Kintsugi, the Japanese art of joining broken pottery with gleaming seams of gold or silver, creates fine art objects we can see as symbols for the beauty of vulnerability. Surely, these bowls, cups, vases, etc. remind of us Leonard Cohen’s oft-quoted lyric from “Anthem” (“There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”) Writer and artist Austin Kleon touches on this same sentiment in a recent post on his blog. “The thing I love the most about Kintsugi is the visible trace of healing and repair—the idea of highlighted, glowing scars.”
Kintsugi, which translates to “golden joinery,” has a history that dates back to the 15th century, as Colin Marshall explained in a previous post here. But it’s fascinating how much this art resonates with our contemporary discourse around trauma and healing.
“We all grow up believing we should emphasize the inherent positives about ourselves,” writes Marshall, “but what if we also emphasized the negatives, the parts we’ve had to work to fix or improve? If we did it just right, would the negatives still look so negative after all?”
A key idea here is “doing it just right.” Kintsugi is not a warts-and-all presentation, but a means of turning brokenness into art, a skillful realization of the Japanese idea of wabi-sabi, the “beauty of things imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete,” as Leonard Koren writes in Wabi-Sabi for Artists, Designers, Poets & Philosophers. Objects that represent wabi-sabi “may exhibit the effects of accident, like a broken bowl glued back together again.” In kintsugi, those effects are due to the artist’s craft rather than random chance.
When it comes to healing psychic wounds so that they shine like precious metals, there seems to be no one perfect method. But when we’re talking about the artistry of kintsugi, there are some—from the most refined artisanship to less rigorous do-it-yourself techniques—we can all adopt with some success. In the video at the top, learn DIY kintsugi from World Crafted’s Robert Mahar. Further up, we have an intensive, wordless demonstration from professional kintsugi artist Kyoko Ohwaki.
And just above, see psychologist Alexa Altman travel to Japan to learn kintsugi, then make it “accessible” with an explanation of both the physical process of kintsugi and its metaphorical dimensions. As Altman shows, kintsugi can just as well be made from things broken on purpose as by accident. When it comes to the beautifully flawed finished product, however, perhaps how a thing was broken matters far less than the amount of care and skill we use to join it back together.