Two years ago I wrote a profile on Jim Bjork, the retired minister and potter who works out of his studio north of Underwood. We’ve become close friends, and it’s so rewarding to visit him while he’s working on his potter’s wheel. We get into a wide range of topics from science to religion to politics to history to literature to philosophy. And of course all that is mixed in with jokes, playful satire, and what I often refer to as “silly-talk.”
On my last visit in early January, Jim had asked me about cooking. Well, that’s one area about which I have little to contribute. I’m a bachelor and basically a cereal, soup and sandwich guy. I was telling Jim that my main piece of kitchenware is a large ceramic bowl, crafted by a fellow teacher I knew from my classroom days. I use that bowl for everything! I’m like a monk in a monastery, who eats everything out of his one precious, personal bowl.
As I spoke, Jim put a large wad of soft, brown clay on the flat pan and started to shape a bowl. As the bowl turned and Jim worked the clay with his fingers, he said, “I’m gonna make a gift for you, a large bowl, so you don’t have to use the same bowl for every meal.” The wheel turned and the bowl started to take shape. Jim’s fingers moved from the outside to working the inside. I watched him carefully expand the orbicular rim of the bowl. Fascinating!
I started thinking about ancient tribes who made everything they needed in their daily lives, from woven blankets, clothing, footwear to eating utensils. I had read about craftsman from different cultures around the world who made a deliberate flaw or imperfection in their creation to demonstrate that humans are not perfect. Only God is perfect.
I first came across this concept of artistic imperfection while researching Native Americans for one of my touring school assembly programs. The Navajos were noted for weaving beautiful blankets and rugs, but they believed that only God is perfect and that humans cannot achieve the same level of perfection. So they leave a little imperfection in anything they create. Usually, one has to look closely to find the imperfection, so it does not detract from the beauty of the item. It might be a loose piece of yarn, or a different colored bead.
Last week I did further research and found an essay, “The Art of Deliberate Imperfection,” authored by Kaushik Patowary. He writes, “The concept that God is perfect and humans are not is also one of the main principles of Islamic architecture. The beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings of many mosques in the Arab world appear symmetric, but often have minor irregularities imperceptible to most visitors. Even the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., has several small architectural flaws that have been attributed to a medieval custom that sought to illustrate that only God can be perfect.
“In Japan, incorporating deliberate imperfections is a necessary ingredient of art. This aesthetic concept is known as “wabi sabi” and has been practiced since at least the 16th century. The wabi sabi aesthetic can be seen in certain pottery styles, such as Hagi ware, originating from the town of Hagi in Yamaguchi. Ceramics made in the Hagi styles have shapes that are not quite symmetrical, and colors or textures that appear to emphasize an unrefined or simple style. Often tea bowls would be chipped or nicked at the bottom.”
Yes, bowls. And that brings us back to Jim Bjork shaping my gift bowl. He was nearing the end of the process, and the wheel stopped turning. We were deep in discussing the concept of deliberate imperfection, when I witnessed something shocking. Jim suddenly swung his right arm around and smacked the top rim of my bowl with the side of his hand, leaving this severe dent. I said, “What the heck are you doing, man?” Jim looked at me and said, “Only God is perfect.”
Importantly, this concept goes beyond crafting works of art. Specifically, no one person is perfect! And that teaches us the dangers of authoritarian rule. We are social beings, and for us to survive, we must honor individual rights under the law. Our Founding Fathers understood that basic principle of freedom. We are one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Ozzie Tollefson is the author of “Mr. Teacher” and lives near Phelps Mill.