Monday 31 August 2009

Storm in a Coffee Mug

Typhoon number 11 is visiting us here today, so we have greeted it in the traditional way. This house has been standing here since the Taisho period, so it's close to a hundred years old now, though nobody is really sure. It has stood through countless typhoons, earthquakes, floods, recessions, and at least one world war. We even survived the level 4 earthquake last night without even waking the kids! We have closed the weather shutters as tradition has taught us to do, and we are safe from the elements. It is also a chance for us to enjoy what has become the traditional Craig family typhoon breakfast of drop scones and lemon butter.
Funny thing, Tradition. All it really is is a system of passing on successful methods of survival. The conditions of nature that we live in haven't changed significantly for 10,000 years, let's call it 400 generations. There will inevitably be typhoons, earthquakes, torrential rain, forest fires, and all manner of natural events. Eventually someone realizes it's not very bright to build a house of grass balanced on a couple of round rocks on the banks of a river amid the tall rushes. So they build a house with heavy interlocking beams on a firm foundation of stone on the high ground with a safe space around it for the kids to play. This knowledge, and the skills to make it practical, are taught to the children, though they may not themselves have experienced any of those disasters in their lifetime. It becomes Tradition. Trees are planted that will mature into enough good timber to build a new house when the old one is no longer safe.
With the passing of the generations, innovations are made, new ideas, materials and methods, which improve the chances of survival, improve the quality of life. They then are added to or replace the Tradition. Even something as simple as a cup of coffee is the result of this process. You can't always guarantee that your drinking water is safe, and even today there are large numbers of the human population throughout the world who suffer from a lack of this basic necessity. Someone realises that if you boil it before you drink it you don't get sick, you survive, and that becomes tradition.
But if you let it cool and leave it in the open air and sunlight for too long it goes bad again, so we'd better drink it while it's hot. Hot water on it's own doesn't taste that good, but someone discovers these leaves, or those berries, make it taste and smell much nicer, and they seem to make you feel even better than just water alone! Welcome, Tea and Coffee! This too becomes a new and ever evolving Tradition.
The cup, however, gets hot, and burns our fingers, precious! What shall we do? Our answer in western tradition was to stick a handle on the side, so our fingers don't touch the hot vessel. Generations of innovation eventually gave us the pulled handle. In the 1920's Hamada brought the technique back to Japan, where it became part of the "Leach/Hamada Tradition", and pulled handles are known in Japan as "Leach Handles".
My innovation is to spring them from the rim of the pot, making the join over the inside and outside, thus spreading the contact surface and making the join stronger. The high handle also lowers the centre of gravity, so that no matter how much is in the cup it is comfortable to hold. The forces of nature dictate the curve.
Where tradition falls down is when we forget the real reasons why we do these things, and either adhere to them by rote or ignore them in deference to the vagaries of fashion or finance.
Recent experience shows that heavy tile roofs in a major earthquake will cause a pendulum swing which collapses the structure below, but there are those who won't use lighter modern materials because it is not "Tradition".
The land on the river bank is cheap, these thin veneer sticks cost less than proper timber, and if you stick vinyl on the outside... why, it's just like a bought one!
Does it matter if the vestigial handle on the bottom of your coffee cup is too small for one finger and the hot brew inside is in constant danger of cascading down your front, as long as it looks funky?
For me there is a responsibility that comes with the making of things. That they be safe, that they perform well the function for which they were created, and that they are beautiful. They need to be real, firmly grounded in human needs, and created in a way that does not cause harm to this environment upon which we and our children depend for survival. If they succeed in this they will stand the test of time and enrich the lives of those generations yet to come, standing beside other such works from the artists of the past . So, unlike the unknown craftsmen, I sign my work inside the foot ring by combing my initials, EC, and then stamp my logo mark on the outside of the foot ring, with a bulls head stamp. This tells that I made this work in the year of the bull.
It took thousands of years to build traditional society. It has taken industry, technology and greed a century or so to bring it to its knees. Yet, in just two generations Leach and Hamada have become tradition all over the world, and in only two years Lemon Butter and Drop scones have become tradition in our home on stormy mornings. I think that's rather a hopeful thought.

Sunday 30 August 2009

A Course in Basics

It is no accident that there is a similarity in form between thrown cylindrical pots and the structure of bamboo. Though they are not "Copies" of bamboo, a cylinder is a cylinder, and man made forms will naturally have commonalities with natural forms.

When learning to throw on the potters wheel the most basic skill one must master is the making of cylinders. All other forms thrown off the wheel head are based on this form. So, step one; Make one hundred cylinders.

It is important that they be accurate in size. These pots are 300 grams each, so if the weight of the clay is the same, and the height and diameter are the same, the wall thickness will also be the same. By turning the foot in a curve from the hip to a foot ring slightly smaller in diameter than the inside of the lip, the pots can be stacked for easy storage in the home or restaurant. The external rim measurement for these cylinders needs to be 72mm when fired, so allowance is made for shrinkage, which in my clay is exactly 10%, so the wet measurement was 80mm.

And what are they for?
They are lidded containers for another course of the Toyoda "Euan" menu which starts on September 30th. The lids are lacquer ware, and the pots are made to fit the lids, thus the diameter of the rim is vital. After 30 years of throwing, I still take great joy in making these simple forms. It reminds me that the key to mastering advanced skills is essentially the mastery of basic skills, of course.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Safety First

I have always made it a point to use only natural and safe materials when producing my work. There are no toxic materials in my clay, glazes or firing process. No Lead, No Barium, nothing toxic. Particularly considering that my studio is next to my children's bedroom!

I am careful to reduce dust and use a dust mask wherever necessary (special thanks to Phil Rogers for sending me a Dust Mask from the UK that didn't bend my nose over like the Japanese ones do!), and I use eye and ear protection where appropriate.

I have therefore always known that my products were safe for the consumer. This has always been a primary concern for me.

However, in order to sell my work at Mitsukoshi Department store I had to have my work tested by a public authority to prove it was safe for use with food. This is now necessary for all ceramics imported into Japan, and will apparently become standard practice by law for local production as well in the near future.

So, I sent my work to the Tajimi Ceramic Institute for testing and received this certificate proving that my work is perfectly safe for use with food. You no longer have to take my word for it!

Saturday 15 August 2009

Intimate Installations

Functional Art is the most intimate of installation art. Like a great deal of installation art it requires the active participation of the viewer/experiencer in order to become complete. It is a conversation between the maker, the server, and the consumer. It requires the input of those users to continue the conversation, to communicate an idea about the nature of experiential existence and to draw a response from the participant. By so doing it creates an micro environment enclosed with the participants hands, touched to their lips, affecting all of their senses and thus altering their perception of themselves in their greater environment. Architecture addresses the external environment which surrounds the participant, but functional art addresses the point of flux between the external and the internal. The perceptions of the maker made concrete in the form of the vessel affect the perception of the user in relation to the contents of the vessel. The users choice of vessel is a decision, conscious or not, about how the user wishes to interact with the world.

As a potter, I am making statements in clay about my perceptions of the world around me and my opinions and feelings concerning those perceptions. This is true of any artist, but in ceramics this evidence is in a virtually permanent form. The statements made by Jomon potters 10,000 years ago, by Greek potters 3,000 years ago, by Chinese potters 1500 years ago, are still as relevant to the human condition as the art of today. They are part of a living conversation that spans the whole of human history and transcends cultural and historic boundaries. It is the task of the modern potter to make statements that are equally relevant to the human condition, a condition common to all humans and with which all humans can identify. A regurgitation of the past adds nothing to our cultural heritage. Esoteric works which ignore the cumulative understanding which we have inherited from 400 generations of artists, or discard "Tradition" out of hand in homage of contemporary artistic fashion; which are alien to everyday human experience and inaccessible to common life are like the graffiti of the illiterate on the annals of human society. Our task is to add our experience, our voice, to this global history spanning conversation and thus join in the evolution of art and our understanding of ourselves in our environment.

That is why I am a potter and make functional pots. They are the most intimate of all installation art.

Friday 14 August 2009


It is only seven weeks till my next major event. Mitsukoshi department store has invited my to exhibit at their main store in Nihombashi from September 30th till October 20th. Coinciding with the exhibition, Kappo Toyoda will be serving a special "Euan" course in their evening menu. After having discussions with Hashimoto san, the chef, I produced a range of prototypes which we then used in a photo shoot on saturday last.

The results were amazing, and I can hardly wait to share them with you. However, let us not get carried away. I am going to show then to you one course/one vessel at a time, as I make them. You see, even though we've done the photo shoot, only the prototypes are finished. The actual pots for the meal (20 place settings) and the exhibition (enough to last three weeks in the premiere department store in Japan) are yet to be completed!

This week I focused on square plates. I have purposely placed these at the fire face to get heavy ash and soda deposits. On its own the plate seems a bit lonely, but that is because it was designed to hold food, therefore without food it is incomplete.

Once the food is served, however, it comes to life.

These plates are first thrown on the wheel with 1.2kg of clay as a wide rimmed 24cm dish. After they are trimmed I will cut them square. I threw 80 of them today, and, with the other 200 pieces I made this week, my shelves are full.

Being summer the humidity is high, so I will have to wait for a few days before I can continue. Which is fine, because the kids are on school holidays and they need me too.

Wednesday 5 August 2009

ART FOR ETERNITY; Discovering "Nontemporary Art"

Twelve million years ago Japan was the bed of a cold and shallow sea. Volcanic action and the moving of continents pushed this archipelago up out of the sea, built mountain ranges and valleys. Rain and erosion resculpted the landscape, filling the valleys with clay. Vegetation created rich soil and over ages these islands became what they are today. Throughout Japan, however, there still remains a layer of sedimentary rock, a strata that was once sea bed, and the evidence of its history can still be found there.   
"Ichikai", the name of the town in which we live, means "City of Shells". In this area there are some of the best fossil deposits in Japan, and the other day we went excavating with some people from the prefectural museum of natural history.    
The children all participated, and we found a variety of different shells.    


Time and pressure had changed the structure of the primordial mud, forcing the separate particles to meld together, embedding these beautiful forms and pattern into the rock for all eternity.  
As a potter, I too am trying to transform mud into stone, melting the particles together to form a new material which bears the patterns and forms which I have consciously created. By firing the kiln to 1300 Celsius I achieve in human time scales what nature does in geological time over millions of years. There is a limit to what I can do though, and I trust the forces nature to take my work beyond my limitations.   
To prevent the pots from being stuck in the kiln by liquid glass from the molten, running ash I will sometimes set the pots on sea shells. I fill them with clay to prevent them from collapsing, then place the pots on top of them.In the firing some carbon dioxide will burn off from the calcium carbonate of the shells, leaving the shape of the shells intact as calcium oxide.   
Even if ash runs down and sticks on the shells, the pots can be taken from the kiln with the shells attached. They can then be put into water and the calcium oxide will dissolve into sludge, leaving only the shell marks on the foot of the vessel, in this case tea bowls.
Sea shells also contain a small amount of salt, which will turn into sodium gas during the firing, giving orange flashing on the inside of the foot. The spiral left by the trimming tool on the base of the pots resonates with the spirals of sea shells, not as a conscious representation but as a natural consequence of the forming process.   
It is the beauty which springs from the natural process that imbues these works with their intrinsic charm. This beauty, this art, is not pretentious nor contrived, like much representational art, nor is it bound to a specific set of aesthetics or social mores as is contemporary art and fashion. This beauty is relevant to any one who loves beauty regardless of culture or creed, in any age, and will last for all of eternity. This is "Nontemporary Art".