, Kintsugi in the Scottish Highlands
Feeling inspired?

Try Kintsugi woodturning in the Highlands with Stuart Mclellan

Read the beautiful book, available to buy from World of Books (WOB) here: "KINTSUGI The Poetic Mend" by Bonnie Kemske

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Can creativity soothe the pain of grief?
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