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Dorodango. The Japanese Art of Making Mud Balls by Bruce Gardner. Book review

September 29, 2019
Evidence that Dorodango. The Japanese Art of Making Mud Balls is not only beautiful but an excellent manual. Two Dorodango I made from a clay/sand local soil.

Evidence that Dorodango. The Japanese Art of Making Mud Balls is not only beautiful, but an excellent manual. Two Dorodango I made from a clay/sand local soil.

I love a challenge and the chance to try something different. Creating dorodangos (shiny dumplings) is all that. Being able to try this art form is down to Dorodango. The Japanese Art of Making Mud Balls. It had a look of a book I could not walk away from. Gorgeous photographs of an artist at work and a carefully curated array of his creations. It would appear to be the only book available on the art in English.

However, pretty pictures and a neatly turned out book is not much use if it doesn’t give a complete beginner enough help to achieve similar results.

I was also a little concerned by Bruce Gardner’s well set out workshop. I have a home with little outdoor space and certainly nowhere to process the dorodango raw materials in the same way as the author. Could I downscale what I could see happening in the book?

Dorodango. The Japanese Art of Making Mud Balls, might be small, both in terms of size and number of pages (128), but it is packed full of information, helpful advice and, given that a picture is worth a thousand words, crisp, atmospheric photographs.

In the UK, space is limited, so you do need to give some thought to where you get your soil from. You don’t want to be digging it where you might destroy the ecology, a bluebell wood for example. I don’t have a garden, but I have friends who do. More used to handing me a bag and scissors for cuttings, soil was a novel request, the reason why, a source of fascination.

Then began the delaying tactics. Sure, I’d made mud pies as a child. But turning these mushy blobs into something which looked as if it should be in an art gallery, beggared belief.

I spent some time grading the soil by handpicking through it for small stones etc. (part of the dorodango therapy), and sieving to get more fine soil with a metal kitchen sieve. It took five more days of procrastination before I got up the courage to add the water and got going.

Picture of soil being graded

The soil I was using being sifted and graded

As Bruce Gardner suggests, read the book through before you do anything. Then you just have to dive in to find out that what he is saying is true. You won’t take it all in with one go, but bits will stick (like the soil to your core) and make more sense as you work your muddy blob, which does miraculously turn into a gloriously round, leathery textured sphere with a bit of care and attention. I’m on my fifth dorodango as I write. There were a couple which didn’t work out, where I had to break them up and begin again, due to the type of soil I was using and learning to understand it better. Toggling between my, at first, messy creation, the photographs and text, my understanding of the process developed apace with each reiteration.

There is no doubt that the book has been very carefully structured by someone both very experienced and passionate about these earthy “shiny dumplings”. It is also reassuring to see amongst pictures of perfection, Gardner’s failures revealed in all their pictorial glory, as well as helpful explanations as to why.

A selection of Bruce Gardner's dorodangos at different stages of making and for one reason or another unsuccessful

A selection of Bruce Gardner’s dorodangos at different stages of making and for one reason or another unsuccessful. Photograph Courtesy of Laurence King Publishers. Photographer Buck the Cubicle

His plastic bag concept, to hang the developing dorodangos in to stabilize the cores and build up the capsules to avoid cracking is so useful. I have also learned my lesson in not shining before the dorodango has dried properly, which can take ten days or more if you’re being cautious.

My dorodango hanging

My dorodango hanging “equipment”

There are some YouTube videos showing more production-like quick drying approaches, but a dorodango is quite unlike handing clay and more like caring for a responsive living creature. So although the book tries to cover every eventuality, there is an unpredictability in the process, which is part of the fun.

If you buy this book, be aware that you are signing up to something that takes a hold as you experience the subtle changes in texture as the dorodango takes shape in your hands. You will also find yourself pouring over geological maps to see where the next new dorodango making experience will take you, as well as eyeing every field you pass for colour and composition.

The photograph at the top of the post is to prove that a complete novice, living with limited dorodango producing facilities can make them. Dorodango. The Japanese Art of Making Mud Balls may be an artwork in itself, but it is also an indispensable companion to creating something beautifully tactile.

Bucking Awesome: Hikaru Dorodango from Buck the Cubicle on Vimeo.

Picture of Bruce Gardner digging soil

Bruce Gardner. Photograph courtesy of Laurence King Publishers. Photographer Buck the Cubicle

 

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2 Comments
  1. Always wanted to make one myself. This might nudge me. Thanks!

    • Some soils are tricker than others. Loam is causing a bit of grief at the moment. The easiest so far is a mix of sand and clay which we have a lot of round here.
      Once tried, it becomes a bit of an obsession.
      Enjoy.

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