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Jonathan Janssen talks kintsugi and transitions in a delicate era for dining

Janssen donates portion of proceeds from his private commissions and auctions he’s hosted via Instagram to local nonprofit organizations including Craftmade Aprons’ Project Black and Blue Fund, and Black Women Speak.

Janssen donates portion of proceeds from his private commissions and auctions he’s hosted via Instagram to local nonprofit organizations including Craftmade Aprons’ Project Black and Blue Fund, and Black Women Speak. Jonathan Janssen

Ask anyone who’s worked in a restaurant, and they’ll say the same thing: Dishes break constantly. You kind of get used to it.

This, uh, isn’t necessarily a good thing.

At Upton 43, where Jonathan Janssen fell into (and in love with) the service industry, the dinnerware was gorgeous, handmade, and anything but industrial in caliber. Same thing when he ended up at Kado no Mise, Lat14, and finally Norseman, when the industry itself cracked.

Janssen has been taking on commissions for kintsugi, a centuries-old art form that joins aesthetics with philosophy, in which broken ceramics are reparied using resin and gold. In recent years, Facebook and Pinterest have had a warping and distorting effect on what kintsugi “means” to the general public, making it more glossy or too divorced from the form’s philosophical core for its actual practitioners—a group in which Janssen’s only recently gotten comfortable including himself.

As Janssen refined and improv-ed his technique over the years, he found he was more willing to share his personal experiences, deep reverence for, and approach to kintsugi, though understandably remains wary of appearing to be an authority on the nuanced form, which experts have devoted lifetimes to practicing and studying.

“The way I approach kintsugi is that you’re honoring the change of the objects. I think people see those kintsugi memes [that say] when something’s broken, you fix it with gold, so it’s more beautiful? I kind of think that’s bullshit,” says Janssen. “The way I approach it is that we’re acknowledging that something happened to it, and making the choice to honor that.”

Though the origins of kintsugi are convoluted, art historians know it hails from Japan, and translates to mean golden joinery. The most well-known story involves a 15th-century shogun who sent broken ceramics to China for repair, only to receive dishes that had been stapled back together. The shogun’s craftsmen were tasked with finding a more aesthetically pleasing solution, and they came up with gold-dusted lacquer to fill or patch the gaps.

“I mean, the origins and where it is now are a bit contradictory,” explains Janssen. “This guy was focused on materialism, like he wanted his ceramics to be pretty, and I’d say where it is now as arts and philosophy are [concerned], again, honoring transience and change and preserving things rather than throwing them out, which is to a certain degree, anti-materialistic.”

If you’re beginning to feel like this might just be a big ol’ metaphor for the state of bars and restaurants in 2020 as told by someone on the inside... you’re not entirely wrong. When the pandemic arrived, anyone involved with restaurants—owners, workers, guests, your author—felt like the sky was falling. But the months since have played host to tectonically important—and yes, sometimes sharp—conversations about safety and sustainability, equity in pay, access to mental health resources, and the pervasiveness of abuse and harassment, all of which could (and should) have a transformative effect on bars and restaurants as we once knew them.

But that’s not what drives Janssen’s creativity. He describes being new to the service industry back in 2015, and picking up some bad habits. One of them was simply overwork. At the time, he was surrounded by stunning ceramic dishes from Upton 43 that had broken during the course of service—but by 2017, he’d end up working from January to July without a day off.

“The first day off I had was because I was involuntarily committed to a psychiatric facility, so that was a big part of this,” he says, explaining that his first, store-bought kintsugi kit was partly an answer to questions he was asking himself at the time, like, “All right, how am I going to prevent this from happening to myself again? And what can I do to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else?”

The restaurant had shuttered over the summer, but the owners were cool with Janssen swooping up the broken pieces.

“It started very practical. I had just piles and piles of broken, chipped, cracked plates from Upton 43 that we were gonna reuse at Willard’s,” the former barkeep says of his humble (albeit gilded) artistic beginnings. “It started very pragmatically: I’m gonna fix this stuff, it’s gonna be really cool looking, and we’ll use it in the new restaurant. But as I was doing it, it just started making me think about who I was as a person, what I’ve been through.”

Jonathan Janssen

Jonathan Janssen

Janssen didn’t follow Upton’s crew when it became Willard’s. Instead he went to Kado no Mise, and then to Lat14 and Norseman. Today, Janssen is quick to praise the generosity of his former employers, and the creativity they’ve demonstrated up to and during the pandemic, even as he’s not been able to work in hospitality since March. His home still teems with the old establishments’ ceramics, which patiently await their next form.

Through a lot of trial and error, Janssen has developed his own method of joinery that’s more durable than traditional methods, not to mention more cost effective than using real gold with each piece. Though its creator—always a critic—claims it’s not as pretty, this proprietary mix blends epoxy resin with shiny bits, and can withstand a commercial dishwasher’s beating.

When the coronavirus arrived in the Twin Cities, Janssen found himself cast aside like so many service-industry professionals. Still his kintsugi artistry endured, connecting to those early meditations on intentional, communal care.

“I’m really, really proud of what we were doing at Norseman,” he says. “But what we were doing relied on everything being good and solid. Just no one is good and solid right now.”

Three years on, Janssen has worked through most of Upton’s fragile dinnerware, and prioritizes private commissions like a Red Wing stoneware spoon rest for chef-owner Bob Gerken of Travail, or the task of translating kintsugi to fit a 100-year-old bathroom remodel for Bodega Ltd. owners Liz Gardner and Josef Harris. When not taking on those projects, he’s still working his way through “boxes and boxes” from Kado no Mise and Lat14, which Janssen says fill his home.

He donates a portion of proceeds from private commissions, as well as from a series of auctions he’s hosted via Instagram, to local nonprofit organizations. Initially, Janssen had contributed to Craftmade Aprons’ Project Black and Blue Fund, which provides direct support for members of the service industry battling mental, physical, and/or financial stresses. After George Floyd was murdered, he shifted contributions to Black Women Speak, a Minnesota-based organization that focuses on healing and liberating Black women through arts, wellness, and education.

“The way I approach kintsugi is that we’re acknowledging that something happened to it, and making the choice to honor what happened to it," explains Janssen.

“The way I approach kintsugi is that we’re acknowledging that something happened to it, and making the choice to honor what happened to it," explains Janssen. Jonathan Janssen

Ultimately kintsugi is closely linked with another Japanese aesthetic that could serve our particular moment—which Janssen is quick to point out is often misunderstood:

“A lot of people think that wabi-sabi is focused on imperfection. Really, it’s more about nature and transience, so that’s just honoring change. Honestly, some of these works turn out, you know, quite pretty. Some of them don’t; some things simply can’t be fixed.”

Jonathan Janssen will be a panelist at the Walker Art Center’s “Futures Focus: Foods” Zoom event on September 17. Contact him for private kintsugi commissions through Instagram at @fancyjanssey.