Friday, 27 July 2012

The Unequivocable Truth

I am just a potter. No more. Most certainly no less. For sixteen months I have struggled to keep my family safe, to keep the true path. My choice to be a potter was never about "success"; it is, and always has been, far too hard a journey for the feint of heart. It is about truth, about beauty, about living a life without regret. No words will ever express the anguish I have felt in my endeavours to protect those that I love throughout the disasters that have enveloped Japan. Yes, even I have despaired. But I have not surrendered.

This evening I finally received the results of the radiation tests. The very kind gentleman from the Environment and Forestry Office, Mr Kamimura, phoned me as soon as the results came through; there is no measurable radiation in the wood with which I fire my kiln. Without equivocation, I can confidently offer my work to the world. As of tomorrow, we are open for business!

At this stage, there are coffee mugs, tea cups and saucers, and green tea cups available in limited numbers, the details of which I will post soon! I am also very eager to wholesale to outlets throughout the globe at reasonable discounts! If ever you have wanted to help us, now is your chance! We haven't managed to get a web sales site happening yet, but very soon....!

Without the good will and charity of so many of you in the international community we would have never come this far. There comes a time when charity must end. Uberrima Fides, utmost good faith, this is the basis on which I wish to build our future. I therefore commend you all to consider my works, and how they may enrich your lives, as the creation of them has enriched ours.

We are open for business at;

121-1 Higashi-mine, Minakami-Machi, Tone-gun, Gunma-ken, Japan 379-1417
T/F (81) 278-25-3982

I thank you all, from the bottom of my heart. That is the unequiovocable truth.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

The Last Hurdle?

The clouds sit heavily on the shoulders of the mountains, their legs dangling down into the valleys and their toes wriggling among the trees. I have been told that Japan has the largest percentage of forested area of any industrial nation, which is a very fine thing. When the nuclear disaster occurred last year, however, the fallout contaminated wide areas of forest with radioactive materials such as Iodine 131, Cesium 134, and Cesium 137. Radioactive Iodine only has a short half life of a week or so, and has mostly dissipated by now. However, radioactive Cesium 134 has a half life of 13 years, while Cesium 137 has a half life of 30 years, and remains in the environment and becomes part of the food chain. Various government bodies have therefore introduced safe limits and testing guidelines for many food and food related products. The limit, for example, of radioactive Cesium in logs for growing Shiitake mushrooms is 100 becquerels per kilogram. In Ichikai, the amount measured was 117bq/kg, prohibiting the harvest of mushrooms in that area. The same applied for Mashiko, Haga, Mohka and a number of other places in Tochigi prefecture. Here in Minakami, there was no detectable trace of radioactive material in the Shiitake logs. HOORAY!

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the limits imposed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries on wood and charcoal for food preparation (including pottery, as it used for food serving and preparation) are much stricter, with a maximum limit of 40 bq/kg for firewood and 280 bq/kg for charcoal. This is because radioactive materials concentrate in the ash after burning, and the resulting ash must be safe for human consumption. For example, let's say you bake a pizza in a wood oven; if it gets ash on it, that ash goes into your mouth too, along with the radioactive materials. So, in order to ensure the safety of the pizza, you need to control the safety of the wood. In the same way, ash in a wood kiln sticks to the pots and melts into a glass, and therefore theoretically so do the radioactive materials. There is evidence that Cesium volatilises at 671C and would therefore become a gas which goes up the chimney and into the air again, which is equally horrifying. The only way to prevent this is to control the amount of radioactive material in the original fire wood. The MAFF has made it the responsibility of the wood producers and suppliers to test the wood, however, I am not taking any chances. 

As you know, I fire my kiln with recycled firewood. The wood I use comes into Japan as boxes of tobacco from the US for Japan Tobacco. It is therefore untreated with chemicals in accordance with safety regulations. In accordance with the Japanese industrial waste laws, it is then passed on to a licensed recycling company, in our case a wood supplier in Mashiko. He then bundles it into neat packages and it can be used in my kiln. I asked the wood supplier to provide certification that the wood was tested for radioactive materials and proven safe, and he in turn asked JT, who provided us with the above documentation, stating that the wood was maximum 0.15microsieverts of radiation, and well within the safe limits. SO, with confidence I fired my first test firing with my safe and wonderful wood! After the pots came out I checked them with my own handy dandy Geiger counter (never leave home without it!) and it told me that the pots were less than 0.05 microseiverts and unmeasurable with this equipment. HOORAY!!!

But wait....lets just double check everything before we sell these beautiful vessels. The MAFF says less than 40bequerels/kg for firewood. JT tells me it is 0.15microsieverts.... do you see the problem? Microsieverts is a measure of radioactivity, and Becquerels is a measure of the concentration of radiactive materials. To put it in really easy to understand terms, if faeces was a radioactive material, the stench coming off it would be radioactivity. The paperwork from JT only tells me how stinky the wood is, and MAFF needs to know how much poo is stuck to it...becquerels and microsieverts measure two different things.   

After unsatisfactory attempts to get the wood retested in becquerels by JT and the wood guy, I have discussions with the Mashiko Ceramic Institute and the Mashiko pottery Co-operative only to discover that they are unable to test for radioactive materials. ("If you have paperwork from JT that should be OK..shouldn't it?") It is very difficult to get them to understand that there is a significant difference. They tell me if I want it tested for Radioactive materials I'll have to do it myself, and point me at a testing facility in Chiba. After two days of telephone conversations I am informed that a simple test will cost me 33,600 yen, but that will not satisfy the criteria of the MAFF. A proper test will cost me 100,000 yen. At what point should I start to despair?

I contact the Gunma prefectural office of environment and forestry in Numata, our neighbouring town. I explain in detail the problem I have, and ask them what I should do? They tell me to prepare a 1 litre sample of saw dust according to the outlines on the MAFF homepage, bring it to them and they will test it for me for FREE! HOORAY!!!

On a clean sheet of plastic (free of potential contaminants) I cut ten separate bundles of wood taken at random from the wood stack with my freshly cleaned chainsaw. I gather 1 kg (which is actually more than 1 litre, but better too much than not enough!) and double bag it in two new plastic bags. I then took it straight to the Prefectural office in Numata and the very kind gentleman took my details and the sample and will contact me when the results come through. They have a back up of tests, so it will take ten days to two weeks, is that OK? YES!!!

So, if you were wondering why you can't buy my new pots yet, and why there has been this deafening silence, now you know. Probably the most important word in the mingei philosophy is "Kenzen", which means healthy or wholesome. When I make my pots, I make them for my loved ones to use. I will not compromise on safety, and until I can confidently provide art which is healthy and wholesome, we will just have to be patient. As I have said before, my vessels are a collaboration with nature, and through them I strive to enrich peoples every day lives every day. The more beautiful the process, the more beautiful the result. I will not be firing again until I have the official test results. In the meantime I will be making lots of pots in preparation for my renaissance exhibition. It has been a very long run, and hopefully this is the last hurdle.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Small Miracles

The soft morning light glows gently through the shoji screens. It illuminates the porcelain electrical fittings on the dark wood ceiling above my futon in chiaroscuro. Birds twitter in the trees outside and frogs croak in the rice paddies beyond, but inside it is quiet, just the sound of my family breathing. I lay listening, watching the shadows slowly move across the ceiling, in no hurry to rise. The last few weeks have been hectic, I am trying to pace myself, but it is hard to find a rhythm. It will come. I just need to listen.

As these thoughts are passing through my mind, the town PA system rings the not quite Westminster chimes loudly down the valley, signalling “6:00 am, time to rise”, and ending in a signature click of static. I chuckle quietly to myself, as every-ones alarm clocks begin their daily chorus. Gradually the family begin to stir. I rise and Mika starts to get the children moving. Another day begins.

We all sit for breakfast together, sardines on saffron rice, a salad served in a bowl given me by Clive Bowen. We place our hands together in gratitude and chorus “Itadakimasu!” The kids chatter over breakfast, talking about their new friends, the upcoming tests, their sports clubs. They have settled in very well, their grades are good, I am very proud of them. I watch them head off for school, Sora and Canaan on their pushbikes, Rohan and Sean off to the bus stop, the sound of their dinosaur bells jangling into the distance.

It is about a year since Sora was diagnosed with fatigue fractures in her spinal column. It is caused by over training in sports, in Sora’s case basketball, and the specialist in Maebashi told us it would never heal. Our local doctor, however, had a corset made for her and gave her an exercise program anyway, with instructions to follow that program -not the program dictated by the basketball coach. After we had meetings with the school, she has been participating in the team on a restricted level, with regular checkups at the doctors. It has been a very difficult time for her, but she has been very brave. At last week’s check up, after x-rays and a thorough examination, the doctor gave her a clean bill of health! “The x-rays show the spine is straight and cleanly healed,” he said. “You don’t need to use the corset anymore, keep it as a souvenir.” It seems that the specialist was wrong, for which we thank god and the good advice of our local Doctor!

I return to the studio, which is becoming more functional with each working day. The light from the window reflects off the dark wooden decking, clean and waiting for me.

Now that it is summer we are not using the wood stoves for cooking so often. Instead, I often light a charcoal fire in the irori and cook over that. The pit is half full of ash now, and I level the ash off and rake it even each time I use it.

I have always felt that this is the true source of the stone gardens of Kyoto, though I have no proof to support that other than the beauty of these patterns that were once the heart and hearth of every home in Japan.

My work cycle begins with wedging the clay, blending two clays until they become a new homogenous body. The clay becomes marbled during the process, and like every part of the process it has an intrinsic beauty. I will wedge 300 kg or so today, in preparation for my “Hatsugama”, the first firing of exhibition work in the new kiln.

It takes time to get into a proper working cycle. In the last month I have managed to make and fire the first test firing, a rehearsal for the “hatsugama”. We need to know how the kiln will fire, with a balance of pots inside. Not work made for museums, vessels made for my family, simple and honest. We need coffee mugs, cups and saucers, green tea cups. It takes 400 pots to fill the kiln, so I make 100 of each. If they work out well, I’m sure that others will want them too.

The aesthetic of Mingei is based on the simple beauty of functional ware made for everyday use. So, too, is the art of tea, but in a much more specific way. For me, the making of pots is like a tree making leaves. I make them in order to grow; when they are finished they will nourish others, becoming a part of their lives. Each is an individual and unrepeatable expression of the beauty of nature given form through me, and the more beautiful and simple each part of the process is the more beautiful the results will be.

When I stood before the fire box, bathed in the light and heat of the wood flame, it was not by my effort alone. It was with the help and support of so many of you, and the grace of god, whatever you conceive that entity to be.

The kiln fired perfectly. It fired in ten minutes less than the estimated fourteen hours, with exactly 400kg of wood, to 1305C by the pyrometer and Seger cone 10. The reduction flame from the chimney blew red into the darkness like a phoenix rising into the night.

I opened the kiln on the morning of the third day after the firing, with Mika and the children there. It was perfect. The flame had blessed us with red and orange and gold, lustrous surfaces, Sumi-e like ash glazes and beautiful igusa straw markings. No two were the same, but each a precious crystallisation of all the elemental forces of nature that have helped form them. And yes, one of those forces is love.

I lined the pots up on boards and took them to the studio. The vessels stretched across the dark decking in elegant rows. There are no words to describe the feeling of seeing this, to have come full circle.

This has been a long journey; I thank you for sharing it. Now I stand at the beginning of a new journey; or perhaps a continuation, I cannot tell. Every step is always the first. Shimaoka sensei said to me once, “I have no secrets, but if you don’t ask, I won’t tell you.” I have no secrets, but I have learnt a great deal on this journey. I will continue to share what I have learnt with you as I can, perhaps a little more regularly as we settle down into our new lives. I am blessed. I owe a debt of gratitude to so many, for all of these small miracles.

Thank you.