Thursday 13 December 2007

The Passing of Tatsuzo Shimaoka Sensei

I thought he would always be there. It just never really occurred to me that one day he would be gone. The day has come. At 11:05 pm on Tuesday the 11th of December 2007, the last page closed on the life of Tatsuzo Shimaoka at the age of 88. He collapsed during the firing of his Noborigama last month, preparing for his annual exhibition at Matsuya Department store in Tokyo, and passed away in hospital.

It is sixteen years since he accepted me as his apprentice. He believed that through a dedication to quality, to healthy and natural work practices, to both tradition and innovation, but most of all to the making functional pottery that would enrich the everyday life of the user, it was possible to create beauty that extends beyond the limits of our ego, beyond the limits of our own fragile existence.

He taught me to accept the world for what it is, but also to strive for an ideal, and through that striving to bring the world closer to that ideal.

He is gone, but his influence, his work, will last forever. I miss him, I suppose I always will.

Monday 26 November 2007

As I was going to St Ives....

I met a man with 200 pots. In a quiet street in an older residential part of Tokyo, just near the park, is a little gallery that might belong in a village in the English countryside. Isaka san, the owner, spent many years in the UK and has created a gallery that has the feeling of Britain and specialises in contemporary british ceramics.
This is my second exhibition at Gallery St Ives, and many friends gathered to help celebrate the opening on Saturday evening. Guests arrived from as far afield as Nagano and Shizuoka. Australian wine was flowing freely, and Yoneyama san brought a delicious dessert wine from his own vineyard.
Food from my platters and wine from my cups. Sharing the fruits of our labours with friends. That is the art of function, that is the function of art.

Tuesday 20 November 2007

St Ives!

Just as a tree makes leaves in order to grow, so a potter makes pots. Each leaf bears the unmistakable characteristics of the tree, but every one is complete and beautiful in and of itself, and no two are the same. At the end of each year the tree will display its leaves in a blaze of colours and share them with the world.

A year has passed since my last exhibition at Gallery St Ives in Tokyo. We recently had a group exhibition of tea bowls there, but this Saturday sees the opening of my annual solo exhibition. Back in 2001 I exhibited and did a workshop in St Ives, Cornwall, during the September festival. While I was there the world changed, with the destruction of the twin towers in New York. Ever since then I have been active in the British Ceramic scene, and Gallery St Ives in Tokyo, which specializes in contemporary British Ceramics, has accepted me into its "Stable" of Ceramic artists.

Last year we collaborated with Chef Morishige of "La butte boisie" french restaurant in Jiyugaoka for a signature dinner. It was an opportunity for me to explore the function of art in relation to western cuisine. I have always believed that a vessel does not reach a point of completion until it is in use, and by creating a full course menu worth of pots for a french dinner it brought the purpose of pottery into clear focus.

Isaka san at gallery St Ives also invited me to participate in the Tokyo Dome Table Ware Festival earlier this year. It is refreshing to see pots in context and invigorating to find a gallery so committed to the promotion of excellence in ceramics.

This year we will not be doing a signature dinner, but everyone is invited and welcome to a free opening reception at the gallery from 6:00pm on Saturday November 24th. I will be at the gallery on the 24th, 25th of November and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd (final day) of December.

I invite you to come and share with me again this year, my work and my life, and see how much I have grown.

Monday 19 November 2007


Every year, when the mornings start to become fresh in the autumn, I am greeted with a beautiful splash of purple, yellow and red in the midst of the green lawn. We harvest the red stamens of this delicate crocus for the most precious spice of all, saffron. Worth its weight in gold, it gives to food the colour of gold and the fragrance of autumn. Our crop is not large, but used sparingly it will last us a year till autumn comes again.

One of my favourite dishes is of course saffron rice. Combined with cashew nuts, raisins and turmeric it is the perfect foil for a curry banquet.


6 cups of rice
1 small onion, chopped finely
1 cup of raisins or sultanas
1 cup of cashew nuts
12 strands of saffron, steeped in 200ml hot water for 5 minutes
1 teaspoon of turmeric
1 litre of stock
25 grams of butter

Melt butter in frypan and lightly fry the onions till translucent. Add cashew nuts and raisins, fry for a minute or so, add turmeric. Put the rice into the frypan and mix well till well coated with butter then add the other ingredients. Bring to the boil on a high flame then allow to simmer on very low, covered, for twenty minutes. Serve with any variety of curries and Naan.

Friday 16 November 2007

New Kiln in Nagano!

There is a lot of interest here in Japan (and internationally) in efficient and environmentally responsible wood firing. As a result many people are building kilns based on my kiln plans. There are now at least twelve that I am aware of in this area of Japan and many others in Australia, USA and Europe.

Last weekend I went to Nagano prefecture to build a new kiln for Laura and Giichi Inoue. Two of the participants from the Mashiko kiln building workshop, Sasase san and Yoneyama san volunteered their help, as did Kumon san, a potter from Nagano. A local potter, Okamoto san also came to help on monday.

As I have an exhibition coming up soon I could only spare three days, so we set ourselves a three stage target; fire boxes and up to the floor on saturday, walls up to the arch on sunday and the arch and chimney finished by monday night. It was a six hour drive on friday night, but we started work at 8:00am saturday morning.

The shed and concrete floor had been built be a professional builder so we were starting from a smooth and level base. Hooray! All the bricks and materials were new, no second hand bricks to clean or hedge around. Hooray, hooray! And Fire clay, not mortar, which makes laying the bricks easier as it stays flexible for minor adjustment and afterwards will make maintenance easier. Hip, hip, hooray!

We lay the first layer with the bricks arranged in the pattern of the fire box and upper walls to make sure there were no mistakes in measurements, 6 bricks deep and 6.75 bricks wide.

The third layer has gaps called "Mouse Holes" between the bricks at the sides of the fire boxes which can be opened up to let air in under the embers if they build up too much during the firing.

The fire grate is made of 39cm "I" shaped kiln props set on edge so that they form a natural pattern of gaps. These are slid into a channel so that if one prop gets broken during a firing it can be dropped down into the ash pit with a long rod and a new prop pushed in from the front. The whole lot can then be slid back into the original position along the channel which we made this time by setting that layer of bricks on edge also.This saved having to cut bricks, a time and energy consuming job.

The flue was bridged at the back between the kiln and the chimney at the level before the floor of the kiln.

The floor of the kiln was bridged with double length fire bricks. The space between the flame entry ports has an angle cut to help the flame flow into the kiln.

From that point onwards the walls and the chimney become independent. The walls above the floor are built as a single layer of hard refractory bricks on the outside. We build the outside walls up 15 layers above the floor.

The inside wall of soft bricks is the layed dry (without fire clay). Soft bricks are not as structurally durable as hard bricks and so the stress between the expansion of the bricks and the fire clay or mortar can crack the bricks. The purpose of the fire clay is not so much to stick the bricks together as to fill the gaps between them.

There is a difference between the height of the outside and inside walls wich is equivalent to the accumulated thickness of fireclay between the outside bricks. This is adjusted by cutting soft bricks to fit level with the outside wall. A "Soldier Course" is then layed to tie the inner and outer walls and give a firm springboard for the arch. The arch springs from skew bricks cut to an angle that is calculated based on the curve of the arch.

The Arch former and outside frame are set in place, then the arch brick are layed dry. Sasase san welded the arch in place, but it can be bolted together if you can't weld.

After tightening the angle iron frame the arch former can be removed and then the gap in the back wall filled in.

There is still a bit of finishing off to do for Laura, but there you have it, a kiln in three days.

Thursday 1 November 2007


It's Halloween and the ghouls are out, haunting the house of Craig.

The Jack o Lantern carefully carved from a home grown pumpkin is glowing in the dark, and a fiendish feast is waiting.

Worms in axle grease (squid ink spaghetti)
Witches broth (with pasta spiders, bats and owls) and Chameleon eyeballs(stuffed green olives)
Dried Slugs (grated cheese)
Powdered Lice (parmesan)
and dried Bogies (black pepper)

"Pass the bogies!" calls the vampire.
"Can I have more Slugs?" asks the skeleton.
"These eyeballs are delicious!" exclaims the Cat woman.

"Kick, Punch!" says spiderman

Wednesday 31 October 2007

A successful workshop

It has been full on this last week. Apart from delaying Walis firing till Sunday morning because of a Typhoon on saturday night, everything went according to plan. Even with torrential rain all weekend!

The sasukenei kiln was packed on thursday night, with all hands on deck. We managed to sart the kiln by 9:00pm and then we started the shifts of four people for four hours. After a nabe supper the rest of us crashed till friday morning.

Friday, bright and early we started packing my kiln with bisque ware. Lo and behold we ran out, and I had to go home and get more of my own pots to fill the front. That meant it was a Raw firing, so it was going to be a long day. We got it started by 1:30pm and finished at 1:30am, exactly 12 hours. I didn't seal the door this time with slip and paper, and flattened the seger cone 10, 1299c by the pyrometer.

While this was happening kusakabes firing continued, and Steve Mills built his kiln.

Wali gave instruction on Terra sigilata and Raku, and constructed his kiln.

On Saturday Kusakabe finished his firing, a total of 36 hours. Steve and wali packed their kilns and Steve fired his in 6 hours!

George Guine brought in meals on wheels for a culinary extravaganza on Saturday night and a great time was had by all!

Come Sunday, the weather was miraculously fine and clear, and as wali set the flying kiln into orbit we unpacked the other three kilns. The results were fantastic, with close to zero losses. As we pulled the raku pots hot from Walis kiln it was exciting to see the variety of colours and surfaces that can be achieved with different clays in the same kiln and the same clay in different kilns. It was a rich and fulfilling workshop, and everyone went away with a wealth of new experience.

Wednesday 24 October 2007

A Busy Month

This last week I travelled north to Murata town in Miyagi prefecture for their annual Pottery Festival.
I have been doing it for the last six years, and there are nearly seventy potters from all over Japan and this year Taiwan who display their works there.

It also saw the start of three group exhibitions. The first "ALL FIRED UP", opened on the 15th at the Mashiko Tougei Club gallery. Apart from my own work there is also the work of Masakazu Kusakabe (Japan), Wali Hawes (India), Steve Mills (England) and Steve Tootell (Wales). It goes until the 5th of November.
It is an exhibition of the work of the five presenters of the "FANTASTIC FIRE" woodfiring workshop which starts tomorrow in Mashiko.

At Gallery St Ives in Tokyo an exhibition of teabowls by (mainly) british potters started on the 19th and will continue until November 5th. The opening was a fantastic event, but unfortunately I was in Murata!

The 20th saw the start of "TOTALLY TEABOWLS" at Oakwood gallery in the UK as well, and that will be going until the 4th of November.

If you have time, and happen to be in the right country, please visit.

Thursday 11 October 2007


We have fired the new kilns. We stacked on the fourth, and Kusakabe san started firing that night at about 10:00pm. When I arrived and started firing my kiln at 7:00am on the 5th he was at 380c. Because there were lots of raw pots in the kiln I aimed at a fourteen hour firing. The first 600 degrees are the most dangerous for raw pots, with the crucial temperatures being 350c, when the chemical water is burned off, and 573c when the silica expands.

Kusakabe san sealed the kiln door with refractory mortar slurry on newspaper, like wallpapering, and it seemed like a good idea so we did it to my kiln too. As a result the kiln was sealed much better than my normal firing and so it was much more heavily reduced. We reached temperature, put in 2kg of soda ash and finished firing in 13 hours. Unfortunately I forgot to take my camera so there are no photos of the firing! We fire again for "Fantastic Fire" on the 26th, so I will do a more detailed record then. Kusakabe sans firing continued until 3:00pm on saturday the 6th, and reached the horrifying temperature of 1375c, and we had to desperately drag it back down to 1320 under a heavy reduction before we finished!

We unpacked both kilns on the 9th, mine had much more carbon trapping than I expected, but there were 0 losses!

Kusakabe sans kiln had excellent ash glazing, and though many peices were lost the results of the suviving work was very rewarding. Next time will be better! 

Thursday 4 October 2007

Tea bowls in context

Like any other funtional vessel, a tea bowl is not complete until it is in use. It is part of a greater art work, art in process, and it is part of the beauty that affects all five senses. Yes, most certainly, a tea bowl is a beautiful object in and of itself, but it is more than that.

If you have read the essay mentioned in my last blog you will understand that it is the interaction between all of the elements of the tea ceremony that complete the bowl. Be it the fragrance of the tatami mats or the sweetness of the Mama Daifuku.

Nor is it just the moment when the bowl is full of fresh tea, but it is also the making process, the drinking and finishing process.

And when you have finished, the way the last skerrick of tea runs back into the "Chadamari" and hangs on the shoulder is just as important an expression of the beauty of process as the whisking of the tea.

Monday 1 October 2007

Fresh from the kiln

Just unpacked the firing and the results were very pleasing! Some excellent new tea bowls for example. This Chawan was at the fire face so the ash has built up on the front of the bowl and formed runnels down the vertical surface. The black glaze inside is mirror like and will look majestic when it contains green tea!

Towards the middle of the kiln this Tea bowl shows stronger reds and oranges. I have used a clay with slightly more iron, and there is a lustrous patina on the inside where the igusa straw has marked the bowl.

A smaller tea bowl for the outdoor tea ceremony was near the bottom of the kiln and has developed an almost pearlescent surface over the soft orange flashing.

The Tea bowls will be included in the Tea bowl Exhibition at Gallery St Ives in Tokyo which starts later this month.
It coincides with the "Totally Teabowls" exhibition at Oakwood Ceramics in the UK, for which they have published my essay "Just My Cup of Tea" in their magazine section.

Other tea ware also came out of the kiln, like this "Kensui", a bowl for discarding the hot water used to wash the tea bowl in the tea ceremony. It is taller than a tea bowl, with a wider, more stable foot and a flared rim avoid spillage.

Apart from tea ware the wine goblets came out with excellent carbon trapping and transluscency.

There were also two varieties of "Kumidashi" tea cups, which are used for serving tea to guests in a more informal situation. Tea would be poured into them from a "Kyusu" tea pot. This design is like a small version of a "Gohan Chawan" or rice tea bowl.

These kumidashi are collared slightly at the lip to make them more comfortable to hold and drink from. Usually sets are of five pieces, as six is too many and four is unlucky. The word for four, "Shi", is pronounced the same as the word for death, so five it is!