Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Making Tea Bowls

Yesterdays rain is gone, and a cool breeze brushes my face as I rake the chestnuts and their prickly pods from the front lawn. I have seen the older children off to school, but Sean insists on helping with his own small rake before he leaves. When we are done, and I have swept the drive, we stand back and survey our handiwork. Satisfied, we shake hands, his tiny five year old hand enveloped in my gentle grip, and he merrily goes off to pre-school with Mika. As I put the tools away I notice a blush of red among the foliage of the woods.

It is not the autumn leaves that one might expect, but the berries of the Sansho, the native Japanese pepper. I collect them in a bowl and wash them before putting them out in a woven bamboo tray to dry. As they dry they will split, revealing the black seed inside. We will remove the husks, separating them from the seeds and stems, and it is these red husks that we will grind into the fragrant sansho pepper. The seasons march on.

The light is soft through the studio doors as I spiral wedge the ten kilograms of clay, one hundred times anticlockwise, reverse the piece of clay, one hundred times more, then finish in a cone. I place the clay on the wheel head and top up the water in my throwing bowl. The throwing bench is clean, and I place my favourite ware board beside the wheel. (Yes, I have a favourite ware board, but that's another story.) Beside the water bowl I place my one ended throwing string and my sponge, as these are the only tools I will use today. I am ready to begin.

I throw a little slower than I would perhaps for other forms, letting the clay find it's centre beneath my fingers, letting the marks of the process remain on the clay. I do not measure, at least not with a ruler. I feel the amount of clay that I can hold comfortably in my hand, I lift it and belly it into a form which will be good for whisking the tea. The curve of the bowl must fit the hand, the lip must be comfortable to drink from, the inside must have somewhere for the tea to settle. There are names for all the parts of a tea bowl, just as there are names for all the parts of a tree. A tree however is not constructed from parts, it grows as a whole, and it cares not for the words we use to describe it. To make a tea bowl according to a formula of parts is to make a bowl which is about "tea bowls", not to make a bowl for tea. And so each bowl I make is different, an exploration of form, surface and space. The kiln will finish them for me, but for now I seek only to embrace this moment and release it into the clay, giving form to the forces of nature.

The making of tea bowls is not a simple thing of measurements and rules. There are a plethora of books about tea bowls, with photographs and measurements of classic examples, and these are useful as a guide. But they are useful in the same way as a wine guide. It gives an intellectual framework perhaps, but understanding only comes through the drinking of the wine. How much greater must the understanding, the knowledge and the skill base then be in order to make a fine wine? It was for this reason that I became a student of the tea ceremony some years ago, as I had been asked by many Japanese friends to make tea bowls yet lacked an understanding of their use and the philosophy of tea.

By studying the art of tea I began to understand that the tea bowl is part of a greater art work, an installation if you like, in which both the server and the drinker of the tea actively participate. The bowl is the focal point, the conduit through which all of these aspects interact, but it is dependent on the rest of the whole. The tea ceremony is a celebration of experiencing the simple sensual beauty of the moment. Thus the season, the weather, the ambiance all become vital players. I received these licences to practice the tea ceremony from the Urasenke school of tea on October 10th, 1998. I will be learning for the rest of my life.

The making of tea bowls is, for me, a quiet and gentle thing. Just as a tree cannot be forced to grow, just as a child must be nurtured, the clay must be allowed to take form. It is my task to stay still and wait for the bowl to find a shape that fits my hand, and to know when to release it. It is about being aware of the changes happening before your eyes and recognising the moment, and it is like holding a child's hand firm enough to guide it, but never too tight.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Tokyo Workshop

EUAN CRAIG Master Class

at International School of the Sacred Heart, Tokyo

Saturday October 16th

(Suitable for clay minded people of all abilities)



Getting a handle on knobs, spouts, stems and attachments.

A practical workshop on the design and techniques for constructing functional pottery from thrown components, with special focus on pulled handles.

Cost ¥12,000 ( this includes lunch and ¥1,000 donation to SEEDS Nepal I.S.S.H. Charity Project )

(The three one day ISSH Master Classes have been awarded 1 credit from Univeristy of San Diego)


With a career spanning over thirty years, Euan Craig is internationally renowned for his elegant wood fired functional ceramics. He began his pottery career at the age of fourteen in the historic pottery town of Bendigo, Australia and after gaining a degree in Ceramic Design from Latrobe University, he established the Castle Donnington Pottery in Swan Hill, Victoria. Strongly influenced by the philosophy of the Mingei Art movement and, in particular, the work of Japanese National Living Treasure Shoji Hamada, Euan left his native Australia to pursue his career in the traditional pottery village of Mashiko, Japan. Euan apprenticed to Hamada’s successor as Mashiko’s preeminent master potter, Tatsuzou Shimaoka, who was also designated a Japanese National Living Treasure, and after graduating established his own studio in the neighbouring town of Ichikai. He is Shimaoka’s only foreign “Deshi” apprentice to have remained in the Mashiko area, where he has worked for over twenty years.

Euan has had numerous exhibitions of his ceramics at galleries throughout Japan, including the prestigious Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya Department Stores and the Ebiya Art Gallery in Nihombashi, Tokyo, as well as exhibiting internationally in Australia, North America and Europe. He has taught workshops and summer schools in Japan, Australia and the UK, and his “Eco” fast fire wood kiln design is being used by many potters in Japan and the rest of the world. Essays and articles by and about Euan have appeared in publications in Japan and internationally, and he has made several appearances on Japanese radio and television. His signature dinners and collaborations with leading Japanese and French chefs have gained him an international reputation, leading the field in hand crafted wood fired functional ceramics.

What people have said about Euan;

“His stance in pursuit of the beauty of function 
which is useful to people in their everyday lives is superb.”

Tatsuzou Shimaoka
 : Japanese National Living Treasure

“When one thinks of “Mingei” in global terms, it can be said that his stance is pointing a way forward for the inheritance of “mingei” in the modern age.”

Ikuzo Fujiwara :Director Kyohan 6 Gallery, Mashiko, Japan

For information about other master Classes:

Masakazu Kusakabe -“The Japanese Tea Bowl” April 9th

David and Margaret Frith "THROWN, PADDLED AND BEATEN" 2 Day workshop March 4/5

Swanica Ligtenberg “Horse Hair Fuming and altered thrown forms” May 14th

Please contact:

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Nature by design

Generally speaking, nature is beautiful as a matter of course. It doesn't set out to be beautiful or spontaneous, it just goes about the business of arranging matter in accordance with the laws of physics and as a collateral effect creates patterns and forms that we find beautiful. I would contend that we find them beautiful because we are part of the same universe, made of the same material according to the same laws. Effectively the universe made self conscious, looking at itself and applying abstract meaning to its perceptions, and thereby defining it itself.

The shape and structure of minerals is determined by the way in which the atoms of which they are formed fit together as a matrix. The substructures of cleavage planes and angles thus formed determine the colour, hardness, diaphaneity and crystalline shape of the minerals, in short all of its physical properties which we find beautiful. It is a consequence on the large scale of a process which happens at the atomic level, according to the laws of physics.

When all the conditions were right the universal laws dictated that life should enter the scene, creating new and more complex structures. The shape of cells and the imprint of genetic coding has created a rich and diverse myriad of life forms on this little wet rock which spins around the sun. Within all these life forms, plant or animal, is a drive to survive, to flourish and to procreate. Whether it is a single strand of hair from an arctic bear designed to insulate against the cold or the hexagonal matrix of a beehive, nature creates structures that are efficient and ingenious and incidentally beautiful on every level.

The synchronised aerial acrobatics of a flock of birds, the aquatic ballet of a school of fish. The colour, shape and fragrance of a flower designed to attract insects to pollinate and bear fruit, the plumage and dance of a bird of paradise to attract a mate. There is a purpose in nature, in every aspect, and nature creates infinitely varied and structured patterns and forms incidentally to that purpose. We humans also have evolved in the same world according to the same principles, and somewhere along the line we have started to understand some of these principles and manipulate them to our advantage. That the hair of these animals is warm, and if we spin its fibres and weave the threads together we can create garments which allow us to increase our area of activity in environments that we could not have survived in naked. If we breed these animals or propagate these crops we can guarantee our food supply throughout the year. If we fire this clay we can make vessels to store, cook and serve these foods.

And so, incidental to our own struggle for survival and procreation, we created patterns and forms which were based on practical and efficient principles, and they were beautiful. Beautiful in the same sublime way that nature makes the scales of a fish or the fronds of a fern or the rising and setting of the sun. We have flourished. Our ancestors took nature to wife and husbanded it well, nurturing it and caring for it so that we in turn could enjoy the bounty of its embrace. Useful, beautiful, healthy and sustainable. Each generation passed it's knowledge to the next, adding their own experience and discoveries. Knowledge alone, however, is not enough, and a system of training and practice became established and this became tradition. Through training, practice and repetition we master the skills until they become natural to us, like language, allowing us to express our thoughts and feelings through the medium of our craft.

Our ancestors learned that cooking some foods made them more palatable, and that by combining them with other foods their flavour, fragrance and food value could be increased. As the range and variety of foods increased, so too did the need for vessels appropriate for the serving of that food. Hot liquids, for example, required shapes to keep them hot, handles so that we could hold them without burning our fingers, saucers to catch the liquid if it spilt, plates to serve fairy cakes on. As each individuals perspective and perception is unique, so too are our solutions to those design challenges and our artistic expressions.

These skills are not hard wired into our genetic code, however. Heredity does not imbue us with the skill to sit down and make a cup and saucer. One cannot stand up one day and spontaneously make or pull handle which springs from the vessel in organic curves, twisting in tendrils round the chattered hip of the vessel. These are skills we must learn, and we all start from the same point. No accident of birth gives us the ability to automatically be a potter, though circumstance may place us in an environment that nourishes our creative spirit so that we may grow to be one. It is only after we have trained and practiced and made a hundred or two hundred or a thousand, that those skills become natural to us, allowing us free and spontaneous expression.

Traditional society is all but gone, and the healthy beauty that existed as a consequence of it is going with it. It is, therefore, the task of our generation to be aware of our place as nature self aware and to consciously choose to be a part of the real world. Not the disposable industrial construct that we have built around us to separate us from nature, not the virtual escape and the veneration of the useless. This world that we have taken to spouse is not disposable, and the health and welfare of our children depends on how well we husband it. We are part of this beautiful world, and we have the ability to create art which is useful, beautiful, healthy and sustainable by design.

The matter which makes our universe, the space in which it exists and the principles by which they interact are part of a grand design, though who you believe that designer to be is not for me to say. Never the less, the universe is beautiful as a matter of course, and we are part of that.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

What's for Dinner?

They tell me that Autumn has come, but the cicadas don't seem to be convinced. The children are back to school today after six weeks of holidays, (though with the volumes of homework they had I'm not sure that's the right word!). The days are still long and hot, not as humid as they have been, and the garden is green and lush.

Each morning Mika goes out to the vegetable plot and harvests the days produce. No chemicals or pesticides have been used on this land for at least twenty five years, so our vegetables are organically grown and ripened on the vine. During this time of year we get by with mostly our own produce. With four growing children we need all the help we can get!

Many of the vegetables that we grow here are the same as I had in Australia, but often there are subtle differences. The cucumbers that we grow here are much more slender with very thin skins.

The same applies to the aubergines ("nasu" in Japanese), although in recent years larger varieties have become popular, generally marketed as "American Nasu".

Nasu have been popular in Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years, but of course my first introduction to Egg Plant was in Greek and Lebanese cuisine in Melbourne in my youth.

There are, however, a variety of foods and vegetables here in Japan which I had never known before, and which are part of our daily diet. Many of these I know only by their Japanese names, and am often at a loss when asked what they are in English! One such vegetable is the "Gohya", or "Niga Uri". "Uri" is any of the squash, gourd or pumpkin family, and "Nigai" means "Bitter". This strange looking vegetable, which is very popular in Okinawa, is quite bitter when eaten raw. I slice it down the middle and remove the seeds and pith, then slice it cross ways and blanch it in salted water for a few minutes before using it.

One of our favourite dishes made with Gohya is "Kakiage", a kind of vegetable fritter. I mix the blanched Gohya with sliced aubergine and "Sakura Ebi" (literally "cherry blossom shrimp"), and then add one egg, two tablespoons of plain flour and some water. This mixture is then shallow fried in dollops till golden on both sides.

"Agedashi Dohfu" (Fried tofu) goes exceptionally well with the kakiage. I cut the tofu into 5 cm cubes, then zap it in the microwave for a few minutes to make it release the excess water. After draining off the water and patting them dry with a clean cloth, I dredge them in corn flour and fry them lightly. The garnish is sliced "Myouga", a relation of ginger, and "Ohba", a large leafed native herb related to basil. I make a sauce of 6 parts "Dashi" fish stock, 1 part soy sauce and 1 part "Mirin" sweet cooking sake. Bring this to the boil to evaporate the alcohol, then pour over the tofu to serve. This same "Tsuyu" sauce is used for dipping the Kakiage.

It is nice to serve "Sunomono", a vinegared side dish, with fried foods. In this case, sliced cucumber, sprinkled with salt and left to sit for ten minutes, then rinsed. Mixed with a hand full of roughly chopped "Wakame" sea weed, served with a dressing of equal parts sugar and vinegar.

Of course no Japanese meal is complete without a bowl of steamed rice. A sprinkling of sesame seeds adds fragrance.

Today we may dine in Japanese style, tomorrow might be something from my mothers cookbook, who knows? There is a world of possibilities. In this world where we can access the whole globe at the touch of a finger there are always new discoveries to be made. Sometimes those discoveries are simple pleasures that are common to all of us, familiar things that have brought joy to humans for generations past and will continue to do so for generations to come. After the kids get home from school and have been out adventuring out in the back yard, making discoveries under every leaf, they'll come rushing in with choruses of "What's for Dinner?"

With one thing and another, we have a very full life.