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Moonlight casts a cool glow over the ocean as a night surfer prepares to paddle out a Publics
Vol. 11, No. 1
February/March 2008

  >>   Night Shift
  >>   Ancient Pathways
  >>   Trees of Life

Porcelain Jewels 

story by Julia Steele
photo by A. Kolman


Dorothy Fiebleman’s cups are like spider webs or fine lace—so gossamer thin, so ethereal, that you can almost miss their intricacy. But look closely and you’ll find a complex architecture in Fiebleman’s tiny works of art. Her cups are designed to hold sake—though at a cost of $3,000 and up, most are rarely graced with the liquor itself; they wind up instead in museums and private collections.

What makes Fiebleman’s cups so astonishing is their detail. They are made of colored clays, primarily porcelains, and as you hold one up to the light and marvel at the complexity, the first question is: How on earth did she do that? “Do you know what norimaki is? California roll sushi? You make it like that,” says Fiebleman. A moment later, she likens the construction of her cups to the process of making peppermint candy canes. In essence, the clay is molded into miniscule “loaves,” which Fiebleman then meticulously layers and combines to form the patterns she seeks. The laminating is delicate and precise and, no surprise, often done with surgical scalpels and dental tools.

Fiebleman began her craft in earnest four decades ago, inspired by a high school ceramics teacher and also by African trading beads she’d seen as a girl. Those beads she encountered at a reunion of Japanese-American veterans in Los Angeles, for her father had been an officer of the largely nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, a connection that helped forge Fiebleman’s own bonds with Hawai‘i and Japan. But really it was the art that drew her east from California, and today her cups are on display at the Ichinokura Sakazuki Art Museum in Japan, the world’s only museum dedicated to sake cups; last year they also showed in San Francisco for the first time. “I like making things that get a positive reaction in people and that they desire to use,” Fiebleman says as she holds yet another elaborate vessel up to the light, this one a melding of translucent shades of white. “There’s so much awful modern technological stuff in the world now. These are like a gift from another century.” HH