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.