Profile: Peter KrebsPeter Krebs“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” - Samuel Beckett. This is the motto that forever drives Peter Krebs. This quote, this motto, is included here so that one can understand how someone who is completely self taught is now considered by many to be the best bonsai potter in the Western world.
For more than 30 years Peter has delved deeply into the art of creating bonsai pottery. He thoroughly studied antique Chinese pots for many years and diligently tried to copy them over and over. He read everything there ever was written about bonsai pottery and he clearly is one of the world experts in this field. Paul Lesniewicz, who owned one of the largest collections of Chinese pots, was his mentor, and Peter was the curator for that collection, as well as for the famous bonsai museum in Heidelberg.
Peter was born in 1943, he has been married to the same lovely lady since 1965 and they have two sons. He did all sorts of things in his life; his main profession was offset printing. After doing that for 25 years and practicing potting as a hobby on the side he jumped into freedom in 1993, clearly gaining in quality of life for himself and his family.
As a professional potter now he is very busy, but he never will be rich, of course. Peter lives in Germany, but sells his pottery throughout Europe and also to America. His pots are clearly of the highest quality and will no doubt will be the sought after antiques of tomorrow.
Bio above by Walter Pall. All work and photographs by Peter Krebs unless otherwise notated. Peter's Website can be seen at http://www.peter-krebs.de
The following is an on-line interview with Peter Krebs. AoB:
How did you first become involved with pottery and what led you to bonsai pottery in particular?Peter:
No matter. Try again.
Fail again. Fail better.
This dictum by Samuel Beckett pervades my work to a great extent. It explains very clearly how my creative work has developed.
At the beginning I made bonsai pots just for the joy of it and now it has been more than 30 years since I got involved with the handcrafting and spiritual depth of pottery.
I was born in 1943, am married since 1965 and have two sons and four granddaughters. After school and some “wild years” during which I tried several professions I served an apprenticeship for offset printing. After 25 years of professional experience I realized that the creativity, spontaneity and the art of colour handling in the world of printing has come to an end because of the new technologies and machinery.
In January 1993 I risked to back out of my secure position to a job that I hoped would give more quality to my and my family’s life. As my pottery hobby ran parallel to my professional life I can build on a longtime experience in pottery and try today to fathom the last depths of this handcraft.
My other hobbies have also become a profession. These are the construction of Japanese gardens and being a fitness coach with special qualification for spinal health, Pilates, Flexibar, Step-Aerobic, Stretching and Maxxf.AoB:
With all the mass produced pottery being manufactured today, specializing in bonsai pottery is a risky venture, especially when creating original, avant grade designs such as much of your own work. What advice can you give to aspiring potters?Peter:
Making bonsai pots really is a risky venture. Judging from the financial view one should better look out for a better job. If you look at the creative and productive aspect it is a different matter. Considering this, highest demands can be met.
It doesn’t matter much if you perform classical Chinese, Japanese, western or avantgarde design.
To a beginner in pottery I would give the following advice: “Never care about the time it takes you to create a pot and about the money you must earn with it, because it lessens the quality of your work considerably.”AoB:
You do a lot of experimentation with pottery, considering the time involved in such ventures, do you find this to be more economically or artistically satisfying?Peter:
Considering the economic aspect of creating bonsai pots I can say that it is not really profitable and you can not keep a family with pottery alone.
The artistic aspect is a different matter.
I don’t think that creating bonsai pots is an art, but handcraft. If a bonsai potter was an artist, then a blacksmith, cabinet maker or carpenter is an artist as well. But it isn’t necessary to reflect on art or handcraft as the only thing that counts is creativity and the production process. It is very satisfying when a pot slowly evolves from an undefined lump of clay lying in front of you. Making bonsai pots has become the nicest and most expedient purpose in life for me.My first pot
Photograph by Peter KrebsAoB:
Tell us about your designs, where do you get your inspiration from and do you receive much criticism for breaking away from the traditional or for embracing it too much? You have spent quite a lot of time studying antique bonsai pots, how has this helped you in your pottery?Peter:
The harmony of tree and pot is of extraordinary importance. The pot should by means of its simplicity underline the quality of the tree. The Japanese word for this taste is SHIBUI. It describes the absolute beauty. The most important element is simplicity. It combines excellence, grace, calmness and naturalness.
The bonsai pots at the end of the 19th century were simple, unglazed and deep which made them ideal plant containers. A bonsai pot nowadays is more than just a container in which something is planted. It must meet many criteria. Thinking of bonsai one could say: “If you wish to shape the crown you have to deal with the roots.”
With the art of pottery it is similar. In order to understand what makes a good pot I study the old pots. Only few are available, most of them are shut away by Japanese collectors. Of course it is impossible to just create an antique pot. One hundred years of patina can not be imitated. And it is not my aim. I only want to experiment which techniques and symbols the ancient masters of pottery used and find out which spiritual and philosophical background they had.
In this aspect diversity comes before simplicity. My ambition is to use and express this knowledge in my pots which should lead the bonsai enthusiast to more comprehension and joy within his hobby of bonsai.AoB:
What important lessons did you learn from your studies of antique pots?Peter:
The knowledge of old pots and pottery techniques help enormously to make a good bonsai pot.
Thousands of potter generations have gone by and still pottery is the same as at the beginning. It is hardly possible to take things over from tradition unaltered but everybody can pick suitable traditional elements and include them in his own techniques.
Studying old pots and old pottery techniques has taught me many useful things for my work. Even the fact that success and failure belong inseparably together, as long as you live.
There is another important thing: the shapes of old Chinese bonsai pots were the godparents of all shapes that appeared later, no matter if Japanese or now western pots.AoB:
You’re German, yet much of your bonsai pottery has an Asian feel to it, dragons, painted pots, new pots that appear old, and even traditional Japanese design all mingle with your own style to create beautiful pottery that in themselves are works of art. Must a bonsai pot have an Asian feel to be successful visually or is this something that we subconsciously attribute to the pottery?Peter:
Nationality is not very important to me. I just look at a person standing in front of me and if he is interesting I stay, if he is boring I walk on.
To turn to the second part of the question, everybody who knows my pots and knows which ones I prefer to make also knows that these are absolutely timeless, without painting and dragons etc. This sort of pots has been made for more than 200 years in asia but the plain ones really are timeless. Everybody in the world who is sensual understands these shapes. They are universal just like the circle, ball, triangle or the wheel and they transcend all nationalities.
The third part of the question is about success. Make a pot, place it on a table and then leave the room. If it is sold when you come back it was a success!AoB:
Do you think tribal pottery, Native American pottery, South American Pottery, or even traditional European pottery techniques, designs, and styles could be successfully incorporated in bonsai pottery?Peter:
See the last part of the answer to question No. 7!
Everything is possible, a lot is beautiful, some things interesting, others… etc.
Who would decide what is possible and impossible? Each country will integrate something of its typical traditions into bonsai and pots. If I like such elements I will try to adapt them to my techniques. "Impermanence“
My most difficult pot to make
In impermanence the dragons are the waves of time.
Measurements: 30 x 20 x 12 cm
Photograph by Helmut RügerAoB:
Being somewhat of a bonsai pottery historian, what do you see as being the most important innovations in bonsai pottery?Peter:
As I can’t see any first sign of innovation I can not imagine what could be discovered which has not been there before.AoB:
Where do you see bonsai pottery heading? Do you think we will embrace the traditional methods or break away from them into new shapes, techniques, and colors?Peter:
The bonsai ceramics of today are hardly able to be “avantgarde.“ In Europe, for example, nearly all shapes have been tried out that can technically be implemented.
The only thing I could imagine as “avantgarde” would be to adapt this existing modern ceramics to bonsai pots. It is the same with surfaces and glazes; everything has been there before, even the latest laserprinting on ceramic.
Mr. Takagi, a passionate collector of bonsai pots in Japan, has in 1993 and 2006 created an exhibition of “Bonsai in modern Pots” in his bonsai museum in Tokio. All new shapes however have been shown since the beginning of modern ceramics. Even there has been no real revolution of pottery. (See also http://www.bonsaischalen.info
in “Museum Takagi”)
My opinion is: we should stay relaxed. The tree and the taste of the owner determine the pot,
whether an old or modern shape, glazed or unglazed, just as he wishes.
The potter also is free to decide which way to go, traditional, modern or both.AoB:
You have stated before that a bonsai pot is like a frame is to a picture and that, as with a picture frame, the pot selection can make or break the overall presentation of the bonsai. What would you say are the most important considerations when matching a pot to a tree?Peter:
The most important aspect is that your gut feeling tells you “Oh, this is lovely”. I mean that tree and pot can have defects that are quite charming, they can be very expressive without being perfect.
The second important aspect is the mind. Colour and shape combinations, visual flow directions etc. must be considered to a certain perfection. If you choose a pot this means to ask yourself which pot suits the tree? This is one of the greatest challenges to the bonsai enthusiast. Again and again feminine trees are seen in masculine pots. Or masculine black pines in feminine pots with cloud shaped feet, strong trunks in pots with a thin rim etc.AoB:
Besides color and shape, what constitutes a quality bonsai pot and how does the non-potter recognize this quality?Peter:
To the beginner it is practically impossible to distinguish the quality of bonsai pots. There are many attributes to a high-value pot and in order to recognise them a trained eye, a trained ear and trained sense of touch is needed.
You have to recognize the visual flow directions, the good proportions of the construction, for example: do the feet go with the pot’s shape, the upper rim with the body of the pot or was the golden section used? How was the pot technically built, handmade or in a mould etc.
The sound of a pot can tell wether it is frost-resistant (hold the pot by your thumb in a drainage hole and knock with the knuckles of the other hand), the higher and purer the sound, the more frost-resistant is the pot.
The sense of touch:
Is the pot coarse or sleek, are the edges and rims smooth or sharp etc.
All these attributes enable you to distinguish between a high-quality pot and a pot of inferior quality.Peter Krebs in the studio with Jim Doyle
Photograph by Walter PallAoB:
Is it possible for a molded pot to achieve the level of high quality that can be found in totally hand made pots?Peter:
You can not say that a totally handmade pot is more valuable than a pot made in a mould. Many of the old and very precious pots from Asia were made in a wooden or later in a cement mould. They are of greatest value nevertheless.
Totally handmade pots can be very charming and valuable if they are made by an experienced potter. This method of pottery is a great challenge to handcrafting abilities and you could discuss for hours what is good or bad in it.AoB:
You have said that a high quality hand made pot has a “soul” and goes beyond simply being an “utensil” and becomes an expression of art. AoB has a history of featuring bonsai potters and their work because of the art involved, but is there a point where the art in the pottery clashes with the art in the tree, or do you feel they blend and become better as a whole? In other words, can the frame become so great that no painting could fill it?Peter:
Bonsai ceramics should not end in themselves but serve the bonsai, no matter what shape, traditional or modern.
You can try everything and the range is large. The universally valid aesthetic will always prevail. A bonsai potter must not lose himself in his works; he must seek the company of bonsai enthusiasts or be one himself. The question is always what should be planted into a pot or are there trees at all that can be planted into it?
The greatest enemy of the potter and the bonsai artist is the ego. The ego does not like to blend in, it wants to dominate. AoB:
You have said that a quality pot “can become so excellent that it nearly reaches the Japanese feeling of “Wabi” and “Sabi” and that it is not only the potter who is responsible for such an excellent pot: important and appreciable facts for the potter are also Earth, Air, Fire and the Spirit where every being comes from.” Could you elaborate on this for us?Peter:
In order to understand the high appreciation of such a pot you need to consider the following:
The potters had the utmost freedom for centuries when making all kinds of containers. The creation of bonsai pots is different. The potter must try to keep the balance between tree and pot.
One could argue that ancient Chinese bonsai pots are opulently decorated, colourful and in some cases very folkloristic, which means that the artistic side is dominating. The reason is that at the beginning of bonsai history there were no special appropriate ceramics for the trees. The first pots that were used for bonsai originally were cultural containers.
Only 200 – 300 years ago in China the first potteries developed that specialised in bonsai pots. In the beginning they met the home requirements of China but then they increasingly produced pots for Japanese customers. During this time bonsai pottery developed to its simple and plain forms, influenced by the taste of Chinese, Corean and Japanese customers.
I assume that this refined taste for pots was influenced by the high standards that the Japanese had established for teaware. We owe thanks to the tea master RIKYU (there is a fine book on this subject for people interested in bonsai aesthetics by Horst Hammitsch: “Zen in the Art of the Tea Ceremony”) who contributed to the highest appreciation of the most pure and simple forms.
Imported pots from China that were made to suit the Japanese taste were already very popular 200 years ago. This special taste is the spiritual and sensual root of bonsai pottery even in our times. It seems to have become a timeless taste and will continue. The elements of earth, fire, water and air are strongly connected to the human senses. In bonsai art this taste must be recognised and refined. In Japan the sensual as well as the descriptive aspect has been increasingly differentiated over the centuries.
Taste and feeling merge and produce something of organic sensuality.
To the second part of the question:
What connects the potter to the elements earth, fire, water and air?
The elements earth, fire, water and air are the allies of the potter; a potter must learn to live in unison with these powers. In every element there are hate and love, creation and decay, life and death. The work can be a success or failure which is not predictable by the potter.
Only after opening the kiln, which is an unimaginably exciting moment, it is revealed whether the work was successful or lost.
The element earth is the clay. In order to understand the clay and to work with it, some tons of clay must have gone through one’s fingers. To touch and process the clay without leaving traces of the touch is the very high craft.
Fire is the element that makes a pot usable. The element water is in the clay and tightly connected to the element air. The amount of water in the clay defines its plasticity. The element air takes the plasticity from the clay and dries it.
The aim of the potter is to sing a song in which all elements affect each other in harmony. It is not only his hands that create a pot, but also the awareness that the elements do not submit to the potter - he submits to them.
Pottery means to ensoul the clay.My most erotic pot, shunga pot with old motives from pillow booksAoB:
Totally hand made pots are expensive, even more so in such countries as Japan where their value is more appreciated. The higher prices are understandable with the time and labour involved, not to mention the resulting quality, but the prices also must discourage many bonsai artists, who then turn to and support the mass producers. Do you think education is the answer and how can such education be implemented?Peter:
This question is easy to answer.
There are expensive watches and cheap watches and both show the exact time. It is the same with bonsai pots, there are expensive and cheap ones and both fulfill their purpose. Which one is chosen often is determined by the bonsai enthusiast’s purse, education can hardly change this.AoB:
It seems many potters are simply producing the same basic bonsai pot shapes that have been produced for hundreds of years, with few changes. A trip to a bonsai store or a pottery will often reveal row upon row on the same basic shapes with only glaze color and sizes being different. As an artist who produces high quality, original designs, do you think the lack of originality is due to the fear of not being able to sell such pots, the difficulty in creating feasible new designs, or another reasons or combination of reasons?Peter:
There is a simple answer to this. Demand determines supply. If a trader is rich enough he can offer expensive original design pots which he hopes to sell maybe one day.AoB:
You have a method for matching the glaze of a pot to the tree that goes beyond the typical color wheel chart so often taught in bonsai books. For example, you have said that light colored glazes should be used on younger trees and for older trees, the glaze should be in harmony with the trunk, leaf color, etc. Could you elaborate on this?Peter:
I wrote once:
“I don’t see a good bonsai pot but I feel it. If it caught my eye at first sight it would not be the right one. Pots are as important to bonsai as frames to paintings. One can not be without the other, but they may not compete against each other. The painting like the tree are the principal thing. The frame as well as the pot just complete it.”
Coming back to your question:
The glazes should be like the tree. Is the tree still young, I use a fresh glaze on the pot. Is it an old tree, the glaze must be chosen especially carefully. It is supposed to reflect the patina of the trunk or the expression of the tree and harmonize with all the colours of the tree.
Glaze colours are an important criterion for choosing a pot. Light glazes appear young, fresh, aspiring and lively.
Dark glazes underline old age, appear settled, calm and dignified.
Each tree needs the adequate dress.AoB:
Do you use reduction firing or oxidation firing? What are the advantages and disadvantages of either method?Peter:
I use oxidation firing. Reduction firing is not allowed here because of the great smoke production, it is only allowed for very small kilns.
The advantage of oxidation firing is that I can fire pots up to 75 cm. The temperature is easier to manage and the results are quite consistent.
The disadvantage is that you can not achieve nice ash effect glazes which can be produced with reduction firing. My smallest pot, 5 x 2 cm,
Photograph by Peter KrebsAoB:
The internet has opened up a world of knowledge, never before so freely and widely available to anyone who wishes to find it. What are your thoughts on the internet and the information it produces?Peter:
Two or three years ago I first began to deal with a computer, with the mental attitude that I would never manage. Today my computer and I are inseparable and it opens worlds to me which were locked before.
I always wanted to publish a book about bonsai pot knowledge but I never found a publisher for this. Via internet (and my two highly motivated translators) now I have an even better facility to provide information-seeking people with the knowledge I have collected in 35 years.
These articles can be accessed on the websites http://www.bonsaischalen.info
and since May 2009 in English language on http://www.bonsaipots.net
All the articles on fundamental knowledge about bonsai pots that I have accumulated over the years are being edited and released there.
Until everything will be edited it will propably take a few years during which I will spend many fascinating hours on this work.
To get so deeply involved it needs interest, concentration and focussing on the subject bonsai pot.
All bonsai and bonsai pot enthusiasts in the world can now access this knowledge on the internet.
In the various forums people can even discuss interesting subjects controversially. I think a substantial part of the development and future of bonsai will happen there.AoB:
What potters today, or from the past, do you look to for inspiration?Peter:
The special appeal of old chinese or japanese pots is hard to define. They excite diverse subjective feelings. In the case of the very old pots one could think, they are flamboyant and kitschy. But they express a sensual life close to nature. This is especially attractive to me. These pots are evidence of a culture that related itself to nature that was in line with it in daily, cultural and spiritual life.
Viewing such old pots lets us feel that even perfect things fall victim to momentariness. Fissures, dentures and flaking are symbols of decay and give age an exceptionally nice patina and dignity.
This is the inspiration from the past. The future of a potter should always (see also answer 14 at the bottom) be free and open. If he keeps his eyes and mind open there is enough inspiration, everything should be possible.AoB:
What advice would you give to aspiring potters who wish to produce bonsai pottery?Peter:
I would not give him any advice at all. This is the best advice! I have started at zero, there was no book, no workshop, and the first three years everything I made went into the dustbin.
Ingenuous experiments produce the best experiences, things that are written in no textbook. Your own experience is the best teacher.3D Krebs, by Merlin