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.