Friday 29 November 2013

20 years...

The charcoal brazier glows red in the shadows of the gallery. The air is fragrant with charcoal and grilled chicken; this evening I dined at home. Some fresh bread from the Mitsukoshi bakery, an avocado, half price because it was perfectly ripe, a sachet of tartare sauce. One of my guests at the opening brought a bottle of red which needs to be drunk...perhaps I do, too, but one bottle of red does not a summer make. All that is lacking is a book of verse and thou...and some order to be paradise enow. For the middle of Tokyo, however, this is close enough.

It is twenty years since my first exhibition in Tokyo, here at the Ebiya Bijutsuten. A lifetime, well, thinking of my children, maybe four lifetimes ago. The eleventh of November, 1993, representing "Australian Ceramics" as part of the Australian embassy "Celebrate Australia" campaign. On the 1st of January, 1994 I married Mika in Sydney and have been working very hard at happily ever aftering ever since. It has been a long journey, and, barring earthquakes and nuclear disasters, it has been annually punctuated by a nine day sojourn here at Ebiya. This years opening was blessed with the performance of my good friends Bill and Eric. The children sang and it was a joyous celebration.

Each morning I rise and light the brazier, and after breakfast I prepare the gallery for the coming day; clearing away my futon and chattels, rearranging the display, polishing each vessel with a soft cloth. Miyake san comes down from his home on the tenth floor, replaces the water on the "kamidana" (god shelf), pays homage to the god above the door, opens the "Butsudan" (family shrine) containing his father, the eighth in the Miyake dynasty and with whom I share the tea room, and lights incense for his ancestors. After he vacuums the floors and waters the plants, the kettle has boiled and we often sit and chat over a bowl of tea in my most recent tea bowls. The bustle of Tokyo shuffles past outside, we can hear the commuters chatting to each other beyond the shoji, admiring the window display, making a verbal note to come back at lunch time....

The Gallery opens at 11:00am, and I don the official ebiya "Hanten", a light smock of sorts, open at the front, which bears the insignia of the Ebiya Bijutsuten, purveyors to the imperial household for nine generations. Miyake san makes me wear his, the "ten shuu" (shop master) hanten, for he says that while my exhibition is on, I am the master. I'm not sure that that is true, but it is a sign of his humility that he should make such a gesture. He is a very kind and generous soul, and I am proud to count him as one of my very best friends. 

Visitors arrive, one after another, many of them old friends, some of them visiting for the first time. The gallery stands on the corner of Chuo dori, the main street of Tokyo, not five hundred metres from the Nihombashi Bridge, the geographical centre of Japan. All roads lead to Nihombashi, the Bridge of Japan, and even the river which flows beneath it is called the "Bridge of Japan River", a temporal conundrum in and of itself! 

Ebiya is a dealer in antiquities, and has been since 1673. My work is displayed on furniture from the Edo, Meiji, Taisho and Showa periods. In the "Tokonoma" display shelf, Miyake san has hung a Kakejiku scroll from the mid edo period, a painting of a shrimp, its back bent, a sign of longevity, a "Tai" (Schnapper) which is a play on words implying "Omedetai" which is a great celebration, and "Tako" (Octopus) which, when written in different Kanji as a pun, means "great good fortune". What better symbols could be imagined for a dealer in antiquities, the name of which translates as "Prawn shop", its Master and an expatriate Australian who form the core of the "Oyajigag Fukyuurenmei" (Society for the revival of old bloke puns).

"Okyakusan" in Japanese encompasses both customers and guests, and we greet each guest as we would a friend. We explain the work to them, share tea with them in my cups, laugh with them...many of them have been using my vessels for years and come to add to their collection; not to display but to use. So many of them tell me how my pots have become a part of their everyday lives, and that they find solace and peace in them which is a relief from the stress of modern life.

Sometimes we sit around the charcoal brazier and talk about life, the susurration of the kettle hanging on its "Jizaikagi" hook above the embers weaving subtly through the conversation, the wall clocks striking the approximate hours, one after another.

The vessels sit comfortably on the furniture of ages past. They belong here. There is a beauty which can be found in the natural functionality of life, which is not swayed by fashion and transcends language and culture. A beauty which is humanistic and common to us all, and which is relevant regardless of era. It is this universal beauty for which I strive, and there is no better place to test it than in the hands and on the tables of my customers and guests, in the hands and on the tables of professional chefs, and in the peace and harmony of the classic furnishings of this gallery. 

Ever since the first opening party here, the food has been provided by Chef Hashimoto Touru of Kappo Toyoda, a fifth generation Japanese chef and one of the finest Kaiseki restaurants in Tokyo. Much to my chagrin I was unable to provide enough vessels for a course menu at his restaurant this time. But we have great plans!

This week I have dined at several restaurants in Nihombashi which are using my vessels, and it is of immeasurable value to learn the role these vessels play in the meal, the harmonies that they make with the food and the orchestration that the chef creates with the total meal. I will take these lessons home and strive to add to that great song. 

In the end, it is those who use my vessels, who find joy in them, that bring my vessels to completion. I offer them here, in the best way that I can, so that others may see them and feel the spirit with which they were made. I wait here for those who have used my vessels to tell me how they fare. I bide here waiting to return to my loved ones and share my life with them. I will be here a few more days, and then I can go home to where I truly belong. Till then, I await you here, at Ebiya in Nihombashi, as I have for twenty years, and I hope for many years to come.


Tuesday 26 November 2013

Proposition on MINGEI

It is quiet in the Ebiya galley this morning, just the sound of time pouring steadily out of the wall clocks one tick at a time. It has been a very hectic few months, and I am taking these hours before the gallery opens to catch up with myself.
I have spoken about mingei, about my philosophy on life and art, and heard argument around and about concerning what Yanagi and Hamada and Leach did and did not say, do or mean. I was looking through a book on Sunday morning and found this very succinct passage written by Yanagi. It does not require my embelishment, so I share it with you here, and will let you think about while I compose my next blog.    
Proposition on MINGEI
Soetsu Yanagi
Mingei (the abbreviation of  minshu-teki kogei ), which means the crafts or arts made by the people to be used daily by the people, was coined to imply the opposite of bourgeios fine art. Mingei is
I. utilitarian oriented
II. commonplace ordinary or "normal" things.
Everyday necessary items such as clothes, household utensils, furniture and stationary articles are included in mingei. What is luxurious, costly and rare is not mingei.
Those who make mingei items are not notable individuals, but nameless craftspeople. What is made is not to be displayed but to be appreciated through everyday use. They are regular indispensable things made in quantity and affordably priced. The nature of mingei is born from the community's way of life.
However, mingei is not every single inexpensive necessity you see lined on shop shelves. Mingei must be honest to its utilitarian purpose. Items created with commercial motives are dishonest to its purpose.
Items made in fashion are elegant and refined and often based on distinct preferences. They are not mingei because the concern in decoration and ideas preceed utilitarian basics.
 Mingei items must be:
I. honest to utility and "healthy" in form
II. particular about quality
III. produced without being forced, artificial or self-imposing
IV. conscientious of the user
Things made with appearance above quality, intentional negligence, vulgar colours, and those that are cheap, easily breakable, flimsy and not user-oriented are dishonest and unethical.
For these reasons, mingei must be faithful to everyday life and "healthy" (both physically and spiritually). True mingei is your true companion for life. It has the virtue of being useful, dependable convenient, and comfortable to live with. It has the affection to grow on you. Mingei is therefore natural, genuine, simple, durable and safe.
The sincerity of the peoples' craft created mingei, and its beauty emanates from the items' purpose and utility. It is a "healthy" beauty; a beauty that Yanagi called buji-no-bi (the beauty of spiritual freedom and self sufficiency).       

Friday 22 November 2013


I'd like to inform you of my 20th Anniversary Exhibition at EBIYA BIJUTSUTEN in Nihonbashi, Tokyo.



Euan Craig, Ceramics Exhibition
ユアン クレイグ作陶展


3-2-18 Muro-machi, Nihonbashi, Chuoh-ku, Tokyo 103-0022
Tel 03(3241)6543       Fax 03(3241)1914

Opening party from 11:00am, Nov. 23rd 

with live Music by Bill Scholer.

This year I celebrate my 20th anniversary exhibition at Ebiya Bijutsuten. My work has evolved over those years, and though my life has changed in so many ways, Ebiya has been a constant anchor. It has been a long and exciting journey, full of joy and sometimes sorrow, rich in experiences and fulfilling in so many ways, and I am honoured to have shared it with you. I look forward to sharing my new works with you this year 
and for many years to come.


Sunday 11 August 2013

Kuza Nama

Listen again. One evening at the close,
Of Ramazan, ere the better moon arose
In that old Potter's Shop I stood alone
With the clay Population round in Rows.

And, strange to tell, among that Earthen Lot
Some could articulate, while others not:
And suddenly one more impatient cried-
"Who is the Potter, Pray, and who the pot?" 

(Omar Khayyam, "Kuza Nama", Book of Pots, 12th Century)

As evening fell just the other day, I sat in the studio twisting Igusa around the last of the coffee mugs and drippers. Cool air wafted down from the hill behind the house and through the open window, while birds and cicadas sang songs to me. Occasionally I would look into the back garden, the face of the Nobotoke buddhist statue greeting me calmly, the "koushintou" stele behind his shoulder and the shine to Inari off to the left. 

Our lives are served to us in easily digestible bite size pieces,  those moments when our little patch of the earths surface slides beneath the bright space between sunrise and sunset, and gratefully we are allowed to rest between mouthfuls. Some of them are hard to swallow, but others are sweet, and there are never any two the same. It is, therefore, important to savour each and every one of them.  

I have often been asked how long it takes to make a pot. The real answer is a lifetime. But, this last month, I have made about four hundred, large and small. It is a process that cannot be hurried, and the role of the potter is to be patient, taking action when the clay is ready, guiding the vessel into it's finished form. Rather like parenting.

When we look back over the days and weeks and accumulation of moments that have brought us to today, it is astounding to see how far our small steps have journeyed. I know how easy it is to become despondent, feeling that no matter how we strive and struggle we seem to make no headway at all; but it is not the destination that is important, so much as the journey. 

Each day, each moment, every movement that helps create the vessel is a precious gift, and it is important that we notice and take joy in them, no matter how small they may seem.

As each pot is trimmed on the wheel, as I place the chattering tool to its surface, as I listen to the sound of its rhythm, I am in the moment. An adjustment of speed, a change of angle, a touch more pressure, and magically the rhythm becomes a clear hum, and for these few seconds I hold to this course, from the centre to the edge, striving not to break that rhythm. When the wheel stops, when the silence falls, then I find the evidence of those moments, the accumulation of a life time of moments, a gift of beauty.

Step by step we move forward, and each step is always the first. 

These vessels which I make are not for me. They are for the hands and lips and lives of others, friends, family, strangers. They will become a part of their daily lives, for a moment, a day, perhaps a lifetime. They will live beyond my life and speak for me, telling the world about the beauty I have seen and the passion I have felt. I make the vessel for others, but the making of the vessel is for me.

It has taken nature aeons to create clay for me. Thank you, I will do my best not to waste it. Each morning my studio is filled with the light of day, and by this light I make my pots, and in the evening when the light fades I put down my tools. This was the way people lived for thousands of years, I am happy for Mr Edison to not interfere with that. By all means let him light the evening meal which I share with my family, keep my food cold and fresh, help Mika wash the clothes, these are very helpful things. But I am not happy for him and his minions to dictate society and economics while they poison the air and the land and the ocean. There must be a better way.

We are husbands to this world, not the owners of it, and it is not disposable. When I draw fresh clear water from my well, I do so in gratitude for a world which is beautiful and good. It is my role to ensure that my children and theirs can live lives which are just as beautiful and good. 

So I take each step in my process carefully. I strive to work with the forces of nature to create a lasting beauty, by making every moment an ephemeral beauty. It is nature who creates the curve of my handles, the spiral of my throwing rings, the rhythm of my forms. 

These vessels are beautiful and useful, part of the art of living. I make them with as little impact on the environment as I can, with natural and healthy materials, in collaboration with natural forces. When complete they will potentially serve their function for ten thousand years, and if they are broken they will return to the earth from which they came, with no more environmental impact than pebbles and grains of sand.

None of us know what tomorrow may bring. It is, therefore, important to make the most of today. To make our plans for forever and live each day with love and joy, knowing that you have done your best. No one can ask for more than that.

I look back at what I have achieved over the last month. I have wedged clay, thrown pots, trimmed them, decorated them, handled them and put them out to dry. I have waxed them, made glazes and glaze tests, and glazed the pots. I have cleaned the kiln, cleaned and kiln washed the kiln shelves, tested new coatings on the inside of the kiln.  Yes, it has been a good month.

I have also tended the garden, heated the wood fired bath every day, prepared meals, baked bread and cakes and scones, and done all of the thousands of little tasks that daily life requires. Mika and I have helped our children with their homework and shuttled them to school and choir and sports. We have listened to their troubles and hopes and dreams and told them about our own. We have hugged them often and told each other "I love you." It is all these things, these little moments, these building blocks that make our lives, that make us who we are. There is not a moment to be missed!

 Yesterday I stacked the kiln, the penultimate step in the making process. Each pot carefully placed, thinking of how the flame will flow through the kiln, where it will touch the pots. Not all of the pots I have made this month fit in this firing. I hope to stockpile work to fire in winter.  As the last light of day washed obliquely into the kiln shed I bricked up the door, washing each brick as I set it to avoid dust falling into the pots, for just one grain of sand in the wrong place can ruin a vessel that has taken a month to make. I plan to fire tomorrow, today I will rest. The morning air is cool as I write, and the family begins to stir. I will take them to the river today, we will have a barbeque. This, too, is part of the making of pots, and the making of a potter, another page in my book of pots.  

Tuesday 2 July 2013

My Grandfather's Axe

The sun is a pale smudge in the overcast sky, like a dusty light globe beyond a shoji screen. Mist shrouds the mountains, sometimes turning to light rain, occasionally to a torrent. It is Tsuyu (梅雨), the rainy season, called the "Plum Rains" because this is the season when the plum trees bear their fruit. Every day is grey and pensive as I work in the studio, trying to catch up with lost production, but knowing that there are limits to what I can achieve. One man can do anything, I am sure, but not, it seems, everything. 

Last winter was long, cold and snowy. I discovered that trying to make pots in the Minakami winter was a challenge that I was not equal to. With occasional lows of minus 15c and highs of minus 5c, just keeping the house and family warm was a full time pursuit! I must rethink my annual schedule to fit into this new climate, making enough pots from spring till autumn to be able to concentrate on firing during the winter. It will take a couple of years to get back into full swing.

 Among the remnants of the generations past who have dwelt in this house was an axe. It reminded me of the story my father told about his grand fathers axe, which has had two new heads and three new handles but is still the same axe.

 This axe, however, is still in it's original condition, and it worked hard to bring us through the winter safely. It's head is heavy and narrow, reminding me of the Canadian wood splitter I used on my Uncles farm in Australia. The haft is a heavy, dark wood, polished to a soft sheen. On the haft is a mark, a brand burnt into the wood, of a tortoise whose tail twists into the symbol "Kotobuki" (寿), which signify longevity and good fortune.  

The same mark can be found on other tools in the house. There is a bamboo "Kujirajaku" (鯨尺) which was a ruler for measuring cloth when making kimono; a chisel handle also bears the brand. These tools were finely crafted by the same hand, though when they were made, during the hundred and forty years that this house has stood, and by whom, remain a mystery. Whoever this unknown craftsman was, they branded these tool to say, "I made this, and take responsibility for it. May it serve you long and well." It has served beyond the craftsman's lifetime, beyond memory of the craftsman. This is the essence of "Mingei". 

I asked Shimaoka sensei one day, many years ago when he and I were alone in his studio as I watched him throwing and wedged his clay for him; "What is the future of Mingei?" 
He laughed, and said, "Euan, you do ask difficult questions!" 

 He thought for a minute, then continued.
 "There are two meanings of 'Mingei', one is the functional art which was born from the healthy lifestyle of traditional societies, the other is the functional art which we of the mingei movement create which is inspired by the first. Sadly, traditional cultures have been usurped by modern industrial civilisation and what remnants there are have all but lost their vitality in the face of 'progress'.
 I do not hold much hope for them."

He removed the bowl he had been making on the kick wheel and placed it in the last space on the ware board. I passed him a fresh piece of clay, and he began centreing it as I removed the full ware board and brought a new empty one.

"There is, however, great hope for the second 'mingei'." He said, "By studying and understanding the beauty of functional art from traditional cultures, and by choosing to live a healthy and simple life in harmony with nature, modern 'mingei' artists can create art work which can enrich peoples lives. People living in a modern and artificial environment need the touch of real things, made with hand and heart, and mingei artists can help to create a healthier society." 

He worked on quietly after that, making his quiet pots that spoke so eloquently of the art of living. Living in the moment, spending the days in rhythm with the seasons. 

 Shimaoka sensei always stamped his pots. It was a simple mark, a single character, "Ta" (タ) for "Tatsuzo", his own name. It was a mark that said, "I made this, and take responsibility for it. May it serve you long and well."
Euan Craig, Shinsaku Hamada and Tomoo Hamada at the Hamada pottery,
May 2013.(Photo courtesy of John Dermer)

Hamada Shoji sensei did not sign his pots. He wished to work in the spirit of the unknown craftsman, and that his pots should be his signature in and of themselves. His grandson, Tomoo, told me a story of when an interviewer had asked Shoji what he thought of the Mashiko potter down the road making copies of Hamada sensei's pots. 
Hamada laughed and said,"I don't mind at all. In a hundred years time people will think his good pots are mine and my bad pots are his!"

Hamada did, however, sign his boxes, with a description of the vessel inside, and a stamp of the first character of his personal name, "Sho" (庄) for "Shoji". The same mark can be found on his personal ware boards, burnt into the wood as a brand.

And so, I stamp my pots with my personal mark, a stylization of my initials, "EC". But I also add an extra mark which changes each year. Every vessel bears a mark which indicates in which year of the Japanese zodiac it was made. 2012 was the Year of the Dragon, and so every vessel made that year bears a dragons head, breathing fire.

The stamp was carved from a 140 year old piece of hard wood which was cut from the original frame of this house when we were repairing the upstairs floor.

This year, 2013, is the year of the serpent. I have carved the new mark on the other end of the dragon stamp, and every vessel will bear the stamp of the serpent this year. 

We learn from tradition, from the past, but we each must walk the same road for the first time. Seeing it with new eyes but finding a beauty which is common to us all. Some ancient art can feel very fresh to us, and contemporary works seem ageless. Like my grandfathers axe, old and new at the same time. Whether it is today or in a hundred years time, someone may hold one of my pots, may lift it to their lips, and take joy in living. And they may look at the marks on its foot and wonder who made it.  Whether they know me or not, it doesn't really matter.  
It is my way of saying,
"I made this, and take responsibility for it. 
May it serve you long and well."

For those of you with an interest in "mingei", you might enjoy my post from 2009 entitled, oddly enough, "Mingei"