Friday, 8 January 2021

Libations

 The powdery snow creaks and groans as I shovel a path from the house to the kiln shed in the pale predawn light. I take special care on the stone steps, making sure they are free of snow before I walk on them, as once the snow is compacted it becomes ice, slippery and dangerous, and I will be walking this path many times today. This is the day of my “Hatsugama”, my first firing for the year. 





Returning to the house, I get the tray which I have prepared and carry it carefully to the kiln shed. On it are two sake cups from my last firing, a rice bowl with a handful of uncooked rice grains mixed with salt, a bottle of Nihonshu and a box of matches. The sake is a gift from an old friend, his favourite, a “Daiginjo” from Utsunomiya in Tochigi Prefecture, my old stamping ground. I open the bottle and pour sake into one of the cups, a cylindrical guinomi with strong throwing rings, a form based loosely on the shape of bamboo, filling it to the brim. A little of it spills on my hand as I lift the cup and place it on the brick beside the arch at the top of the door and the sweet fragrance of sake fills the kiln shed. The second guinomi is rounder, like an inverted shiitake mushroom, and I take it outside and fill it with freshly fallen snow. I place it carefully beside the first guinomi. Above them, on the metal frame of the kiln, is the “Kagami mochi” new year’s rice cake. I carry the rice bowl outside and sprinkle the mixture of rice and salt to the four compass points for protection and purification, then come inside and do the same in the four corners of the shed.


 




I pray.


I pray for a safe firing and a safe year. 


I pray that the pots will be blessed with the beauty of the flame. 


I pray for health, happiness, and peace for all my loved ones and all those who will use the vessels from this firing. 


I pay for the wisdom to do what is right and good.







It is six degrees below zero outside, but the pyrometer reads minus one inside the kiln as I pick up the matches. I strike one and put it to the tinder which I set under the fire grate in the mouth of each fire box when I finished stacking the kiln. As the fire starts to pop and crackle, I go around to the back of the kiln and open the damper fully to allow draft to flow through the kiln. It is imperative that the kiln heat slowly and evenly, as the pots inside the kiln are all raw, and although they have been thoroughly air dried,  there will still be free water in the clay from humidity which must be driven from the clay without damaging the pots. Particularly in winter, when the kiln is below freezing, one must be careful not to crack kiln shelves as well by heating them too fast. Keeping the fire just inside the fire mouths means that the flame is at least a metre away from the pots inside, having to travel the length of the fire box before entering the ware chamber. Being on the floor of the ash pit, rather than on top of the fire grate, also prevents the fire from burning to ferociously as air is not able to be drawn from underneath. The bricks of the fire box and the floor of the ware chamber start to warm as the heated air and smoke is drawn through the stack of pots inside, circuiting down through the exit port in the floor of the chamber, between the twin fireboxes, and up through the chimney at the back. 






Once satisfied that the wood is burning properly, I go back to the studio to mix a batch of soft fire clay slurry to seal the gaps between the bricks of the door. In a bucket I mix warm water and dry powdered “Dosembo” fire clay in about a 1:4 ratio to make it a thick porridge-like consistency. I stir with my hand so that I can feel it’s texture and make sure it is smooth and free of lumps. Carrying it back to the kiln shed, I start to smear it over the bricks of the kiln door with my right hand but leaving my left hand clean, carefully forcing the clay into and over the gaps to prevent draft from seeping through them between the bricks and sealing the kiln door. Starting from the bottom, I gradually work my way up, systematically and painstakingly. Sealing the door properly means that the only source of oxygen into the kiln is the fire mouth, and the only exit for exhaust fumes is the chimney or the spy holes. It therefore allows a much better control of the draft and atmosphere inside the kiln, either by adjusting the damper or by the amount of fire wood per stoke, the size to which it is split and the timing of each stoke. 







As I seal the door with my right hand, I keep a constant eye on the pyrometer to make sure the kiln doesn’t climb too quickly. This firing is starting from frozen, so I want it to climb at about seventy-five degrees celsius per hour, rather than the one hundred degrees an hour which I would fire to in summer. When the wood in the firebox has burned down to embers and the temperature starts to drop below the ideal gradient, I stoke five pieces of wood into each fire mouth with my clean left hand, then continue the sealing of the door with my right. At last the door is sealed, and I take the bucket with the remaining fireclay back the studio so that it doesn’t freeze solid, and wash my hands with soap and water before returning to the kiln. 






Venus, the morning star, shines brilliant in the ruby glow of false dawn above a jagged black horizon, and a shooting star streaks briefly through the fading indigo of night. The firing will continue through the day and into the night, gradually climbing in temperature until it passes thirteen hundred degrees. How I stoke and adjust the kiln will change during the day, and the pots within will undergo irreversible changes.  But for now, not quite an hour and a half since I lit the kiln, it registers one hundred degrees on the pyrometer, and the snow in the curved guinomi is starting to melt, becoming water. The free water in the clay of the pots has all turned to steam and fled up the chimney into the atmosphere, and water vapour rises from the drying fire clay on the kiln door. Perhaps it will return to earth as snow again, a new and unrepeatable crystallization of the essence of water.


I am reminded of another firing, ten years past, a day of fire and snow just before the earthquake, when I spoke with my daughter about life and death. About how I believe that a human soul is to the universal soul as a snow flake is to the life giving water which pervades our world. Ephemeral and precious, we are fragments of spirit in the world looking at itself and finding meaning. The libations that I make are symbols of that, acknowledging the “Genius Loci”, the spirit of this place and the generations who have come before us. They symbolise the changing nature of the universe and help me recognise and show gratitude to the greater forces which I borrow in order to practice my craft, to live and breathe, to be. And the understanding that I, too, will one day return to that from which I came, and that this firing, this day, this moment, is a blessing that should be cherished. 


And thus the year, the “Hatsugama”, the first firing, begins. Let’s pray that they turn out well, but let us also strive to make each moment, each action, the best that we can. For that is what defines us.


With these thoughts in my head, I stoke the kiln once more, and go back to the house for breakfast.





Friday, 1 January 2021

Fulcrum

Dawn breaks in the south east, beams of light reaching out across the valley, tinting the world in shades of red and gold. Countless flakes of snow falling gently through the air catch the light and send it sparkling across the landscape, as I stand by the warmth of the wood stove, mug of cappuccino in hand, and watch this morning’s overture through our front windows. A deep blanket of snow covers the world, the houses, the trees, the mountains, blurring the edges and sharpening the shadows. The snow shines lustrously in shades of pink and orange, glinting off the facets of innumerable crystals strewn over the garden. There is a quiet stillness in the world, even though it is full of the motion of the falling snowflakes and ever changing radiance of the sun in its inexorable journey across the sky.








Perhaps it is just another sunrise in an endless string of sunrises stretching back to the beginning of the world. A thread that will continue forward until the world ends. But today, I am standing at the fulcrum between the past and the future, in the shelter of my pillar and post, wattle and daub cave, bearing witness to this unique iteration of the cosmic dance. As my portion of the earth’s ever rotating surface slides once again beneath the event horizon between night and day, out of shadow and into light, the bubble of swirling gasses that protects my home from the vacuum of space filters and refracts the sun’s radiance like a kaleidoscope of infinite variation. The whirling eddies of the flaming sea which covers the sun will never again glow exactly as it does right now, the earth will never spin through this self same spot, nor the clouds ever billow the same way. 






Maybe it’s simply another fall of featureless white, like any other day in any other winter. Yet the drifts of snow are carved by the capricious wind, an ever changing accumulation of snow flakes beyond number. Flakes which have materialized from thin air up in the clouds, water condensing on motes of dust and freezing into hexagonal crystalline structures, no two the same. Floating on the breeze or driven by the gale, the earth pulls them gradually down where they gently settle upon her face. They gather into thick, deep layers, like precious gems, each one an unrepeatable experiment in possibilities. As I drink my coffee I marvel at the limitless variety of nature’s perfection.






And to some, it’s just another mug, one of many hundreds that I have made over the years. But, if you pay attention, you will find that they are all unique. This mug is this mug. The handle is smooth within the grip of my fingers, rising from the rim and curving smoothly down to rejoin in a spiraling tendril at the base of the cup. Ash which has accumulated on the surface of the clay inside the wood kiln, much as the snow settles on the landscape outside, has melted into a rippling glass which coats the throwing rings and chattering, pooling in the hollows of the texture and running in a rivulet down the side of the mug to hang as a droplet just above the foot. Where the flow of the flame has left the surface untouched by ash, in the leeward side of the handle and the body, the clay has flashed orange and gold like the colours of the sunrise through the clouds. A few stalks of Igusa rush have left delicate strokes of dark ash where they were bound around the pot, like branches in the snow. Every touch of my fingers, every stroke of every tool, every lick of flame, is here in my hands as the coffee warms them through the walls of the mug, its fragrance filtering through the frothed milk and cinnamon sugar, its flavour thrilling my senses as it flows over my tongue.


Nature will always find a form which is in perfect harmony with the complex forces which are at work upon it. And that perfection has nothing to do with sameness or uniformity. There are no two snow flakes, no two leaves upon any tree, no two people throughout all of history, that have ever been the same. From the cosmic to the microcosmic, each and every one is a unique and unrepeatable moment in eternity, wondrous and precious. We humans, nature self aware, bear witness to that wonder, and can become part of the process which gives new form to that wonder. Even if it something as unassuming as a mug of cappuccino on a snowy morning.

Tuesday, 21 January 2020

30 Years

The hazy crescent moon sails across the night sky, like a pale ship on a misty sea with no star to follow. Flakes of snow fall like motes of dust, settling on my shoulders and chest as I walk down the silent lane. I can feel them flutter against my right cheek, tiny spots of cold that tell me the breeze is blowing from the north. There are no shadows, though the eastern sky behind me is a subtly paler shade of charcoal grey, heralding the slow coming of morning. The sound of my own feet thudding softly on the bitumen becomes quieter as the snow begins to settle, and dark footprints follow my progress, gradually fading as the snow gently erases them to the nothing from which they came. 




The snow is deeper as I walk down the west side of the valley, past the Taineiji Temple and beside "Byakkozawa" the White Fox Creek, and it complains squeakily beneath my feet, a rhythmic croak that echoes like some giant insect passing through the trees. Bamboo arches across the road above the village, the leafy heads of each stalk weighed down by the snow, making a dark tunnel through which I must pass. As I breach the bamboo a waft of breeze brings the fragrance of cows and straw and the consequences of such a confluence of forces. Ah! The joy of country life!




And now I come down the valley, the last stretch of road before home. The snow falls thicker now and, as I open my mouth to draw a sigh, a flake of snow lands sizzlingly cold on my tongue. I enter our driveway and carefully pick my way across the dark cobblestones, slippery with the snow melted by the warmth they had stored from yesterday's sun. I am home.




As I open the storm shutters the Town Public Address system chimes six o'clock and thirty years. For it was thirty years ago today, the 21st of January 1990, at 6:00 AM, that I first landed at Narita Airport and saw snow for the first time in my life. 




It has been a long journey since then. Learning a whole new language and culture, studying at Shimaoka's in the thatched roof studio on a wooden kick wheel. Marrying Mika and building the new wood kiln. The blessed births of our four beautiful children, watching them grow. The burning down of the studio when we moved to the house in Ichikai, fitting into a new community there. Building a life there, only to have it destroyed by the earthquake of 2011. Starting from nothing again in Minakami and the help and support we had from so many people. And our children growing into adulthood here, gradually leaving the nest, one by one. It has been thirty years full of love and hope, laughter and tears, triumph and disaster and unrelenting optimism. And above all, love. The richest years of my life. 




Now it is time to make breakfast and get the family moving, and my own wooden kick wheel is waiting in the studio for me.





I have come full circle, arriving in the snow at the break of dawn. But this time, I am home.






Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Marking Time



Time is elusive and capricious. It slips by when we aren't paying attention, only to ooze like cold treacle when it knows we are waiting. We have tried to measure it, quantify it and dissect it, but the tighter we try to grasp it the more it escapes through our fingers. Even physicists have failed to prove it exists and pass it off as an illusion. 


Yet, the days pass and light becomes dark, becomes light, becomes dark...




Each day is new and unrepeatable, and when we have accumulated three-hundred and sixty-five and a quarter of them we find we have managed to get through four whole seasons and are back to the same spot in our endless orbit around the sun. Many cultures, including Japan, work on an arbitrary system called the "Gregorian Calendar", dividing the year into 12 unequal months. We have marked the starting point of this annual cycle as about ten days after the solstice (Winter in the Northern Hemisphere and Summer in the Southern Hemisphere), naming it "New Year's Day". 


We also number or name those years, perhaps so that we don't lose track of when we are, by a variety of systems. Though it may be 2020 AD in much of the world, here in Japan it is Reiwa 2, the second year of the reign of the Reiwa emperor. Though Japan adopted the Gregorian Calendar in the fifth year of the reign of the Meiji emperor (1873 AD, the same year that our house was built!), they have maintained a numbering system based on the Japanese Imperial Succession. 




So, though I was born in 1964 AD, I was also born in Showa 39 which, according to "Eto" (干支), the Japanese zodiac, is the Year of the Dragon. There are twelve animals in the cycle; Mouse, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Boar. Not only that, but it appears that there are five elemental cycles of the twelve animals, thus the full cycle becomes sixty years. I am apparently a "Kudari ryuu", a descending dragon, just as my wife's Grandfather was. He was born in Meiji 37, 1904 AD, making him exactly 60 years my senior, and he lived to the ripe old age of 100, his mind as sharp as a knife to the very end. (Her Grandmother, incidentally, lived to be 102!) That is something worth aspiring to!


My work has evolved over my career, of course, and there have been certain design elements in my work which indicate the period in which they were made, a change in the glazes, decoration or firing, the treatment of the foot perhaps, or the size or shape of my potters mark or whether it was intaglio or relief. These changes had always been random and I had never thought of them as a dating system. But I was having a discussion with one of my collectors some years ago about the chronology of the works which he has of mine. 


"It would be good to have some indication on the work of when it was made so that in the future we can see how your work developed." He said. 


This was food for thought...


So I decided to start making some kind of mark on my work to locate it in the chronology of my life. I wanted the mark to be an intimate communication to those people who would use those works, something which may spark their curiosity and imagination, but which would tell a story about my one, finite life, even after I was gone. I have always set my sights on living to the age of 130, but, in all practical expectations, I may only last for a hundred years like Mika's Grandfather. And so it was that in 2006 I carved a small dog into the end of a wooden rod and my Eto series began.


Each year since then my first task has been to create my new Eto stamp. Sometimes made from wood, sometimes metal, every one is an original hand crafted design. Often I will carve a different year into the other end of another stamp, pairing the animals together on the same shaft. 


Every vessel which I make is unique, of course, but of all the years that I have been doing this Eto series, the Year of the Rabbit is rarest. In 2011 I was only able to fire 3 times...




I entered the second set in 2018, and this year's stamp is the second "Nezumi" in the full sixty year cycle. “Nezumi” means “Mouse” in Japanese and the word for “Rat” is specifically “Dobu Nezumi”, which translates literally as “Gutter Mouse” (which is practically “Sewer Rat”). Though Japan and China both use Kanji Characters, the form, pronunciation and meanings are often different. I suspect that the “Year of the Rat” came directly into English from the Chinese.




This year I am using an aluminium rod, with skills I learnt in Australia at High School to drill, file and polish the new mouse. In order to differentiate, I have made this year's face in the opposite direction to the last mouse, 2008 being a left facing Nezumi when stamped on the pot, and the new  Nezumi facing right. Every vessel which I make this year will bear this stamp alongside my maker's mark. 




These stamps are as much a part of my work as any other process, and I make them with the same care and passion that give all of the different facets of my life. Today is the culmination of all the years, months and days of my life, and everything which I have learned over those years. All of my experiences, good and bad, are a part of who I am. Yet I know that I stand in the middle of a story, the beginning of which I cannot remember and the end of which I can only imagine. The things I learn today will become part of my work and life for all the years left to come. If all goes well, this project will complete it's first full cycle in 2066, when I am 102. 

Plenty of time to think about what I might do after that...




Wednesday, 1 January 2020

20/20 : A New Vision



Dawn spills over the horizon and flows across the valley, a layer of gold floating on the heavy night air. The weight of the light drives the darkness into the nooks, the crannies and the shadows, and night begins to drain from the world. As the disk of the sun rises over the shoulder of Mount Akagi, some 30km in the South West, it’s light falls on the hard frozen snow in our front garden, shattering into a myriad of splinters and shards which glint and sparkle as they lay upon the smooth white surface. A new day begins, the most recent iteration of an immeasurable string stretching back to the beginning of the world, when the spinning surface of the earth first rolled beneath the event horizon that separates day and night. And with this new day begins a new year and a new decade.


I coax the embers of last night’s fire into life in the firebox of the wood stove and stoke it in preparation for cooking breakfast. It is traditional here in Japan to start the year with a breakfast called "Ozohni" (お雑煮), a simmered soup of daikon, carrot and Omochi rice cake, made with the first drawn water of the year. The recipe varies by region and by household, and this year ours includes locally grown Shiitake mushrooms and Yuzu (Citron), with shrimp for good luck and long life. 



The bent back of the shrimp represents the stooped posture of old age, thus becoming a symbol of long life. Also, the Japanese saying "Ebi de Tai wo tsuru" (海老で鯛を釣る) means to "cast a shrimp to catch a sea bream". That generally means to "profit largely from a small investment", but much Japanese symbolism is based on puns, and a "Tai" (Sea Bream) is often used as a ceremonial offering to represent "Omedetai", meaning happy, joyous or auspicious. So, we serve shrimp to bring us happiness and longevity. 

This is our seventh winter in this house, and though the children are growing into adults and one by one leaving the nest to build their own lives, we are blessed to have everyone home over New Year. It is a celebration of our journey thus far and holds promise for a bright future. Sharing our stories of the year past, our hopes for the future, talking, laughing, occasionally crying. Playing games together, both traditional and new. 

The main meal on New Years Day is "Osechi Ryouri"(御節料理), traditionally served in a three tiered vessel called a "Sandanju" (三段重). Each layer contains different types of food which can be eaten over the New Year without having to spend time cooking. Which means everyone can enjoy the fun! We share the festive fare just as we share our lives, and the food and the vessels are prepared with love to nourish both body and soul.



This year is 2020, the year of the mouse. I hope that it will bless us with the "20/20" vision to forge a better future. To clearly see what is within our control and what is not. To recognise those things which are conditions to our lives, as the earth moves on beneath the bowl of heaven and the seasons turn. And to take right action when we are faced with new challenges that we can change, however difficult the path, with the courage of a mouse that will bite a cat when the need comes.  The past is a turned page which cannot change, but from which we can learn and grow in wisdom. Today and the future are ours to write, and even in the bitter cold of winter we can still make our home a warm haven for the people we love.  




I wish everyone a safe and blessed year!



Monday, 8 October 2018

Dragonflies



Throwing off the hump is an ancient skill. Most of the techniques used in ceramic art are. It seems we have a tendency, however, to either venerate and shroud ancient and exotic things in veils of mysticism or denigrate them as being primitive and unsophisticated. I for my part doubt that we humans have evolved, or devolved for that matter, a great deal in the last ten thousand years. It is comforting and encouraging to think that ordinary humans, not so different from you or me, should be capable of creating the wonders of the ancient world with simple and ingenious tools made with their own hands. We moderns tend to outsmart ourselves, needing the right designer built tool for the right designer built job and hang the expense. More often than not I find myself bemused by the complex and clumsy paraphernalia available in tool stores. Having effective and accurate tools does not need to be either difficult or expensive.






I have heard said that “If you can’t make a board of pots that are all the same then you are not a potter, you are an improviser”.  An uncompromising viewpoint, but valid in its way. Most certainly the ability to make pots which are uniform in size and shape is vital, but the next logical step is to go beyond that and make pots which are a set regardless of shape and size.

The solution for potters in the west for uniformity when making pots on the wheel was throwing to a point. When throwing off the hump however the volume of clay on the wheel is constantly decreasing and so a set point in space in relation to the wheel head is meaningless. The oriental potters answer was the “dragonfly”, or “tombo” in Japanese. This simple tool measures the diameter at the rim of a pot, and the internal depth at the same time. 




Traditionally this tool would have been whittled from aged and dried bamboo, and a new dragonfly would be made specifically for each sized vessel to be thrown. The result of this is, of course, that one begins to accumulate an ever increasing stock of Tombo, and it becomes frustrating when one searches for a specific size among the flocks of bamboo dragonflies.  

I have seen kits for Tombo in shops, even in Mashiko, which other professional potters agree are virtually useless. And they are not cheap. There must be a better way.

My solution was to carve bamboo from our grove into a single dragonfly body with sets of interchangeable wings and legs in incremented sizes. It is then a simple task to assemble the tombo for each new shape by selecting the appropriately sized wings and legs from the set, and then returning them after each throwing session.







But who in the west has access to such materials? 

I suggest that you take a walk through your local Asian grocer, or China town if it is convenient. You will find packets of inexpensive wooden or bamboo chopsticks, I prefer the Japanese style, shorter and more tapered and with square ends. There will usually also be bags of bamboo skewers, in two lengths but the same diameter, which is usually 3.2 millimeters, but check just in case. Now go to your local hardware store and buy a 3.2ml drill bit. In the thick end of the chopsticks drill two holes, perpendicular to each other, and slightly offset. If you slot the skewers through the holes and cut the length to the diameter and depth that you require your pot to be in its wet state, you now have enough tombo to last you a lifetime.

Let’s work on a standard Japanese lidded rice bowl as an example. The diameter finished should be about 13.5 cm. If your clay has 10% shrinkage then your wet diameter should be about 15cm (15 minus 1.5 equals 13.5). Cut one of your skewers to the exact diameter that you want your wet pot, that is, 15cm. Poke that through one of the holes in your chopstick so that it is sticking out equally on both sides. This is your horizontal diameter measure. 

The depth of a rice bowl should be about 5.8cm, so your wet depth should be about 6.5 (6.5 minus .65 equals 5.85). Insert a skewer through the perpendicular hole till its tip is 6.5cm from the horizontal skewer. Now hold the pointy end of the chopstick, as if it were the tail of a dragonfly, with the 15cm skewer horizontal, like a dragonfly’s wings, and the 6.5cm skewer pointing down like the legs of a dragonfly. If you place this tool over and into your bowl, the tips of the horizontal skewer will measure the rim diameter and the vertical skewer will measure the internal depth. 

I would usually leave the end of the vertical skewer sticking out the top a little so that the tool could be flipped over and used to make shallow dishes. The “tombo” for the slightly smaller female rice bowl, for example, is 13cm in diameter and 5.5cm in depth, but I leave the top extended about 1.5cm. Shallow dishes made with this “tombo” are quite a convenient size for small serves of condiments or, when inverted, will fit neatly inside the larger rice bowl to form a lid.

The sharp end of a skewer is also an excellent needle tool, and the narrow end of a chopstick is a very good pegger, a tool used to compress the join lines, where spouts are attached to teapots for example. 

The “tombo” is a simple and elegant tool, and, once used to it, requires no more time than a pointer and far less than measuring calipers. Any measure, however, only provides you with the parameters of a form, not the profile.

Depending on the tools which one uses to eat, the surface and form of a pot varies a great deal. For many pots in Japan where chopsticks are used an uneven surface with heavy throwing rings is perfectly acceptable. A rice bowl, however, should be smooth so that the rice can be gathered together easily with chopsticks. It is therefore necessary to smooth the throwing rings from the profile and provide a regular curve in the bowl with a throwing rib.

Traditionally throwing ribs are made from slow growing, fine grained hard fruit woods like cherry, and they are beautiful. No matter how hard or fine grained a wood is though, after a thousand pots the grain will begin to stand out where the soft parts wear away. The surface area increases, as does the drag on the pot. That may be fine for thick pots made of coarse clay, but for finer clay and lighter pots the drag promotes distortion in the fired work. 

Flexible stainless steel ribs are less distorting, but tend to cut the surface slip off and “raise the grain”, so to speak, of fine clays, opening the surface rather than compressing it. I prefer throwing ribs made of Perspex or aluminium, grainless and resilient, but wearing to a soft edge which allows the slip to remain on the surface. The edge will compress the clay and bring the finer particles to the surface without undue drag and with considerably less distortion.

The most economically effective solution is to go to your local variety store and purchase the cheapest plastic protractor and set square set available. The curve of the protractor is perfect for internal curves and the set squares are ideal for external surfaces. 

One of the problems many potters encounter with throwing off the hump is “S” cracking. Quite often we tend to attribute this to insufficient compression in the base of the pot, but there are other issues. To firstly deal with compression at the centre of a pot, the easiest answer is to leave a bump in the centre of the pot when throwing the initial form, which one then presses out when finishing the profile with a throwing rib. The extra lump of clay is pressed into the centre of the pot giving what should be sufficient compression. 

The other, and what I believe is the main, cause of “S” cracking is uneven drying. Clay in it's wet state is extremely flexible, so if the rim of a pot dries quickly, shrinking as it does, the wet base will flex to meet it. As the base dries, however, the rim is now inflexible and so the base must shrink out to meet it, shrinking away from the centre, and the stress relieves itself in an “S” shaped crack across the centre of the pot. Base thickness also affects this for the same reason, as a thick base dries slower than a thin foot ring. The best ways to fix this are to slow down the drying of pots in a damp room or under plastic, keeping them out of the breeze, or to maintain a base thickness equivalent to the wall of the pot, or both.

During the wet season in Japan pots can take weeks to dry, often going moldy before they are firm enough to trim. This is of course the ideal time for making pots that require handles or assembly, as the slow drying minimizes the possibility of cracking.

For deeper forms, green tea cups (Yunomi) or bottle forms, a long handled throwing rib called a “Kotte” is necessary, if you require the pot to be smooth on the inside. One presses it from the inside of the pot, supporting the wall from the outside with ones hand, to define and compress the internal profile. 

Although chamois leather is the preferred material for smoothing rims, a piece of plastic cut from a clay bag will smooth rims equally well and at far less expense. A friend of mine puts a layer of silicon on the edge of his sponge to smooth his edges, curling it over the rim after he has removed the excess slurry from the inside of his pot. Any sponge will do. I rarely use a chamois personally, finding that, with the fineness of my porcelain blend, the skin of my fingers is quite smooth enough. 

The long and the short of it is that no great expense needs to be spent on tools in order to make good pots on the wheel. The simplest of tools, the cheapest and most accessible of materials, found objects even, can be used to achieve high levels of craftsmanship. What is necessary is a mastery of self and a level of skill which can only be achieved by persistence and practice. 

Tradition is merely a system of education by which accumulated experience is passed down from generation to generation. It should not be a set of rules which restricts our creative process, but rather a support system that sets them free. Too often we mistake tradition for being an emulation of the past, forgetting that any form of emulation is by definition less than the original. Emulation is only useful as a learning tool, as is repetition. In the Japanese Sensei-deshi (Teacher-disciple) system of passing on tradition, the onus is not on the sensei to teach, but on the deshi to learn. What to do and how to do it can be learned by observation. Mastery of those skills can only come from experience. Understanding can only come from asking “Why?”



 It is very easy to be blinkered by the periphery and paraphernalia of an art or craft, to not see the forest for the trees. It is not the tools that make great pots. Not the wheels, be they made of zelkova (keyaki) wood or aluminium; be they kick wheels or electronic drive. Not the throwing tools whether they are made of “sakura” (cherry wood) or bamboo or plastic. Not even the kiln, if it uses twenty tons of red pine or 400kg of scrap. What makes a great pot is a potter working in collaboration with the forces of nature, sloughing off the detritus of convention and addressing the issue of what it is to be human, a part of nature, expressing ones self through clay.                              





Friday, 6 January 2017

Epiphany

Deep and crisp and even...the snow has made it's way right up to the front wall of the house, despite the wide eaves, and it crunches beneath my feet as I open the storm shutters. The sun rising in the south east is like a thumb smudge of yellow ochre on the slate grey sky, and a dust of fine snow flakes wafts on the breeze. Yuletide is ending, a new year has begun.

The cat greets me with a mewl which undulates in rhythm with his trotting steps as he leaves a dotted line of footprints in the snow. Brushing briefly against my legs, he slides past me through the front door as I take a few logs of firewood from the stack beneath the kitchen window. I knock the snow from them before I carry them into the house. Placing one of them on the chopping block on the earthen floor of the studio I split it into kindling, firstly with the heavy axe, then finer with my "nata", the Japanese hatchet. I gather up the kindling and the splinters and chips from around the chopping block, take the firewood into the living room and place it on the hearth. 

I scrape the ash from yesterdays fire through the grate into the ash pit below. There are still a few embers, glowing feebly in the dim of the fire chamber, and I gather them together in the middle of the grate. After positioning a large piece of wood on each side of the fire box, I sprinkle the splinters and wood chips onto the embers between them, then fine kindling on top, thicker kindling on top of that and finally a larger piece diagonally across the whole stack. Closing the firebox, I remove the ashes into a metal scoop and take it out to the dirt floor to cool safely, leaving the ash pit door cracked slightly open to let in extra draft. 

Watching through the glass of the firebox door as the embers begin to revive, the cherry red gradually turns orange and spreads into the black charcoal. The splinters begin to char, the embers glow yellow. A spark flies, the chips begin to smoke and pop. Flame suddenly spurts from a splinter and begins to spread through the chips and into the kindling, hungry, feeding, growing. The logs begin to burn and I close the ash pit door, leaving the air vent open. The rest of the family will be stirring soon. Now, I can start cooking breakfast.

The scene is set, and sometimes the scene is all we need. Each day, I take notice of the present, the little things that life presents to me. Life is made up of such moments, and the more meaningful we make those moments the richer our lives will be. It is the accumulation of these experiences and our interpretation and understanding of them that makes us who we are. Great hope and inspiration can be found in the simplest of things. Even something as mundane as lighting the fire and cleaning the ash. No matter how insignificant our efforts may seem, from those embers of hope a flame may grow, and who knows how far that flame may spread.