Briefings Magazine

From Rupture to Repair

The ancient art of kintsugi may offer a golden lining for leaders navigating challenging times.

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By: Meghan Walsh

After taking the last sip of green tea from my cup, I walk outside to the parking lot. The clouds are vivid and close, making the divide between the earth-based world and whatever brews above feel especially porous. It almost immediately begins to rain, which feels apropos to the moment.

I wrap the delicate cup stenciled with pink flowers in a hand towel, then drop it from chest height, bracing for the shatter. There is only a thud. I drop it again. This time, I hear the ceramic crack as it crashes into the concrete.

(click image below to enlarge)

I’m here on this stormy Saturday afternoon with 20 or so other folks, mostly middle-aged Bay Area professionals, to learn the ancient art of kintsugi, the 15th-century Japanese practice of repairing broken pottery. At its core, kintsugi, which translates to “golden joinery,” is about transforming rupture into strength and beauty. The cracks, once filled in with care and gold lacquer, become even stronger than what’s unbroken. It’s a meditative practice in paradox and metaphor— one that since the pandemic seems to be resonating with a diverse following, as we continue to reassemble all that fell apart. A number of organizations, from universities to corporations, have begun hosting kintsugi workshops as they strive to support leaders and staff in navigating ongoing adversity.

Ryley Gaulocher (center) hosts kintsugi workshops throughout the Bay Area.

The first step is to sand the edges of the broken pieces. This whittling away creates space for the resin that is to come. Kintsugi aims to embrace—not obscure—supposed flaws. It’s a tedious process. Our instructor, Ryley Gaulocher, uses this time to introduce the Zen philosophy and aesthetic of wabi-sabi, which explores the wisdom to be found in accepting transience and imperfection and has inspired many Japanese art forms, including rock gardens, haiku poetry, tea ceremonies, and the floral-arrangement practice known as ikebana. Gaulocher began diving into kintsugi and wabi-sabi in 2020 after being furloughed from his job, but his interest didn’t fully click until last year when his personal life fell to pieces. “I was looking for the silver lining, and one day it just stuck,” he says. “It got a lot less theoretical and more practical. Kintsugi teaches us to see our problems from many different angles.”

Before we can start gluing the pieces together, we have to pre-assemble them. That’s because the order they are put back in is important to getting a smooth fit. I relate this to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Food first, then enlightenment. In alignment with the minimalist ideals of wabi-sabi, we want to use as little glue as possible, applying, then wiping it away, and forging the bond with what remains. Once the pieces are set, we fill the fault lines with a two-part epoxy, which is then coated in a gold dust and, like the glue, wiped away. This process is repeated as many times as necessary to fully permeate the gaps.

(click image below to enlarge)

In closing, Gaulocher reflects to the group that the cup is now both whole and broken. But my cup is not whole. A small crater remains near the bottom where the pieces were too small, too shattered, to be reassembled in just one afternoon. The metaphor, I suppose, is that some wounds take more time and effort to mend than others. Somewhat defeated, I take my riven teacup and head for the exit. Outside, a rainbow flows like vibrant lacquer through the gray sky.

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