Saturday, 12 July 2014

Make or Break

There is a golden ring around the moon tonight, the thin whisps of cloud washing eastwards on the skirt tails of Typhoon number 8, while the full moon moves inexorable westward across the southern sky. Mika and the children have all gone inside now. I am alone with the moon, the fire flies and the creaking frogs in the rice paddies that step down into the valley. No, not alone, for I have Shimaoka sensei with me in the shape of a sake cup, and a 12 year old Macallan to share with him. We potters, you see, are like trees. Each vessel we make is like a leaf, it is an expression of our selves, we must create it in order to grow, but we leave it behind to nourish others when we are gone. 

This morning, as the predawn light filtered through the shoji screen, I lay on my futon on the tatami floor listening to my family breath. I do not know what woke me, but as I lay there I heard the house creak and the floor beneath me move sickeningly. Leaping out of bed I flung the Shoji screens open on the engawa and opened the glass doors as the house began to shake and shudder. 

"Jishin!" I called to the family, ready to evaquate them outside if the tremors got any worse. The house swayed, the 140 year old pine logs of it's frame groaning against each other, the joints flexing to absorb the  movement of the earth. A minute, two, the movement gradually subsided, the house settled still. I closed the glass doors and tuck the children back into their beds, then go to check the earthquake details on the web. Magnitude 6.8 off the coast of Fukushima, danger of a small tsunami, 20 cm to a metre. The magnitude measures the amount of energy released at the epicentre, on a scale that peaks at 9....2011 was a 9. The amount of movement caused at any particular point is then measured on the "shindo" scale, based on the acceleration of the earths surface at a particular point in metres per second squared. Today was only a 4 on a scale of 7. 2011 was a 6+ at our home. Today was just a wake up call, at 4:22 precisely.

I prepare "Obentou" lunch boxes for the kids. Sora has an exam today, Rohan and Canaan are off to a basketball practice tournament in Niigata. Opening up the house to let the cool morning air flow through, I make breakfast as well and by the time the alarms start ringing at 6:00am I have lunch and dinner prepared as well. It will just be Sean and I during the day, Mika has a meeting at the senior high school during the morning, so I should be able to concentrate on getting some work done. Work has been a bit slow the last few days, as we had to prepare for the typhoon.

We are always ready for emergencies these days, risk management is what they they call it I suppose. Emergency food and water, we are prepared to be off the grid for days. The cars are never less than half a tank full in case we need to evaquate. Before the typhoon we cleared anything that could be blown away by strong winds from around the house and battened down the hatches. I climbed upstairs and removed the steel chimney stacks before closing the storm shutters. I closed the last one and darkness engulfed me. Closing my eyes, I stood still for a minute to allow my sight to adjust. When I opened them gain the light from the gaps and cracks shone beams through the fine motes of dust, dimly illuminating my way back to the stairs, and reminding me how many more repairs are left to be completed on the old roof. One day....

The schools finished early on Thursday so the kids could get home before the worst of the storm, and they started two hours later than normal yesterday as the typhoon passed through during the night. The town PA system announced that we would have 150mm of rain overnight, and to stay clear of rivers and water channels, being wary of land slides. Our home is well clear of dangerous slopes and on high ground, so once we were locked down we were ready to weather the storm. The wind buffeted the shutters and the rain pounded the roof, helping us find all those leaks we had somehow misplaced, but we came through without major event and by the morning the typhoon had passed, the worst of it going out to sea and then further north. 

It has been a "tradition" in our home, since the children were small, to have drop scones for breakfast in a typhoon. Somehow that touch of normalcy removes the fear from these events, for there will always be typhoons in Japan, though they seem to be stronger and more frequent every year, and it is important to be prepared. Yesterday, I took some of the new 7 sun (21cm) plates from the most recent firing and served breakfast on those. Home made yoghurt in the tenmoku rice bowls with a sprig of mint from the garden for colour, and blue berry jam in the hidasuki bowls. The celadon chattering forms a frame around the meal, and even the simplest of foods becomes cuisine.


I am often asked why I am a potter. I sit down at the table with my loved ones and share this food that we have prepared, on vessels that I have made with my own hands, with the help of nature and good fortune. There is a wholesome beauty which enriches our lives, and as we eat and talk and laugh, I know that I am happy, here, now. It is more than that, though, and as I watch my children I know that they will carry these memories with them all of their lives.

Sean is 9 now, he sits at my right and I watch him enjoy the meal, giving him pointers on manners when necessary. Much as I was when I was a child, slight of build, he doesn't have a big appetite. Often he will be unable to finish what is on his plate. I understand that, but make sure that he always has enough. He was only 6 when the great earthquake hit. 

Memories flood back from when I was small, unable to finish my meal, and my father standing over me, bellowing. Too afraid to ever tell him I was afraid. My mother trying to calm him down. He was from Liverpool, a child during the depression, and leaving food on the plate was unforgivable. He had gone to sea at 15 years of age, during the war when his father had been killed after a german torpedo attack on a convoy of merchant ships. He had known hardship and poverty, and had fought his way through youth and manhood to a home and family in Australia. Anger, yes, and violence, were his first and best answers. He worked hard to put food on the table and pay the bills, and his word was law. His forearms were massive from shovelling coal, with a blue tattoo of a swallow rippling on the skin. His huge hand struck me so hard on the back of the head that my forehead smashed the dinner plate in two. I know my father loved me. I also know that I will never be like him.


I reach out and touch Sean's wavy hair. He looks at me and smiles, then asks me what is wrong? I wipe the tears away and tell him that sometimes I get so happy that it leaks out of my eyes. I tell him I love him, and turn to the rest my children and tell them one by one. Lastly I tell Mika, who has walked this path with me, and thank her. It has not been easy for any of them these last few years. They have grown, we have built a new life here, and we can sit together in beauty and love, and even the simplest of meals is a great feast of joy. It is a much more difficult task to make plates than it is to break them, but it is far more fulfilling. This is just one reason why I am a potter.


Yes, it has been a tiring few days. Months. Years. As I have written the moon has traversed haif the sky. The children have come outside to kiss me goodnight, each in turn, telling me they love me, each asking me if I an OK? I reassure them, hug them, and send them off to bed. 

I tilt my head to the right, further, further yet, until the shadows on the moon become the face which I remember seeing when I was young, in Australia, and the moon traversed the northern sky. Fortunately it is dark and there is no one to see me looking at the sky from such an acute angle. It has been a long couple of days. Oddly, the bottle of Macallan is still almost full. I drain the last few drops from Shimaoka sensei's cup and go inside to my family. 



Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Out of the fire

I remove the bricks from the kiln door two at a time, the fire clay that sealed the gaps on the outside flaking off and scattering on the kiln shed floor. Stacking the bricks according to size beside the chimney so that they will be in the right order for the next firing, layer by layer, the space at the top of the kiln begins to open. A glimpse of the top pots, tantalizing, just the rims, then the body. The colour seems good, they seem to have good ash and flashing.....



It has been two days since the firing. Patience is a potters greatest strength. Now that the kiln has dropped from over 1300 degrees celcius to under 70, I can remove the pots with my bare hands. There is no longer the fear of thermal shock. Now there is just the excitement, the anticipation, the discovery of what results I have been blessed with, what losses there may have been. There are nearly 500 vessels in this firing, a months work, and my family is depending on it's success. 



It is now two years since the new kiln was built, and it is firing well. This firing was a perfect 14 hours, the orton cone ten was well bent, meaning the working heat was up to 1325C, and we only used 380kg of fire wood. My production is still not up to my old level, but I'm doing my best. I should be firing again before the end of the month!



Once the door is clear I can see the whole kiln, and it seems to be a good firing. I remove the pots one at a time, checking for flaws, placing them on boards to carry back to the studio if they are good, setting them aside if they are not. Work which is not exhibition quality is set aside to be resorted later, those peices which are of usable standard will be sent to the Tohoku area for the people still living in temporary shelters after the earthquake and tsunami...yes, there are still many, and I hope my pots can help them find a sense of normalcy, a touch of beauty, a moment of joy. 



I line the boards up in the studio, sorted by type; kumidashi chawan (汲み出し茶碗) cups for green tea, gohan chawan (ご飯茶碗) rice bowls, plates, sake cups and bottles...
The afternoon light illuminates them with its soft glow. Jade like celadons and tenmoku with the deep black of laquer ware contrast with the golden hues of the lustrous hidasuki. The vessels have gone beyond me, the forces of nature have made them something new and vibrant. It is a good firing.



The series of tests which I spread throughout the kiln have come out well. They are not exactly the colour which I was pursuing, an oribe style green, but they are close. There are historic examples of oribe this colour, but I am looking for a deeper green. These are a touch pale, a bit thin, poor things! I will beef the next batch up a bit, and each firing I get closer. The most satisfying thing about this batch is the stability of the glaze throughout the kiln, top to bottom, fire face to door. There are subtle variations, but not so much as to prevent them working as a set, interacting with the cuisine served on them. Another step in the journey.



I will finish the feet off tomorrow, grinding back any roughness and polishing them to a smooth finish. At this stage there is only 2% lost out of this kiln load, a very gratifying success rate! My next challenge will be to find homes for these vessels, and then I can begin the cycle again. It is important to take joy in ones achievements, no matter how small, for they are part of the journey, and it is the journey which is most important, not the destination.