Thursday 27 March 2008

Of Mice and Men

When Hamada Shoji returned from the UK he stopped stamping his work. "My pots should be a signature in and of themselves" he said. The pots that the mingei movement prized most highly were those from unknown craftsmen, whose work sprang from the necessities of a simple and natural lifestyle. They were unassuming and their beauty sprang from the process of their creation as a matter of course. He would sign the boxes in which pots were kept, and seal them with his stamp, but never the pots themselves.

Shimaoka Sensei thought differently. He believed that a craftsman must take responsibility for their work, and so every pot that came from his workshop was marked with his stamp. A simple "TA" in katakana "” for "Tatsuzou". It said "This work has my stamp of approval, I take responsibility for it", and the work of the deshi, the staff and sensei himself all passed through his hands and bore the mark of his craftsmanship.

I for my part hold with Shimaoka sensei, and I mark my pots with my logo mark, even though my pots are unmistakably mine. Yet as the years go by they change, as do I. I am not the same 14 year old boy who found sanctuary in the pottery studio in Bendigo 30 years ago and who chose this career as a path to becoming the man he so longed to be. I am not the same young man who left his home at age 21 to establish his own pottery in country Australia, fresh from university and untested in the "real" world. Nor am I the man who at age 26 turned away from everything he knew, his country, his culture, his language, to rediscover himself in the Japanese pottery tradition. All of these people are part of who I have become, and who I am yet to become. My pots express who I am and how I see the world, and as I change so do they. So it is that each year I mark my pots with a different stamp beside my logo mark to tell when they were made, like footprints in the sands of time.

This year is the year of the mouse, "Nezumi-doshi" in Japanese. Not "Rat" as some translators would have you believe, just mouse. Beside my stamp this year is a stylized marsupial mouse. He will bear witness to all my highs and lows this year.

My first firing this year was eventful. The Japanese say "Even monkeys can fall out of the tree", and an order of beer cups proved the point. Over half of the beer cups cracked, whereas everything else in the kiln was fine. Same clay, same glazes, same firing......what went wrong?

It is not enough to just make them again (Though that is inevitable), the cause must be found or there is the risk of repeating the same mistake. I had made them first so that they would be dry, then kept them till I had a kiln load and glazed everything together. They were of course a little dusty, so I had to remove the dust or the glaze would not stick evenly to the clay and would "crawl". Blowing the dust off would be a health hazard, as breathing clay dust causes silicosis, so I wiped the dust off with a damp cloth. AHA! The damp cloth added just a touch of moisture to the clay, and so when I raw glazed the added moisture affected the absorption of the glaze, and the stress difference between the internal wet surface expansion and the external dry "set"surface caused the pots to crack before firing! The solution is therefore to glaze each batch of pots as it dries, and not allow dust to settle before hand! Dust on top of the glaze will just burn off and not affect anything. Problem solved.

And now I have remade them, dried them, glazed them and am making the rest of the next kiln load. I know that Shimaoka had such times, and my grandfather sensei before him, Hamada. My journey goes on.

The best laid plans oft go astray, and potters are no exception.

Tuesday 25 March 2008

New Life

Spring has come after the long winter and with it has come new life. Delicate and fragile, the plum blossoms adorn the yet leafless branches.

The logs of ash wood have been stacked in rows through the winter in the shelter of the cedar grove.

Through their bark the Shiitake mushrooms come muscling their way to the light.

In the grass and leaf mulch "Fukinoto" (angelica) buds of bright green burst forth.

Yes, the winter has been long, but not so long that life cannot reassert itself. It has been a time of gestation, a time of contemplation, a time to question my direction and find that what was true before remains true. To live a good life is the goal, and it is not a distant destination but a daily journey that defines who we are. Before we measured the world and set our arbitrary limits on it, before we invented money or built clocks to rule our lives, before the whims of fame and fashion, we were and will always be a part of nature and only whole when we live as one with it.

To rise with joy at the rising of the sun, to work with ones hands in the earth, to take the gifts that nature gives us and share them with the people that we love, to go to our rest at the setting of the sun and be embraced by the gentle night. To experience the beauty of the world with all our senses, take it and find it within ourselves and then share it with others as something new, an expression of who we are.

We picked a bowl full of fukinoto from our garden today, my wife, my children and I, and we enjoyed them as tempura as part of our evening meal. We ate from the pottery which I made for us, at the dining table we made, on the wooden floor we built. There is no luxury in this, but what life could be richer?

It is not an easy road that I have chosen, it never was, but it is a good one. It's rewards cannot always be measured by conventional values, and for some people I suppose it will always be a mystery. I am not some people, and neither they nor I can live by the others standards. My path is mine, all the hours and days and seasons that I live. And life goes on.