Thursday, 2 April 2015

Through the Looking Glass

I can feel the scritch and scratch of pencil on paper vibrating through the long wooden table as it sit, my own pencil poised motionless, staring into space. Sora sits to my right with her biology homework spread before her on the kitchen table, while Canaan studies his english grammar at the end of the table facing me. The rhythm of the vibration changes suddenly from a complex harmony to a solo performance, and slowly I realize that Canaan has stopped writing and is staring me in the face. 

"Yes?" He asks expectantly.

"Sorry, son." I respond, "I wasn't really looking at you, you just happened to be in my line of sight. I was actually looking at that essay over there on the future horizon, trying to work out what it says."

"Ah, yes." He nods sagely, with all the wisdom of his fifteen years, "Common phenomenon, I do it all the time." 

Writing is a way of sharing our thoughts on why we do what we do. Whether it is writing for a blog or for magazines, or just a letter to a friend or loved one, it can help us to understand each other better, and even to understand ourselves. It is not necessarily easy, though, to find the right words, even if you know what it is that you want to say. It is also quite difficult to be objective about our own words, because we are so close to them, and sometimes we need the help and advice if others to help us communicate clearly.

Over the years I have published articles and essays in a dozen magazines, not only in Australia and Japan, but in the US, UK, Holland and Germany. One of the most enjoyable parts of that has always been the dialogue with the various editors and the process that brought those thoughts to print. 

The idea of ever being an editor myself had not really occurred to me until Jack Doherty, my potter friend from the UK, contacted me as "Guest Editor" of Ceramic Review last year. He requested an article from me about my experiences as a traditional Japanese deshi with Shimaoka sensei for a special feature on training to be a professional potter. Corresponding with Jack and the staff editor was so much fun, I began to wonder what it might be like on the other side of the looking glass.

While writing an article last year for Vicki Grima, the editor of the Journal of Australian Ceramics, I noticed on the website that they were also looking for a guest editor. When I visited Sydney in May and did a lecture and demonstration at the National School of Art, I mentioned it to her.

"I suppose it would be impossible for somebody in Japan to be guest editor?" I said in jest.

"No!" She said. "I don't see any problem with that."

And so it was that a few weeks later I received an email from her asking me to propose a few themes for a special feature in the magazine. Of them, "The Function of Art; The Art of Function" seemed to strike the right chord and I found myself, passing through the looking glass, the guest editor of the Journal of Australian Ceramics, April 2015.

I have not been involved in the Australian ceramic scene for 25 years, except for a few rare visits and snippets of news from potter friends, so it seemed a great opportunity to discover what was happening. We sought out professional potters from each state of Australia, trying to get a representative cross section.A few Australian potters working overseas, and potters born overseas but working in Australia as well, to give perspective. Some were potters whose work and ideas I had always admired and wanted to know more about. Some I have known for many years, others were new to me and there was a great sense of discovery in finding the right mix. Although it was important to work within the theme, it was also vital that the feature had variety and "texture" (a great piece of advice from the editor of Ceramic Review!). We sent out requests for submissions by email, I managed to speak to a few contributors in person at the European wood fire conference in Denmark, and gradually the crew came on board.  

The articles started coming in. By the deadline at the start of February we had them all and editing began. Some were too long, needing to be whittled down to fit the page count. Others were hard to follow at first, though I knew what the author was trying to say, and needed to be rearranged so the message was clearer. None of them were what I had expected, but all of them were written with sincerity and passion. It was a daunting task, trying to help these ideas reach the reader as clearly as possible within the space available and keeping the integrity of the original words. I would make adjustments, alterations, suggestions, and send them back to the authors for their approval, adjustment or rejection.  All of this while the Hamada Noborigama project was in full swing! It was not easy, and I made mistakes. With Vicki's advice and help, dozens of emails, several Skype conferences, and the cooperation and effort of all the authors, we finally had the articles together. 

All of the articles were then sent to a professional proof reader, and once again they were corrected and tweaked, going back and forth across the ether between Japan and Sydney. Eventually, when all the T's were crossed and I's were dotted, the final texts were sent to Vicki to start the layout.

The next challenge was finding the right images, from the many that were sent by the authors, to tell the story visually. We occasionally asked for different photos, or higher resolution images, to illustrate the ideas which the authors were trying to convey and to highlight them. Using dropbox and online photo sharing sites we were able to view and select high resolution images from opposite sides of the globe, and the graphic designer put them together in Sydney. We could then look at the layout, suggest changes and different cuts, until each article came into clear focus and all of them pulled together into a complex whole.

And last of all, the cover. We needed an image that would either wrap around the whole cover, or two images which worked together as a composition front and back. Despite asking for extra images from contributors and sifting through the images we hadn't already used, we couldn't find an image with a high enough resolution, or with the right composition or content to represent the feature issue. The deadline was upon us. 

As I polished the shell marks on the feet of the Chawan tea bowls from the Hamada kiln, readying them for use in the tea ceremony, I thought about the cover. A book, a magazine, isn't just about the front cover. Or the back cover. Or the words. Or the images. It is a whole, which ultimately finds completion in the hands and through the eyes of the reader. Just like a tea bowl, where the foot is as important as the face, and where the vessel finds completion in the making and drinking of the tea. And yet we rarely see the underside of vessels in magazines, or see them in use. What if...

I chose the best of the tea bowls from the Hamada kiln, marked with rope which was hand braided for me from a single strand of silk by the son of the rope maker who made Shimaoka sensei's ropes. I boiled a cast iron kettle on the charcoal brazier in the studio and prepared green tea, using a tea caddy I had made to fit an antique ivory and gold lid which Miyake san at Ebiya Gallery in Tokyo had given me. By the natural light from the windows beside the wheel deck I photographed the bowl. From above, as one see's it when making tea, in context, and then inverted, for the foot is always inspected during the tea ceremony, and sent the images to Vicki. 

We had a Skype conference the following day and, as we discussed the options, the graphic designer tried the tea bowl images out, trying to get them as close to actual size as possible. It seemed to work, but we needed an extra note in the editorial to explain the cover photo. 

Now, I wait to see the finished magazine. It has gone to print, Vicki and friends "bagged the mag" yesterday, and it is on the way to the readers now. I hope you enjoy it! I will not see it myself until the mail gets here from Australia next week. It has been a wonderful experience, and I understand so much more about writing, writers, editing and publishing than I ever did before, though I know this has been just a glimpse. Thank you for the opportunity, thank you to all the contributors, and thank you to Vicki, Suzanne and Astrid. 

Somewhere between the scratching of pencils at the top of the page and now, paper gave way to iPad, the kids have finished their homework and gone to bed, and I have discovered what that essay in the distance says. And so, apparently, have you. 

Friday, 20 March 2015

Mashiko Mingei

The sun rises golden over the horizon as I open the shutters at 6:00am this morning. Today is the vernal equinox and the seasons have finally begun to turn here in Minakami. Fukinoto are pushing their green buds out of the leaf mulch below the mulberry trees and the peaches and plums are threatening to blossom. We get the children up and share breakfast together before sending them off to their various schools. I load up the truck and head off to Mashiko.

As I descend from the mountains the signs of spring become clearer, and by the time I reach Shibukawa the plums are in full blossom. Fields are being ploughed and crops sewn. The sun is bringing new life back to the land.

My main task today is to deliver twenty pieces of my work from the Hamada Noborigama to the Tsukamoto Gallery for the Members Exhibition of the Japan Mingei Association Tochigi Chapter. The exhibition starts tomorrow, March 21st, and goes until April 1st. There is another exhibition happening simultaneously at the Kyouhan 6 gallery of the work of most of the other Mashiko participants in the firing, but I have chosen not to split my work this time.

It means a great deal to me to be a member of the Mingei association, for it was Mingei and the life and work of Shoji Hamada which inspired me to come to Japan. It continues to give great focus to my own life. Though Shoji Hamada had passed away before I came to Mashiko, I was fortunate to be able to apprentice to his disciple, Tatsuzou Shimaoka, a national living treasure in his own right. 

The time I spent at Shimaoka's was precious, working in the thatched studio with it's earth floor, paper screens and wooden shutters for windows. I learned to throw on the kick wheel, to foot wedge and decorate with silk ropes in the Jomon style. I was taught so many things about tradition, but also about combining that with the skills and modern science and reinterpreting them in a way which is relevant to the modern world. 

It was a great period of growth for me, striving to master the Japanese language as well as a whole range of shapes and techniques. Making everything from Yunomi green tea cups, Guinomi sake cups and Tokuri sake bottles, through coffee sets and tea sets to dinner plates, all to Sensei's exacting standards, all marked with his personal stamp. Perhaps the greatest lesson was humility, for a deshi is no more than an extension of the masters hands.

I treasured most those times I spent alone with Sensei in his private studio, talking about mingei, about art and life, about his experiences as a foot soldier in Burma and a prisoner of war, and his time as a deshi with Hamada after the war. He told me about Hamada coming to his firings after he had graduated and saying, "Shimaoka, you must find your own style!"


After I graduated, I took a "meoto" pair of yunomi from my first firing as a gift to Sensei. "Hmm," he said, "They're alright." He would sometimes come to my exhibitions or my display at the Mashiko pottery festival and even buy a piece or two. It was always encouraging, but I suspected that encouragement may have been his intention and wondered whether he really liked my work or not.

A few days ago my friend and "younger brother" deshi, Lee Love, sent me a photograph from America. He had been sorting through photos which he had taken in 1993 when he first visited Shimaoka sensei's studio, long before Lee knew me or my work. Among the photos was one of the shelf in front of the shoji screen window in sensei's studio. There is a portrait photo, leaning against the shoji, of Shimaoka as a young man. In front of it is a row of pots; one of his own early Jomon Zougan inlayed rope decorated vases, a salt glazed bottle and a jug which I don't recognise, and one of the guinomi Sake cups which I made while I was a deshi...alongside my two Yunomi. His face in the photograph seems to be gazing intently at my yunomi, and I realise that he really did think that my work was "alright". 

I deliver my work to the gallery, 20 of the best selected from the 140 which I had the privilege of firing in the Hamada kiln. Mashiko was my home for over twenty years, and though I am still a part of that extended community, I am not sure that I can continue to be called a Mashiko potter for long. There is no doubt, however, that I am a mingei potter, and I am proud to be a member of this association.

The sun is setting as I arrive home with a half tonne of clay in the back of the truck. Today is the equinox, tomorrow ther will be less darkness in the world as it turns inexorably onward, and on Monday I begin a new making cycle. 

Shoji Hamada Noborigama Revival Firing Project 

Japani Mingei Association Tochigi Members Exhibition

Exhibiting Artists; Tomoo Hamada, Ken Matsuzaki, Euan Craig, Masakazu Ishikawa, Kazuhiro Ohtsuka, Seiichi Ohtsuka, Mazatoshi Ohtsuka, Okada , Yoshiko Kasahara, Fujiya Sakuma, Kei Shimaoka, Yoshinori Hagiwara, Rei Matsuzaki, Ryuuji Miyata, Masato Akutsu, Touru Murasawa

March 21st~April 1st

Tsukamoto Gallery

4264 Mashiko, Mashiko-machi, Haga-gun, Tochigi

Tel. 0285-72-3223

Sunday, 15 March 2015

The Ides of March

The frost carves geometric landscapes in the surface of the puddles in our driveway as we slide once more under the edge of the eternal sunrise. There is such beauty in the world, from the minute to the magnificent. We are blessed with a fresh new start everyday, an opportunity to write a new chapter in our lives. These moments must be treasured, for they soon turn into weeks and years before we realize they are gone.

It is four years ago today that we trekked across the mountains before the cloud of nuclear fallout from Fukushima. Each year we cannot help but relive those desperate days in our hearts and minds as we remember the earthquake and the fear, the relief at finding our loved once safe. The daunting task of building a new life, the kindness of so many friends and strangers, and even the cruelty of a few. I have seen such bravery in Mika and the children, I have watched them start from scratch and rise to the challenge. Their frustration and their patience, their sadness and their joy. The children have grown so much, not just physically, but as people finding their place in the world, searching for meaning in their lives. I witness their successes and their failures, too, and am filled with pride and love for them, whatever the outcome, for it is their striving that defines them. 

I, for my part, go from day to day, task to task, working to build a safe and wholesome environment for them. It is impossible to separate my work from my home life, and probably useless to try. Whether it is making pots or cooking dinner, dining with my family or doing the dishes, pruning fruit trees or stoking the bath furnace, every facet of my day is part of a single endeavour. To live a good life. I constantly question the rightness of my actions, of my words, and strive to live each day to the full and go to rest each night without regret. Each day is busy, from dawn till dreams come, and I cannot always achieve all that is expected of me, or that I expect of myself. 

Today I spend quietly with my family. I make green tea for Mika in one of the Machawan tea bowl that was fired last month in the Hamada Noborigama in Mashiko. Built by Shoji Hamada in 1943, and fired up to four times a year until his death in 1978, it was severely damaged in the great earthquake four years ago. It has been restored with the assistance of many donors and volunteers, and Tomoo Hamada invited the potters of Mashiko to join in a collaboration to fire it for the first time in forty years. I was honoured to be included in the project, and was allocated one of the thirty spaces in the kiln. I prepared about 140 pieces, thrown on the kick wheel from the Hamada pottery which Tomoo gave me after the earthquake. Vases, machawan, guinomi sake cups and platters, made in the pale winter light while the snow whirled outside in the bitter north wind. Some of the guinomi were made on the kick wheel as I demonstrated at my exhibition at the Japanese Traditional Craft Exhibition in Nagoya in January. Some of the pots were chattered as I often do, but some were decorated with Jomon rope marks, as Shimaoka sensei taught me, with a hand braided silk rope made for me by the son of sensei's rope maker. I carried the pots in the back of my little truck the 200 km to Mashiko without a single breakage, and unpacked them onto Shoji Hamada's throwing deck in the original workshop at the museum. It was important to me to be as honest to the process as possible, and prepared my pots as I would for my own kiln, raw, wrapped in Igusa straw from Tatami mats and stacked on Akagai sea shells. It turned out that I had more than I needed, and Tomoo used my extras to fill spaces in other chambers. 

The kiln took five days to stack, and another five to fire. 15 tonnes of red pine was brought from Nagano where there is no radiation contamination on the wood, and it was split and stacked by a team of volunteers. I was teaching a workshop in Mashiko for the Singapore American School during the day, but took my turn on the stoking team for the third chamber, the reduction flames blasting in scorching tongues from the spy holes on one side, the freezing dark on the other, as crowds of spectators hovered around the fringes of the fire light like moths.

When we opened the kiln four days later, we discovered that the back wall of the first chamber had collapsed forward onto my pots. Miraculously they all survived! It was fascinating to compare the results on my pots from the first three chamber, seeing the differences between them with ash and flame colour in varying parts of the kiln.

I am trying the machawan from the Hamada kiln, one by one, for a vessel finds completion in use. I must know that these bowls function well in the tea ceremony, are easy to use and beautiful in harmony with the green tea. It is some years since I studied the tea ceremony in the Urasenke school, but I make tea regularly at home, boiling the iron kettle in the irori charcoal brazier in the studio. Last October I was invited to attend a formal tea ceremony in Nihombashi, where the tea master used my bowl along side Shimaoka sensei's. It was a great honour. Then in November, during my exhibition at Ebiya, a tea master of the Chinshinryuu school used my new machawan, mizusashi water jars and chaire tea caddies, in the Kian tea house at the rear of the gallery, to serve tea to our guests over three days. It continues to be great study for me, and I use the experience to constantly improve my work, to bring the beauty of nature into the lives of others through my vessels.

It is the simple things, the sharing of tea, a delicious meal, having my loved ones close and safe, that make my life rich and full. Each and every vessel which I make is an expression of that.

It has been difficult for me to write and I have started so many times, but each time it has been left unfinished as other tasks have demanded my attention. So much has happened.
Autumn vanished like leaves on the wind and the long snowy winter still clings with its icy tail. Spring is so close I can taste it. Today, these last few days, remind me once again how blessed I am. 

Tomorrow, March 16th, 2015, at 8:30 ~8:58 Japan time, NHK World will be rebroadcasting the "Begin Japanology" documentary of our first firing in the new kiln in Minakami, 2012. I hope you can enjoy it.