Saturday, 12 July 2014

Make or Break

There is a golden ring around the moon tonight, the thin whisps of cloud washing eastwards on the skirt tails of Typhoon number 8, while the full moon moves inexorable westward across the southern sky. Mika and the children have all gone inside now. I am alone with the moon, the fire flies and the creaking frogs in the rice paddies that step down into the valley. No, not alone, for I have Shimaoka sensei with me in the shape of a sake cup, and a 12 year old Macallan to share with him. We potters, you see, are like trees. Each vessel we make is like a leaf, it is an expression of our selves, we must create it in order to grow, but we leave it behind to nourish others when we are gone. 

This morning, as the predawn light filtered through the shoji screen, I lay on my futon on the tatami floor listening to my family breath. I do not know what woke me, but as I lay there I heard the house creak and the floor beneath me move sickeningly. Leaping out of bed I flung the Shoji screens open on the engawa and opened the glass doors as the house began to shake and shudder. 

"Jishin!" I called to the family, ready to evaquate them outside if the tremors got any worse. The house swayed, the 140 year old pine logs of it's frame groaning against each other, the joints flexing to absorb the  movement of the earth. A minute, two, the movement gradually subsided, the house settled still. I closed the glass doors and tuck the children back into their beds, then go to check the earthquake details on the web. Magnitude 6.8 off the coast of Fukushima, danger of a small tsunami, 20 cm to a metre. The magnitude measures the amount of energy released at the epicentre, on a scale that peaks at 9....2011 was a 9. The amount of movement caused at any particular point is then measured on the "shindo" scale, based on the acceleration of the earths surface at a particular point in metres per second squared. Today was only a 4 on a scale of 7. 2011 was a 6+ at our home. Today was just a wake up call, at 4:22 precisely.

I prepare "Obentou" lunch boxes for the kids. Sora has an exam today, Rohan and Canaan are off to a basketball practice tournament in Niigata. Opening up the house to let the cool morning air flow through, I make breakfast as well and by the time the alarms start ringing at 6:00am I have lunch and dinner prepared as well. It will just be Sean and I during the day, Mika has a meeting at the senior high school during the morning, so I should be able to concentrate on getting some work done. Work has been a bit slow the last few days, as we had to prepare for the typhoon.

We are always ready for emergencies these days, risk management is what they they call it I suppose. Emergency food and water, we are prepared to be off the grid for days. The cars are never less than half a tank full in case we need to evaquate. Before the typhoon we cleared anything that could be blown away by strong winds from around the house and battened down the hatches. I climbed upstairs and removed the steel chimney stacks before closing the storm shutters. I closed the last one and darkness engulfed me. Closing my eyes, I stood still for a minute to allow my sight to adjust. When I opened them gain the light from the gaps and cracks shone beams through the fine motes of dust, dimly illuminating my way back to the stairs, and reminding me how many more repairs are left to be completed on the old roof. One day....

The schools finished early on Thursday so the kids could get home before the worst of the storm, and they started two hours later than normal yesterday as the typhoon passed through during the night. The town PA system announced that we would have 150mm of rain overnight, and to stay clear of rivers and water channels, being wary of land slides. Our home is well clear of dangerous slopes and on high ground, so once we were locked down we were ready to weather the storm. The wind buffeted the shutters and the rain pounded the roof, helping us find all those leaks we had somehow misplaced, but we came through without major event and by the morning the typhoon had passed, the worst of it going out to sea and then further north. 

It has been a "tradition" in our home, since the children were small, to have drop scones for breakfast in a typhoon. Somehow that touch of normalcy removes the fear from these events, for there will always be typhoons in Japan, though they seem to be stronger and more frequent every year, and it is important to be prepared. Yesterday, I took some of the new 7 sun (21cm) plates from the most recent firing and served breakfast on those. Home made yoghurt in the tenmoku rice bowls with a sprig of mint from the garden for colour, and blue berry jam in the hidasuki bowls. The celadon chattering forms a frame around the meal, and even the simplest of foods becomes cuisine.

I am often asked why I am a potter. I sit down at the table with my loved ones and share this food that we have prepared, on vessels that I have made with my own hands, with the help of nature and good fortune. There is a wholesome beauty which enriches our lives, and as we eat and talk and laugh, I know that I am happy, here, now. It is more than that, though, and as I watch my children I know that they will carry these memories with them all of their lives.

Sean is 9 now, he sits at my right and I watch him enjoy the meal, giving him pointers on manners when necessary. Much as I was when I was a child, slight of build, he doesn't have a big appetite. Often he will be unable to finish what is on his plate. I understand that, but make sure that he always has enough. He was only 6 when the great earthquake hit. 

Memories flood back from when I was small, unable to finish my meal, and my father standing over me, bellowing. Too afraid to ever tell him I was afraid. My mother trying to calm him down. He was from Liverpool, a child during the depression, and leaving food on the plate was unforgivable. He had gone to sea at 15 years of age, during the war when his father had been killed after a german torpedo attack on a convoy of merchant ships. He had known hardship and poverty, and had fought his way through youth and manhood to a home and family in Australia. Anger, yes, and violence, were his first and best answers. He worked hard to put food on the table and pay the bills, and his word was law. His forearms were massive from shovelling coal, with a blue tattoo of a swallow rippling on the skin. His huge hand struck me so hard on the back of the head that my forehead smashed the dinner plate in two. I know my father loved me. I also know that I will never be like him.

I reach out and touch Sean's wavy hair. He looks at me and smiles, then asks me what is wrong? I wipe the tears away and tell him that sometimes I get so happy that it leaks out of my eyes. I tell him I love him, and turn to the rest my children and tell them one by one. Lastly I tell Mika, who has walked this path with me, and thank her. It has not been easy for any of them these last few years. They have grown, we have built a new life here, and we can sit together in beauty and love, and even the simplest of meals is a great feast of joy. It is a much more difficult task to make plates than it is to break them, but it is far more fulfilling. This is just one reason why I am a potter.

Yes, it has been a tiring few days. Months. Years. As I have written the moon has traversed haif the sky. The children have come outside to kiss me goodnight, each in turn, telling me they love me, each asking me if I an OK? I reassure them, hug them, and send them off to bed. 

I tilt my head to the right, further, further yet, until the shadows on the moon become the face which I remember seeing when I was young, in Australia, and the moon traversed the northern sky. Fortunately it is dark and there is no one to see me looking at the sky from such an acute angle. It has been a long couple of days. Oddly, the bottle of Macallan is still almost full. I drain the last few drops from Shimaoka sensei's cup and go inside to my family. 

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Out of the fire

I remove the bricks from the kiln door two at a time, the fire clay that sealed the gaps on the outside flaking off and scattering on the kiln shed floor. Stacking the bricks according to size beside the chimney so that they will be in the right order for the next firing, layer by layer, the space at the top of the kiln begins to open. A glimpse of the top pots, tantalizing, just the rims, then the body. The colour seems good, they seem to have good ash and flashing.....

It has been two days since the firing. Patience is a potters greatest strength. Now that the kiln has dropped from over 1300 degrees celcius to under 70, I can remove the pots with my bare hands. There is no longer the fear of thermal shock. Now there is just the excitement, the anticipation, the discovery of what results I have been blessed with, what losses there may have been. There are nearly 500 vessels in this firing, a months work, and my family is depending on it's success. 

It is now two years since the new kiln was built, and it is firing well. This firing was a perfect 14 hours, the orton cone ten was well bent, meaning the working heat was up to 1325C, and we only used 380kg of fire wood. My production is still not up to my old level, but I'm doing my best. I should be firing again before the end of the month!

Once the door is clear I can see the whole kiln, and it seems to be a good firing. I remove the pots one at a time, checking for flaws, placing them on boards to carry back to the studio if they are good, setting them aside if they are not. Work which is not exhibition quality is set aside to be resorted later, those peices which are of usable standard will be sent to the Tohoku area for the people still living in temporary shelters after the earthquake and tsunami...yes, there are still many, and I hope my pots can help them find a sense of normalcy, a touch of beauty, a moment of joy. 

I line the boards up in the studio, sorted by type; kumidashi chawan (汲み出し茶碗) cups for green tea, gohan chawan (ご飯茶碗) rice bowls, plates, sake cups and bottles...
The afternoon light illuminates them with its soft glow. Jade like celadons and tenmoku with the deep black of laquer ware contrast with the golden hues of the lustrous hidasuki. The vessels have gone beyond me, the forces of nature have made them something new and vibrant. It is a good firing.

The series of tests which I spread throughout the kiln have come out well. They are not exactly the colour which I was pursuing, an oribe style green, but they are close. There are historic examples of oribe this colour, but I am looking for a deeper green. These are a touch pale, a bit thin, poor things! I will beef the next batch up a bit, and each firing I get closer. The most satisfying thing about this batch is the stability of the glaze throughout the kiln, top to bottom, fire face to door. There are subtle variations, but not so much as to prevent them working as a set, interacting with the cuisine served on them. Another step in the journey.

I will finish the feet off tomorrow, grinding back any roughness and polishing them to a smooth finish. At this stage there is only 2% lost out of this kiln load, a very gratifying success rate! My next challenge will be to find homes for these vessels, and then I can begin the cycle again. It is important to take joy in ones achievements, no matter how small, for they are part of the journey, and it is the journey which is most important, not the destination.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

To every thing there is a season

And a time to every purpose...June was called "Minazuki" (水無月) in the old Japanese calendar, the "month without water", not because it did not rain, but because it never stopped. It is the month of "tsuyu" (梅雨),  the wet season, and during this period it was not necessary for the farmers to irrigate the rice paddies, so perhaps "month of no watering" would be a better interpretation? The last few weeks, since I returned from Sydney, it has rained almost incessantly. From fine misty drizzle to torrential thunderstorms, the chequerboard of days and nights has been a study in grey. I have watched the clouds each morning and evening, while ferrying children to and from various schools, from diaphanous whisps which hang low while they embrace the mountains to steel blue thunderheads teetering on the ridgeline ready to crash down into the valley. 

The sultry weather is, however, ideal for making pots that require joining, as the slow drying prevents parts from shrinking at different rates and causing cracking at the join. I have used the time to make teapots, coffee pots and "kyusu" (急須), the side handled pot for green tea. Each pot is constructed from four components; body, spout, handle and lid. So, for 50 pots one must make 200 pieces. They must then be assembled into a functional and aesthetically pleasing form. Patience and concentration are imperative, but timing is the key as all of the parts must be of similar hardness in order to join properly. They will dry slowly over the next few weeks, and we shall see how they emerge from the fire. For now I am happy to have come this far.

These are the first tea and coffee pots that I have made since the earthquake. Many of you have been waiting for them for some time, I know, but it is difficult to do good work in adverse circumstances. While the rain has been keeping the air moist for me, I have worked quietly and steadily. Everything is beautiful in its time, and we cannot force results, we can only wait and rejoice in the things we have today. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?

Saturday, 22 February 2014

A Visit to Oz in May

THE LIFE OF CLAY: The lessons of 25 years in Japan A Demonstration and Talk by Euan Craig

Thursday 29 May 2014; 10am – 1pm

Ceramics Department @ National Art School Forbes St, Darlinghurst Sydney NSW 2010

Euan Craig has spent a lifetime as a potter and the last 25 years in Japan as part of the Hamada Mingei tradition. He will demonstrate the wheel techniques he has learned and developed as a master potter in Japan, and share the experiences and lessons of his life before and since the Great East Japan Earthquake;;

Cost: $30 per person ($25 TACA members)

Please note: Full payment is required to ensure a place.

Minimum number: 10; Maximum number: 25

Please arrive by 9.45am to enable a prompt start.

There is no parking on campus, however metered street parking is available in the local streets. Tea and biscuits will be available. Coffee is better from the local cafés.

Payment for workshop:

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Heart of Mingei

My breath steams as I light the fire in the studio this morning. Icicles hang in a crystal fringe along the eaves as I brave the predawn cold and go outside to open the storm shutters on the house. Snow has made the world a study in black and white, and it creaks beneath my boots as I cross the driveway to the kiln shed for a bundle of firewood for the living room stove as well. I carry the wood back to the house, stamping the clinging snow from my boots on the earth floor of the studio before removing them, and climb the step onto the wooden gallery floor. Sliding the paper shoji screen open, I carry the wood across the tatami mat floor to the slow combustion stove by the window and stoke the fire. This is our third winter in this house in Minakami, our new home.  It still feels strange when I drive to Mashiko, for clay or an exhibition, that a mere 200 km away, two and a half hours on the freeway,  it is a good ten degrees warmer during these winter months. However, here inside the house, and to a lesser degree the studio, we are warm and comfortable. 
Alarms start to buzz and chime as various clocks in the next room join cacophonically with the town sirens. Despite all this noise, which gradually dwindles as each snooze alarm is hit, it still requires the Daddy alarm to finally get the tribe moving. Nothing is as effective in getting a child out of a nice warm futon on a cold morning as someone removing the futon, folding it up and putting it away neatly in the next room. 
Amid the bustle of morning ablutions , Mika and I prepare obento lunches for those who need them and breakfast for all. Savoury ommelette, some stir fried vegetables, "natto" fermented soy beans with some chopped leeks, mustard and soy sauce, white rice, "umeboshi" honey pickled plums and, of course, miso soup with tofu and wakame. It is a classic Japanese breakfast today and, though we have a wide variety of western style breakfasts as well, the food is always served on hand crafted vessels, usually my own but often those made by my friends and colleagues. We always sit down together and chorus "Itadakima~su!"  sharing our meal with those we love. Even the simplest of meals, prepared with love, served on hand made vessels with care for colour and balance, can turn the everyday into art. It can make the difference between living and merely existing.
  The morning sun is a pale thumb smudge in the leaden sky as I drive the children to school through flurries of snow. I washed the rime of ice off the windscreen with a bucket of water from the bath, and the children watch in wonder as frost crystals grow before their eyes along the edges where the wipers do not reach. Nature shows us sublime beauty in the most unexpected places, if only we have eyes to see.  The understanding of this beauty is common to us all, regardless of various cultural biases. It is this common beauty that forms the heart of mingei, and the call of that beauty is what brought me to Japan.

As I enter my twenty-fifth year in Japan I am honoured to be included in the Tochigi Prefecture Mingei Association Members Exhibition. I remember the young potter who arrived at Narita with all his worldy possesions in two carrier bags and a two year plan. A new life, a new culture, a new language. I could never have imagined the journey that has brought me here.
I was once told that I should strive to live the ordinary life in  an extraordinary way.  Not success in the conventional measure, and never easy, but a simple, honest life. Full of love and laughter, beauty and hope. If, through my work, I can bring this simple beauty to the lives of others, then that is a life worth living. 
I return home through the thickening snow. Perhaps I will be able to make some pots today, or perhaps the winter tasks will keep me away from clay. It is what it is, and I am happy to be who and where I am. Yes, it has been a long and difficult journey, but I would not change a single day.
A Message from the Mingei Association

 The Tochigi Prefecture Mingei Association presents this exhibition of works by its members who are involved in the making of objects.
Our ancestors nurtured a "Culture of Handcraft" in their everyday lives, a cultural heritage which it is the mission of our association is to pass on to the next generation. As makers, those exhibiting here shoulder their part of that responsibility, however,  the hand of the user exists in the "Culture of Handcraft", and it is there that a point of completion is first achieved. We hope that many people can receive an understanding of the pleasure of selecting a handcrafted "object", along with the joy of using it. 
That is the reason why this exhibition is titled "The Craftsman's Proposal for Life".
The meeting with a handcrafted "object" gives birth to a moment of resonance between the feelings of the maker and the user. At that moment the "object's" brilliance grows and fills the life of the user with colour.
This exhibition also invites you to love and cherish these "objects" 
and to "live beautifully".  It is our hope that it will give rise to many such encounters.

" A Sensibility Cultivated by Mashiko; The Craftsman's Proposal for Life."
The exhibition is of recent work, about thirty per craftsperson, by the 21 craftsman members of the Tochigi Mingei Association; Akashi Shousaku, Ishikawa Masakazu, Ohtsuka Kazuhiro, Ohtsuka Seiich, Ohtsuka Masayoshi, Okada Takahito, Ogawa Hirohisa, Kasahara Yoshiko, Sakuma Fujiya, Shimaoka Kei, Tokoi Takaichi, Hamada Shinsaku, Hamada Tomoo, Hamada Hidemine, Hagiwara Yoshinori, Higeta Masashi, Fukushima Haruo, Matsuzaki Ken, Matsuzaki Touru, Matsuzaki Osamu, and, of course, Euan Craig.

By popular demand, the exhibition has been extended till the 16th of February

Friday, 29 November 2013

20 years...

The charcoal brazier glows red in the shadows of the gallery. The air is fragrant with charcoal and grilled chicken; this evening I dined at home. Some fresh bread from the Mitsukoshi bakery, an avocado, half price because it was perfectly ripe, a sachet of tartare sauce. One of my guests at the opening brought a bottle of red which needs to be drunk...perhaps I do, too, but one bottle of red does not a summer make. All that is lacking is a book of verse and thou...and some order to be paradise enow. For the middle of Tokyo, however, this is close enough.

It is twenty years since my first exhibition in Tokyo, here at the Ebiya Bijutsuten. A lifetime, well, thinking of my children, maybe four lifetimes ago. The eleventh of November, 1993, representing "Australian Ceramics" as part of the Australian embassy "Celebrate Australia" campaign. On the 1st of January, 1994 I married Mika in Sydney and have been working very hard at happily ever aftering ever since. It has been a long journey, and, barring earthquakes and nuclear disasters, it has been annually punctuated by a nine day sojourn here at Ebiya. This years opening was blessed with the performance of my good friends Bill and Eric. The children sang and it was a joyous celebration.

Each morning I rise and light the brazier, and after breakfast I prepare the gallery for the coming day; clearing away my futon and chattels, rearranging the display, polishing each vessel with a soft cloth. Miyake san comes down from his home on the tenth floor, replaces the water on the "kamidana" (god shelf), pays homage to the god above the door, opens the "Butsudan" (family shrine) containing his father, the eighth in the Miyake dynasty and with whom I share the tea room, and lights incense for his ancestors. After he vacuums the floors and waters the plants, the kettle has boiled and we often sit and chat over a bowl of tea in my most recent tea bowls. The bustle of Tokyo shuffles past outside, we can hear the commuters chatting to each other beyond the shoji, admiring the window display, making a verbal note to come back at lunch time....

The Gallery opens at 11:00am, and I don the official ebiya "Hanten", a light smock of sorts, open at the front, which bears the insignia of the Ebiya Bijutsuten, purveyors to the imperial household for nine generations. Miyake san makes me wear his, the "ten shuu" (shop master) hanten, for he says that while my exhibition is on, I am the master. I'm not sure that that is true, but it is a sign of his humility that he should make such a gesture. He is a very kind and generous soul, and I am proud to count him as one of my very best friends. 

Visitors arrive, one after another, many of them old friends, some of them visiting for the first time. The gallery stands on the corner of Chuo dori, the main street of Tokyo, not five hundred metres from the Nihombashi Bridge, the geographical centre of Japan. All roads lead to Nihombashi, the Bridge of Japan, and even the river which flows beneath it is called the "Bridge of Japan River", a temporal conundrum in and of itself! 

Ebiya is a dealer in antiquities, and has been since 1673. My work is displayed on furniture from the Edo, Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods. In the "Tokonoma" display shelf, Miyake san has hung a Kakejiku scroll from the mid edo period, a painting of a shrimp, its back bent, a sign of longevity, a "Tai" (Schnapper) which is a play on words implying "Omedetai" which is a great celebration, and "Tako" (Octopus) which, when written in different Kanji as a pun, means "great good fortune". What better symbols could be imagined for a dealer in antiquities, the name of which translates as "Prawn shop", its Master and an expatriate Australian who form the core of the "Oyajigag Fukyuurenmei" (Society for the revival of old bloke puns).

"Okyakusan" in Japanese encompasses both customers and guests, and we greet each guest as we would a friend. We explain the work to them, share tea with them in my cups, laugh with them...many of them have been using my vessels for years and come to add to their collection; not to display but to use. So many of them tell me how my pots have become a part of their everyday lives, and that they find solace and peace in them which is a relief from the stress of modern life.

Sometimes we sit around the charcoal brazier and talk about life, the susurration of the kettle hanging on its "Jizaikagi" hook above the embers weaving subtly through the conversation, the wall clocks striking the approximate hours, one after another.

The vessels sit comfortably on the furniture of ages past. They belong here. There is a beauty which can be found in the natural functionality of life, which is not swayed by fashion and transcends language and culture. A beauty which is humanistic and common to us all, and which is relevant regardless of era. It is this universal beauty for which I strive, and there is no better place to test it than in the hands and on the tables of my customers and guests, in the hands and on the tables of professional chefs, and in the peace and harmony of the classic furnishings of this gallery. 

Ever since the first opening party here, the food has been provided by Chef Hashimoto Touru of Kappo Toyoda, a fifth generation Japanese chef and one of the finest Kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo. Much to my chagrin I was unable to provide enough vessels for a course menu at his restaurant this time. But we have great plans!

This week I have dined at several restaurants in Nihombashi which are using my vessels, and it is of immeasurable value to learn the role these vessels play in the meal, the harmonies that they make with the food and the orchestration that the chef creates with the total meal. I will take these lessons home and strive to add to that great song. 

In the end, it is those who use my vessels, who find joy in them, that bring my vessels to completion. I offer them here, in the best way that I can, so that others may see them and feel the spirit with which they were made. I wait here for those who have used my vessels to tell me how they fare. I bide here waiting to return to my loved ones and share my life with them. I will be here a few more days, and then I can go home to where I truly belong. Till then, I await you here, at Ebiya in Nihombashi, as I have for twenty years, and I hope for many years to come.


Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Proposition on MINGEI

It is quiet in the Ebiya galley this morning, just the sound of time pouring steadily out of the wall clocks one tick at a time. It has been a very hectic few months, and I am taking these hours before the gallery opens to catch up with myself.
I have spoken about mingei, about my philosophy on life and art, and heard argument around and about concerning what Yanagi and Hamada and Leach did and did not say, do or mean. I was looking through a book on Sunday morning and found this very succinct passage written by Yanagi. It does not require my embelishment, so I share it with you here, and will let you think about while I compose my next blog.    
Proposition on MINGEI
Soetsu Yanagi
Mingei (the abbreviation of  minshu-teki kogei ), which means the crafts or arts made by the people to be used daily by the people, was coined to imply the opposite of bourgeios fine art. Mingei is
I. utilitarian oriented
II. commonplace ordinary or "normal" things.
Everyday necessary items such as clothes, household utensils, furniture and stationary articles are included in mingei. What is luxurious, costly and rare is not mingei.
Those who make mingei items are not notable individuals, but nameless craftspeople. What is made is not to be displayed but to be appreciated through everyday use. They are regular indispensable things made in quantity and affordably priced. The nature of mingei is born from the community's way of life.
However, mingei is not every single inexpensive necessity you see lined on shop shelves. Mingei must be honest to its utilitarian purpose. Items created with commercial motives are dishonest to its purpose.
Items made in fashion are elegant and refined and often based on distinct preferences. They are not mingei because the concern in decoration and ideas preceed utilitarian basics.
 Mingei items must be:
I. honest to utility and "healthy" in form
II. particular about quality
III. produced without being forced, artificial or self-imposing
IV. conscientious of the user
Things made with appearance above quality, intentional negligence, vulgar colours, and those that are cheap, easily breakable, flimsy and not user-oriented are dishonest and unethical.
For these reasons, mingei must be faithful to everyday life and "healthy" (both physically and spiritually). True mingei is your true companion for life. It has the virtue of being useful, dependable convenient, and comfortable to live with. It has the affection to grow on you. Mingei is therefore natural, genuine, simple, durable and safe.
The sincerity of the peoples' craft created mingei, and its beauty emanates from the items' purpose and utility. It is a "healthy" beauty; a beauty that Yanagi called buji-no-bi (the beauty of spiritual freedom and self sufficiency).