Eric: You’ve been working in clay for 40 years, yet my perception of you is emerging, or constantly emerging, or, perhaps re-emerging or starting over. Would you care to speak to this?”
Dick: I suppose that there is a “near” and a “far” element to this, Eric. And I’m happy to see that you found this quality in my work. The “far” back element has to do with the way I was trained, back in the early 1970’s. I was taking an introductory class in clay. Most all of us were not art majors. I think that we were not educated as art majors – rather the idea was to introduce us to the many wonders that make up clay, and then to step aside and see what we students would do with that introduction.
When we asked professor Marvin Bartel…..”So, what do you think would happen if we tried to …..?” He’d always respond, “Well, why don’t you try it and see what happens.” I think that we grew into clay with the idea that there were few limitations, that failure was also learning. We could try/sample/investigate in as many directions as we wanted.
This approach, as you might imagine, led to some wonderful discoveries, but also to some (literally) monumental failures – not the least of which was the brick-making fiasco that Bob Smoker and I ventured into. Bob and I, with Marvin’s support, decided to make bricks to build a kiln. Instead of making either hard/high-duty bricks, or soft/insulating fire bricks, with Marvin’s nudging we decided to make a single brick that would be both: the hot face was made up of a dense mixture and toward the middle, the consistency of the brick material was filled with sawdust and became more insulative in nature. We prototyped and test-fired with great results. Then we made the fatal error: instead of using, for the final brick production, the silica sand that we’d used from the clay lab, we ordered our sand from a local gravel pit. Several tons of the stuff was unceremoniously dumped outside the back door of the ceramics lab. We proceeded to make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these bricks using (as we learned later) an untested material.
The local sand had some calcium in it…..probably little pieces of aquatic shells….not much….but it was there. After all the bricks were made, we began firing them. The first load – an ungodly-long firing – cooled and all looked just fine. But then…..little by little…..as the days passed….little pieces of the bricks began popping off (just like a plaster pop-out on a studio pot). Before we knew it, the bricks came entirely undone! They completely disintegrated into dust, right before our eyes, as we watched all our labor and vision and youthful naive energy come crashing down in a pile of dust.
What had been the norm: Bob and Dick working away at the studio at every available hour, turned into a complete absence from the studio and we licked our wounds, wondered “what had we been thinking?”, and tried to learn from the experience. Marvin took pity on us and simply called the college ground keepers who with front-loader and dump truck, hauled away all the contaminated materials, the decomposing fired bricks, and the bricks waiting to be fired. Hauled them away, along with our invested energy and emerging clarity.
Hard lesson. But one that was great preparation for a life in clay. It’s ok to fail. What did you learn? That lesson in consistency between prototypes, tests, and small batches and consistency with the final product, production, and large batches, likely saved me far, far more time over the course of my career than it cost me in the brick project. And there at school, the materials were free, and the haul-away complimentary. Not the case in ‘real life and work’.
So that early lesson gave me permission to try and fail. To explore and investigate. And ultimately, I set aside 15% of my time each year to investigate, start over, explore and develop. I budgeted my time and production so that if the 15% of time committed to development yielded nothing of value ($$$), my 85% of efficient production time had me covered. Budgeting for failure led to my most important developments over the years: side-firing; fast-fossils-saggar-firing, unconventional ultra-long 15-day near-solo wood firings. And the same could be said for the new triplet-glaze-series to which I’ve already devoted two year’s worth of exploration. The cups in this exhibition are a result of this process.
The “near” element is tied to my having been diagnosed with a terminal illness some years ago….long periods of being out of the studio for chemotherapy, transplants and recovery; the loss and sale of my production studio and gallery. Being left with only a 200 square-foot home studio with little-to-no energy to use it.
During the intervening years, I’ve experienced a quite remarkable recovery and remission. Initial diagnosis was more than a dozen years ago. I’m healthier now. I’m able to work. After I sold my studio and spent several years out of production, when the time came to start over, I promised myself that I would try to commit to making only what I really wanted to make. For me this meant trying to cram the “rest of my career” into a “brief and uncertain timeframe”. And that is what I’ve done.
That commitment has a cost to it: because I’m naturally curious, my work over the last 5 years has not been single-minded, consistent, predictable; it does not have these qualities which most galleries require from their suppliers. It’s meant that my work has been rejected from some galleries that had previously been interested in my work.
But giving myself the freedom to emerge, re-emerge, start over has heldwondrous benefits as well. First of all, it keeps me from competing with anyone but myself. It helps me focus on MY work. It scratches MY itch. And it offers me the opportunity to invite others into this adventure. To join me in seeing things we’ve never dreamed of…..and in learning to make the things we have no idea how to make.
Eric: Many from my generation, myself included, are equally curious and cynical about chawans and yunomis being made by protestant white folks from middle America. I think it’s fair to say that your generation of American potters has been significantly influenced by Asian ceramics….perhaps even overly influenced. I wonder what sense can we make of Caucasian Midwestern Christian potters chasing the aesthetics and practices of Asian Eastern Buddhist makers. You’ve been to Japan on multiple occasions and those experiences have shaped you…you’ve written quite a bit about it. Through all of it your work rings sincere. How do you decide what you take with you and what you leave behind? How do you to make it your own?”
Dick: My generation of potters – and the one before me – seemed to inherit an uncritical indebtedness to Japan, in particular. It can be traced back to the American GI forces returning from the second world war. The GI bill pumped untold millions into the American higher education system. Schools flush with money jumped to expand their offerings by which to lure students. Arts education benefitted from the gusher of dollars. Clay programs, particularly at community colleges, absolutely flourished.
Add, now/then, the “Gospel proclamation” from Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi, about the truth and wonder and clarity and vision of Japanese ceramics (….how interesting that these clay-crazy GI’s just back from giving Japan a “ come-up-ens” in the War, now kneeled before the altar of Japanese ceramics). Leach and company began traveling to the US, visiting colleges and universities, proclaiming the vision, “rescuing” a ‘dying-and-almost-dead’ studio pottery movement here in the US, and generally making converts. Just look at the decades of brown simple pots that reflected their effect and influence. It was (almost) the duty of every American potter to make that pilgrimage to (Mecca) Japan to drink from the fountain of the masters there.
Enter my generation of clay artists: we inherited an unquestioning embrace of all things Japanese. We, too, wanted to make a pilgrimage. I was no exception. I did. And I’m the better for it. But somewhere about then… let’s say… in the mid-80’s-ish, we American potters began actively wondering if it was time to look more inward….away from the strict, inherited, restrictive, exclusively linear Japanese way….toward the options, innovations, development, rule-breaking, emerging, revolutionary-thinking that had come to characterize America. We wanted our own voice. And there came a time where contact with the East came to be looked upon with suspicion; a time when it was better to lay low and just not admit that you’d made the pilgrimage — so’s not to have to wear the scarlet letter “J”. And god-forbid if you admitted to making tea bowls…….
And, unfortunately for some of the most conflicted and insecure among us, there still exists the “gotcha” urge: last autumn while participating in an international collaborative woodfire workshop, several of the (perhaps over-intellectualizing) participants lobbed the ‘loaded softball’: “Do you make tea bowls?”…….just waiting for someone to take the bait so that they could be strung up, flayed and dried. Then the question was more pointedly directed at those of us who’d spent time in Japan…… “do you???…make tea bowls?????” Of course the question eventually came to me (what it’s exactly trying to prove or expose, I’m still not quite sure)….”Dick, do YOU make tea bowls?” (Perhaps…..”Dick, are you…still…. overly-influenced by Japanese ceramics?…are you an easy target?…are you a Nihon-ophile?”) At that point I imagined the flexed biceps of criticism and the tightly clenched fist of “gotcha” being wound up behind the back of the questioner: “go ahead….admit it…..I’m gonna pounce on you and beat the Japanese out of you”.
I suppose I may be credited with deflecting, if not diffusing, this one incident. I said, “I make bowls. Sometimes people use them to make matcha tea. So…..yes….I guess that I do make tea bowls, when people choose to use them as tea bowls.”
Do I feel some…..what?….empathy, sympathy…pity… for the conflicted and over-intellectualizing questioner? I suppose I do. I can admit to being – at least at one time of my life – an unswerving, captivated and unquestioning ‘Nohon-ophile’. All things Japanese were unquestionably good. But that was then. It’s part of my journey to now. Anyone who knows me realizes that I don’t try to make “Japanese pots”. I believe that I’m not culturally or artistically naive. I’m quite happy in my own skin. I don’t mind acknowledging all of my influences – Japanese included. And I don’t mind disappointing old Mr. Matsuyama sensei – teacher of one of my teachers – who while visiting my exhibition in Japan, pointedly reminded us when referring to a kake hanairi (wall vase) that was only slightly more than completely understated: “Always remember,” he said, “always remember that the vase is for the flowers. The flowers are not for the vase.”
Ok, I get it. Let’s not overpower the flowers with the vase. (But remember, “quiet beauty” is only one of the Japanese aesthetics….can you say Kutani ware?)
So: I cannot – will not – stop making those beautiful, colorful, complex, nuanced, detailed, sophisticated, overstated….yes…even loud shapes and surfaces – even on wall vases – if it means suppressing my commitment to continually starting over, seeing in new ways, enlarging my visual literacy.
Each of us finds our own way from/through/out of the sphere of influences that have made us. We stand on them…we stand on their shoulders. With luck, we surpass them.
Eric: Your last show with us was almost 2 years ago. Of the 40+ pieces in that show (December 2015) you included 3 cups with boxes. Those pairings were captivating, and in the conversations leading up to this exhibition, I asked if you’d like to show a large series of them. What can you tell us about the history and importance of these boxes?”
Dick: Paulownia wood is the wood of choice for Japanese boxes. It’s a fast-growing softwood. In Japan the use of Paulownia boxes is not limited to housing clay works. They are used to store, house, and present a wide variety of important and special objects that could be made from glass, bamboo, lacquer, metal, and fabric.
Usually called the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree, its soft wood makes sense as the storage material of choice in earthquake-prone Japan. Many a boxed clay piece has jostled safely off the shelf during an earthquake. The insulative compression strength of the wood has saved lots of important fragile work. But more, the wood is an insect-deterrent, much like American cedar used in storage chests. In addition Paulownia is flame retardant. It grows fast; is invasive; and isn’t picky about soil. (In fact it has been classified as a “persistent exotic invasive” here in the United States.)
My friend, Mr. Kanzaki told me stories of fires that happened in the homes of some of his collectors. The fire department arrived and watered down the place. Because of the flame retardant nature of wood, the boxes were slow to burn. And when wetted, they expanded to further protect the precious goods inside. $9000 tea bowls: safe!
In Japan, these boxes are referred to as “kiribako”….the box made of “kiri” wood…from the kiri tree: the Paulownia tree. Boxes made of “kiri” have been used to protect items of importance for long years in Japan.
In addition, it’s undeniable that boxing an important piece, elevates the piece’s value and stature. Not just anything gets boxed. The most important things get boxed. It’s a way of calling attention to the piece: “This is important and valued.” And the boxes themselves are most-beautifully-made, and tied shut with a silk-woven ribbon/fukurohimo.
For some years I’ve tried to make/find/commission an “American box”…a box that would include the very best traits of the Japanese boxes: protection, beauty, and elevation, while using/exploiting the very best of American lumber, craftsmanship, joinery and hinging/closing hardware. To date I have neither found nor developed such a box. So for now I continue to appropriate boxes from Japan, where there is an entire industry developed around the production of such boxes.
Eric: What additional insights can you give us into this most recent series of cups?
Dick: This last autumn and winter I again had a long stretch of illness. I’d not fired the kiln for almost five months. I’d been away from making and from active use of my glaze-triplets for just as long. I was, in fact, a little intimidated by the challenge of starting over: starting over with respect to making, glazing and firing. So it was such a great excitement to open the kiln and find all these cups. Certainly, it was one of the most memorable and among the finest overall firings from my career.
This series also highlights my newest efforts at making the cups that are fully and ergonomically hand/mouth-friendly. It’s quite a challenge – with the wide variety of hand-sizes to make a cup that fits all sizes and that is also ambidextrous. Pick them up and find the one that fits you best. I hope that the progress I’ve made on this will be noticeable and satisfying the moment you unpack your box and try the piece out for the first time.
(This article is my original presentation to Clay Times Magazine. It was first published there in a slightly different form.)
the role of collecting in the life cycle of a producing artist
Early in my clay career I had the good fortune to visit some well-known and established potters. Each had a significant collection of other clay-artists’ works. “Surrounding myself with the excellent work of others,” said one, “nurtures my own capacity to make good works. I’m not looking for ways to make their pieces, but to gain some insight into the spirit of excellence; to translate that insight into my own work and aesthetic.”
Unknown craftsman, 200-year-old Umanome plate/Horse-eye plate, 10-inches/25.4-cm in diameter; part of my collection of others’ works.
A well-crafted collection can function as a continuing source of inspiration and learning. Living with the exceptional works of others allows one, over time, to perceive, apprehend, ingest – digest – the hundreds of small nuances that shape the difference between merely good and exceptional. These sophisticated nuances, separated out from the work itself, become lifetime-tools that can be available to one’s own aesthetic development and studio practice.
Bill Hunt, porcelain bowl, 5-inch/12.7-cm in diameter, oxidation-fired, part of my collection of others’ works.
I’ve come to believe that the extent to which I’ve purchased exceptional works from others – invested in their careers – is the extent to which I’m investing in my own career: an enabling of my own continuing education.
Robin Hopper, squared bowl, 7-inches/17.75 cm in diameter, reduction-fired, part of my collection of others’ works.
Purchasing from others very often fosters deep new friendships. And for the duration of time that we are the caretakers of the works of others, the pieces not only teach us, but often capture and represent for us, daily, the richness of relationships shared. Collecting the works of others allows us to be curators, for one brief lifetime, of someone else’s work and legacy.
Todd Leech, douible-fired-double-vase, 16-inch/41-cm tall; glazed and twice-wood-fired, part of my collection of others’ works.
We’ve all likely heard the truth/myth of the wise potter who over the course of his/her career had enough foresight to set aside the best work from each firing. Most of us learn about this too late in our careers to duplicate such a feat. Nevertheless, whenever one begins, there is always a range of positive functions which emerge from collecting and/or documenting one’s own best works.
Dick Lehman 14-inch/36-cm tall tsubo from a 15-day firing of the Dick Lehman “Minigama”; side-fired; all-natural-ash glazing: no applied glaze; eight cords of Chinese Elm were consumed in the 15-day firing; part of my collection of my own works.
Apart from simply assembling an historic overview of one’s own career, our best work can be part of our own continuing education – a teaching tool for ourselves. If clay is your life’s work, I’ll wager that you’ll not be able to remember all the ways you’ve formed, trimmed, altered, assembled; some of the finest nuances will be lost to memory. A collection of pieces or images can be a nudge to revisit a particular approach…to inject it back into our now-newer and more-recent aesthetic. Our best works, available for review, will foster and enhance a continually-developing visual literacy.
Dick Lehman, teabowl, 5-inch/12.75-cm in diameter, reduction-fired crystalline glaze; part of my collection of my own works.
And no matter how hard we work, how much attention we pay to our processes and approaches, in clay there will always be those works which astound us by being better than we ever could have imagined. We can scarcely believe that we’ve made them. They set themselves apart by virtue of the magical uncontrollability of process. These pieces, in particular, stimulate and inspire us to strive for even better work. “I wonder if I can do that again!” These we should collect. These, also, we should share and gift to others as powerful acts of encouragement. (*See sidebar #1)
Three woodfired works from Dick Lehman
Hopefully all of us will share a significant amount of our professional lives with a vibrant, lively collection. But ultimately there will come a time for us all to part with our collections, whether due to downsizing, a change of course, or our final chapters.
We’ll be wise to think carefully about how we want to dispose of such an important tool. Whether we choose to sell or donate; whether we look to museums, study collections, galleries, secondary markets, or gifting; we would all do well to contemplate the possibility and the power-to-do-good that resides in the distribution of exceptional work. Sharing and dispersing one’s collection can be an act of teaching, a way of honoring and respecting the makers, a nudge of encouragement, and act of gratitude…it could even save a life. (See Sidebar #2)
Those well-known and established potters that I visited early in my career had it right. But there is so much more: ultimately an enormous potential for beneficent service and purposeful altruism to direct the finding of new homes for the works that have meant so much to us. We have the rare opportunity of helping to create a new season of inspiration for others. With care, we can enable another generation of nurture.
SHARING AS AN ACT OF ENCOURAGEMENT
One holiday season when I was about 10 years into my career as a full-time clay artist, a package unexpectedly arrived in the mail. On the return address was the name of one of my “ceramic-heros”. We’d never met in person. What could it be?
A hand-made card read: “Dick. Thinking of you and your family at this time of gathering. May the New Year bring good tidings. Warm wishes…..”
Inside the package was his museum-quality Shino-glazed bowl: this was a pot for which the forces at work in its making process converged to bring all the goodness imaginable into a single piece.
John Glick, 6-inch/15.25-cm bowl; part of my collection of others’ works.
His unexpected gift and recognition functioned, for me, as a powerful encouragement. It’s suggested mutuality, and nurtured a confidence in myself and my work that I’d never before known: an uplifting good he likely could not have imagined. It was a positive and formative event; one that changed my life as a ceramic artist.
A LIFE-SAVING LOAN
I’d been diagnosed with stage IV follicular lymphoma; given the diagnosis none of us want to hear. The oncologist was blunt, “Some lymphomas are treatable, yours is not. You have a terminal illness.”
Amid the swirl of emotional uncertainties, the debilitating treatment, the fatigue and the depression came the inevitable questions about the meaning of life, I began to feel disdain toward my collection: no longer did I experience its power and beauty; now it was an ugly anchor, an incredibly unwanted “obligation x 1000” that I’d be leaving to my survivors.
Months later, as my emotions began to stabilize and treatments took a breather, I regained a glimpse of the collection’s goodness. But I declared that I’d never collect another single piece. I’d never add to the bulk of its obligation. In fact I’d start disassembling it.
A few more months. More clarity. I would stop collecting…..BUT…there was just one more very powerful piece that I wished to live with. I emailed the potter, explained my situation, told him about my hoped-for final purchase.
His reply: “My wife and I have never done this before, but we want to loan you the piece that you desire. You may keep it as long as you live. Your family can return it later.”
I kept it 8 years. My prognosis improved. I got stronger. I gained the courage to return it to my potter friend. We are all grateful.
My health has continued to improve. I’m aging. I’ve downsized. I continue to make work. The majority of my collection has been redistributed. I’ve enjoyed initiating a new season of inspiration for others. I’m grateful. A large portion of my collection (of both my own, and of others’ works) now resides at the Haan Museum, in Lafayette, Indiana.
In 1999 I traveled to Japan to participate in several exhibitions hosted by my dear friend Mr. Shiho Kanzaki. I arrived with gifts for all the many people that were required to make this amazing opportunity a reality for me.
After I arrived and was unpacking, I discovered that 4 of the side-fired cups that I’d brought as gifts had been broken by the baggage-handling process. Without a thought I dumped them into the waste basket in my room. Sometime later that week, someone came to my room and took out the trash.
After a remarkable 6 weeks in Shigaraki, two exhibitions, travel, fine food, new friends…my visit came to an end.
As often happens there were some “parting gifts” given by me to my hosts; and some gifts were given to me by my hosts. Among the parting gifts I received, I discovered the 4 cups….but they were all reassembled and mended with silver.
I was rather astonished, as I’d thought that putting them in the waste basket was the last I’d ever see of them. Mr. Kanzaki laughed, as he noticed my incredulity, and said: “Now, even better than when you brought them!” Remarkable: gifting back to me, the cups I’d brought as gifts…only now more valuable than they originally were.
The Japanese have a long tradition of repairing pots with gold; it’s called “kintsugi” or “kintsukuroi”. Curtis Benzele tells it this way: “The story of Kintsugi may have begun in the late 15th century, when the shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa sent a damaged Chinese tea bowl back to China to be fixed. It returned held together with ugly metal staples, launching Japanese craftsmen on a quest for a new form of repair that could make a broken piece look as good as new, or better. Japanese collectors developed such a taste for kintsugi that some were accused of deliberately breaking prized ceramics, just to have them mended in gold.
“The term “kintsugi” means ‘golden joinery’ in Japanese and refers to the art of fixing broken ceramics with a lacquer resin made to look like solid gold” (….and often actually using genuine gold powder in the resin). “Chances are, a vessel fixed by kintsugi will look more gorgeous, and more precious, than before it was fractured.”
Some contend that many Japanese have come to cherish the imperfection of a broken pot repaired in this way….seeing it as a creative addition and/or re-birth to the pot’s life story. Others say that when something has suffered damage and has a history, it becomes more beautiful.
It is said by some that the real Japanese purist will only use kintsugi to repair a very old and very valuable ceramic work. However there is a wide spectrum of thought on this point: many potters from all around the world repair ‘new’ works that come from the kiln with a flaw or crack. Sometimes the pots are just so convincing that they beg to be repaired and honored, despite the flaw….or perhaps, because of it.
Contemporary potters use lacquer, epoxy, gold dust, mica dust, copper dust, silver dust, gold leaf…just to name a few of the materials of choice for repair. Historically, I suppose, the “museum quality” repair utilizes real gold in some fashion….although of necessity, it is always infused into some kind of liquid matrix to fill the crack.
It may be that this love of gold repair has led, at least in some indirect fashion, to the use of gold luster as a decorative technique in making new ceramics.
Here is a piece of mine utilizing gold luster for decoration.
Don Pilcher completely covered this piece with gold luster for dramatic effect.
Here are a few more examples of the repair work I have done.
The pot, above was made in Sweden and needed to be repaired as a result of the airlines’ baggage handlers.
A firebox pot that got knicked by the stoked wood, and then stuck to the floor.
This tea bowl came out of the kiln with these cracks that had pulled apart during firing, and then re-sealed themselves to the bowl, leaving 2 huge gaps in the wall of the pot.
This side-fired wood-fired vase had gotten so hot during firing that the sea shells supporting the sideways pot, actually melted through the wall of the pot. You can see the gold leaf repair near the center-front of the pot about a fifth of the way up from the bottom.
To see the value of a broken pot helps us to see with new eyes. We see value where we may only have seen trash or detritus. Perhaps we are less ruthless with broken things….more gentle with those around us who experience brokenness…..less fearful, more hopeful when we ourselves experience brokenness.
May we all indulge in ‘golden joinery’.
To see all of Dick’s posts, just click on “add a comment” below…… then click “view all posts by Dick Lehman”.
For the last week I have been hosting my Japanese friend, Mr. Hiromi Matsukawa san. The time spent together with Hiromi and his family (wife Chiaki san, and daughter Jun chan) was lively and enlivening. Among other things, we explored Amish country, helped to fire the Notre Dame University anagama, lectured and demonstrated at Goshen College, visited Anthony Schaller’s gallery in St. Joseph, Michigan, and enjoyed two days in Chicago in a condo offered to us by good friends and customers Rick and Cindy Burns. While in Chicago we dutifully sampled the Chicago hot dog at “Superdawg’s”, and Chicago-style pizza at the epic “Lou Malnati’s”. Add a trip to Greek Town and a meal at the Parthenon, and we had the makings of a gastronimic celebration.
Spending time with Hiromi reminded me of my interview with him in Japan. My interviews included Hiromi, Hiromi’s master/sensei Mr. Shiho Kanzaki, and Mr. Kanzaki’s master/sensei Mr. Matsuyama.
I authored an article about the interviews for the January 2003 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine. I decided to re-read it last week to remind me of our fine time together in Japan almost 10 years ago.
I offer it here for your enjoyment.
As my question lingered on the air, Hiromi Matsukawa drew a slow deep breath, squinted his eyes just a bit and pinched his lips together as he leaned back in his chair. The far-away look in his eyes reminded me how far I’d traveled to be sitting with him here in this rural Japanese farmhouse. An early summer breeze brought wafts of earth-smell and water and flowers to mingle with the hint of charcoal cooking fires from years past. Metronomic chopping sounds from the neighbor’s hoe signaled the end of tenacious weeds and increased chances that the premier cucumbers of the season would soon join the first-fruits eggplant that graced the table in front of us. The warm age-darkened wood of this crowded but functional kitchen offered a soothing atmosphere – the bronze walls, a repository of echoes from several generations of life and living. Steam from Matsukawa’s coffee curled and danced and spiraled up through a slant of sunlight where it paused until… exhaling, Matsukawa’s response chased the curls away.
“Perhaps I can best describe my apprenticeship to Kanzaki sensei (master) in this way. It was as if he carried an invisible pitcher in his hand – a pitcher that contained knowledge. The pitcher was always full and ready to be poured, even if the apprentices were not around. As a teacher, Kanzaki was always ready.”
“We apprentices carried invisible cups – although the size and shape of each cup was different. Kanzaki “saw” each apprentice’s cup and poured according to its size and shape. He understood the capacity of each cup: in one he poured a lot, in another he poured only little by little.”
“If the apprentice did not consume what was in the cup, the master could not pour more. If the apprentice had the cup filled from some other source, the master, likewise, would not be able to refill it. And if the apprentice stopped carrying the cup, there could be no more pourings. But if the apprentice drank from the cup, there would always be more room for the cup to be filled again.”
“To receive these pourings is the most important work of the apprentice.”
I would like to step back from this story for a moment to explain how I ended up in the middle of this interview. In past years I have become acquainted with three Japanese potters who are directly related to each other through Master/Apprenticeship relationships:
Mr. Suketoshi Matsuyama is 86 years old and was an apprentice to Mr. Kenkichi Tomimoto. (Tomimoto went on to become a “ningen kokuho” – Living National Treasure.) For his part, Matsuyama, over the course of his career, has been an educator and lecturer, as well as having built his own kiln and having his own studio with several apprentices. Matsuyama has given leadership to artist federations in Japan, has received numerous awards and commendations, has been published, and has exhibited widely in Japan, and occasionally in the U.S.
Mr. Shiho Kanzaki , age 60, was an apprentice to Mr. Matsuyama. Kanzaki is well known in Japan, and perhaps even better known in the U.S. where he built the “Kanzaki/Beamer Dream Kiln” in Pennsylvania, in collaboration with Karl Beamer. Kanzaki has his own kilns and studio in Japan, and has had many apprentices over the years. He has been published, has pioneered new “textured” works from anagama firings (See CM March 1997, “Shiho Kanzaki: Extending The Tradition”), and has a wide exhibition record in Japan, with exhibitions also in Germany and the U.S.
Mr. Hiromi Matsukawa, age 44, was an apprentice to Mr. Kanzaki. (He was also a student of Suketoshi Matsuyama while Matsuyama was teaching at Musashino Art University.) Matsukawa recently set up his studio and built his own kiln in Oodoi, near Okayama. Matsukawa is nearer the beginning of his own independent career but already has a growing exhibition record. He has extensive firing experience, and has accompanied Mr. Kanzaki to the U.S.
Because I am acquainted with all three, and because of their connections to each other, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to invite three generations of potters to reflect on their experiences as apprentices and/or masters: asking them to reflect on this system/tradition, and to think about how it has influenced the way they teach, and how they learn.
Mr. Suketoshi Matsuyama:
“As you know, I worked in Tomimoto’s studio for three years. Tomimoto invited me to live at his house. I believe that I may be the only Japanese apprentice of his who was actually living and working with him under the same roof.”
It was common, then, for apprentices to do household duties and to care for the children. So, of course, Matsuyama did some of those tasks. But he spent considerable time assisting in the studio. “I helped him as he was throwing pots: I was to make the wheel move with a belt while he was throwing. There were no electric wheels in those days.”
“While he was working he would lecture me on his craft theory. He tried to tell me everything. I remember the most important thing that he said. He told me, ‘You should not only be making things according to the old pottery traditions. Those are important. But everything comes from Nature. Nature is very important. Look there too’”
Said another way, Tomimoto may have been advising: “Look for new answers. Don’t be afraid to work in ways that are outside of what is Traditional.”
This advice was soon tested as Tomimoto received word from the civil authorities in Tokyo that they would no longer tolerate his smoky kiln. He would have to stop firing or move! This news brought to an abrupt end the apprenticeship of Matsuyama to Tomimoto. This “failure” of the traditional length of apprenticeship, however, held something good. It seemed to Tomimoto that Matsuyama had learned enough in the three years, that his apprenticeship would be considered complete. Matsuyama was now an “independent apprentice”, and it was appropriate for him to publicly refer to Tomimoto as his “master/sensei”.
Early experiences with failure and limitation seem to have been a significant contributor to Matsuyama’s philosophy. He is known as someone who searched for new answers: in his university teaching, he did not teach the separation of Eastern and Western Art as had traditionally been done; he refused to draw sharp distinctions between the artistic value of a great painting and a beautiful flower or small grasses on the side of the road. He taught “through the human and spiritual point of view” seeking “joy in all of life”, whatever life might bring (even though his own life brought much loss and failure). Matsuyama took a slightly higher profile later in his life when he addressed a particular issue of national failure/limitation: he involved himself in, and made significant contributions to some previously-intractable peace and justice issues within Japan, and between Japan and Korea..
Near the end of my visit with him, I asked him if there was anything else that he wanted to tell me. He responded: “There is yet the most important thing: it is that failure makes good. Through failure we can find ways to overcome. In failure we find new beauty.” And for the next 30 minutes, this obviously feeble octogenarian, suddenly regained the vigor and the strength and the voice of someone half his age. He moved about his studio, pulling pot after pot from storage places. “Look at this one! This wood-fired piece did not get to temperature. It was a failure! But look at what beauty occurred when I re-fired it in an electric kiln. And this one……this one I made when I did not have access to a reduction kiln….but I wanted reduction effects so I added reducing material into the electric kiln. Do you see what happened?” And just look at this one: the ash got piled up so fast on this wood-fired piece that it did not melt. I thought it was a total failure until I brushed off all the dry ash. Have you ever seen such a beautiful surface?! And it never could have happened if it had not ‘failed’. Failure helps us to see with new eyes – to discover new beauty.”
Certainly this is not the voice of a purist/traditionalist. Tomimoto’s advice had found a home in Matsuyama sensei’s spirit. “Yes, yes, my apprentices come here to learn ceramics, and they come here with purpose. And so they should see all my ways of working and all my techniques. But eventually they have to learn for themselves. Just like I do. That is the value of failure.”
In that moment I began to understand that Matsuyama had crossed over from “maker” to “receiver”. No, I am not saying that he does not possess skills to make the objects he wants to make. But he not only possesses the skills and techniques to “make”, he has acquired the eyes and spirit to “receive”. Suddenly the last three sentences of his artist statement – words I’d read repeatedly with only confusion to show for my efforts – began to make some sense to me: “Vessels cannot be made but they are born. I don’t make works but they are brought to me. A whole new life is brought to the one who holds all the experiences, but doesn’t stick to them.”*
Mr. Shiho Kanzaki:
Kanzaki’s apprenticeship to Mr. Matsuyama is unusual, by any standard. While he never spent even one month working for Mr. Matsuyama in a traditional apprenticeship role, Mr. Kanzaki has received from Mr. Matsuyama the designation of “independent apprentice”. While I made efforts to discover the details of this unusual departure from traditional assumptions about apprenticeships, I continually came up against comments like this: “Well, it is just difficult to explain.”
What did pervade and surmount these repeated comments was a growing understanding that “difficult” did not mean “embarrassing”, or “awkward”, or “complicated” – it was not difficult in that way. It seemed to be “difficult” in the same way that sharing a profound experience is difficult……the way trying to describe an “epiphany” to someone else is challenging…..the way putting words to a sacred experience is almost impossible. Whatever occurred between these two men, Kanzaki IS Matsuyama’s apprentice. And Matsuyama IS Kanzaki’s master/sensei. And the loyalty and mutual obligation that continues between master and apprentice is as ever-present between these two men – under these circumstances – as it would have been had Kanzaki spent 10 years in a traditional apprenticeship to Matsuyama.
It would be impossible to condense my hours of interviews with Kanzaki. But I’d like to point to one aspect of the discussion. Kanzaki and I had a conversation about how he continues to learn…….and how he (as a master) teaches.
Regarding learning: Kanzaki said that at the early stages of learning there might be the need for inspiration that comes from outside of oneself. When he was much younger, he would sometimes begin “intentional learning” by examining pots, or images of pots, that he found interesting. He said that he tried to look only at the things that were most stimulating to him. And then, he would view a single piece continually for two days. If after two days of constant looking, he was still fascinated with the piece, he would measure it as a piece worth learning from.
After this initial concentrated looking, Kanzaki would not look at the piece for at least one year. (And he would not try to make a piece that was inspired by this work for at least a year.) Instead he would let the image of the work, and his own imagination, begin to mature in his mind. He describes this process as “chasing the image”. The image would begin to change as it integrated into Kanzaki’s heart and soul and spirit. As the image changed, Kanzaki continued to chase it. Over time, it became his own….not so much resembling the initial form, but having been distilled into something of the spirit of the initial piece – having been flavored by his own spirit. And thereafter, as the making eventually began, the chase continued. The works themselves began to inspire a new round of chasing. “It is a matter of making works according to my own mind and heart and spirit,” Kanzaki emphasized. “If you are a ceramic artist, all your life and spirit and self can be explained through your work.”
“But how do you teach your apprentices to make these kinds of works?” I asked.
Kanzaki went on to say that he never demonstrates the making process for his apprentice: they never watch him actually make the pots. “Why?” I wondered aloud. “How can this approach teach the kind of making that you describe?”
“If I show them how to make a chawan (teabowl), maybe my apprentices will always be only tracing my work. Maybe they will not be making works that come from their own heart and spirit. Sometimes my apprentices ask me, ‘How do you do that?’ Sometimes I say, ‘I don’t know.’ In this way I help them discover for themselves. Of course they make some failures when they try to make their works. But there is much learning by trying and failing.” (We can hear the echoes of Matsuyama’s convictions about the ultimate value of learning from failures.) “And if I tell them how, from the beginning, they will not know, forever, the things they did not learn by trying. In this way, I teach them everything that I know. If I told them all the details of ‘how-to-do’, they might be successful one time. But by failing, they will have learned in a way that will cause them to be successful every time in the future. If I show them how, they know only that technique and cannot change easily. If I don’t show them how, my apprentices have to be thinking, thinking, thinking to learn many ways of working and making……then they can change their way of working easily, and make the works that come from their own heart and spirit.”
“This is the important learning: to know more than technique. In this way I open all secrets to my apprentices. To have a big heart is to open all secrets. And big hearts can make big works. And if my apprentices learn this important lesson, they will become successful at making their own works. And if they become successful, I do not hate or envy them. To envy their success would be to have a small heart…and small hearts can make only small works. No, to the contrary, I am very proud when my apprentices succeed in learning all my ‘secrets’. I will have been, for them, the ‘founder’ of this way of working.”
“I always try to teach my apprentices everything…… to teach them to go beyond all that they have been taught. To really learn my ‘techniques’ is to make their own works which go beyond my works – works which express their heart, soul and spirit.”
Mr. Hiromi Matsukawa:
Matsukawa’s apprenticeship to Kanzaki lasted eleven years: eleven years of being on-call nearly 7 days per week. Eleven years of receiving a “kozukai” (allowance/stipend/pocket money, in addition to the provisions of food, clothing and housing) of 10,000 Yen (about $100) each month. (Interestingly Matsukawa lived quite frugally over those years, and saved almost $15,000, in preparation to set up his own studio, once he became an independent apprentice.) Eleven years of learning by not-being-shown…..eleven years of carrying the empty cup that kept getting filled.
Once, near the end of Matsukawa’s apprenticeship, Kanzaki called all the apprentices together for a little quiz: “What is my most important lesson to you? What am I trying to teach you?” (What is it that I am pouring into your cup?)
Matsukawa answered, “Your lesson to us is that we are to express ourselves as fully as possible – with all our might and strength; to be ourselves, and to work within the limitations that greet us; but, through our works, to express our spirit, mind and heart, as best we can.”
“Yes!” said Kanzaki.
As time has passed, Matsukawa says that he is learning additional lessons in retrospect: He recalls the day that he and Kanzaki were firing the anagama during particularly difficult weather. They were firing in turns: Kanzaki stoking while Matsukawa watched….and vice versa. The firing was not going so well. It was Kanzaki’s turn to stoke when Mrs. Kanzaki came to the kiln to watch. Suddenly Kanzaki said to Matsukawa, “You begin stoking now.” And with that Kanzaki walked away and up the hill that was behind the kiln. Matsukawa was worried: Where is he going? Why is he leaving me here alone with this difficult kiln? How long will he be away?
After a while, Kanzaki returned with a lovely white wild lily flower in his hand. He gave the flower to his wife, and resumed stoking. Suddenly the firing began to improve.
Matsukawa wondered to himself: How/why could Kanzaki have noticed that little flower when he was in the middle of such a difficult firing? And how is it that the firing improved when he returned?
“Since then,” commented Matsukawa, “I have come to learn that it is most important to see the whole picture at all times – not just the kiln – not just the problem that is immediately in front of me. We know that we have five senses. But I think that there is perhaps at least a sixth or maybe a seventh sense. And it has to do with our sensitivity toward all of the rest of the world. Real concentration is not focusing on a single thing. Real concentration is taking in all things—the entire environment. Real concentration is seeing the lily flower in the middle of such a time as that.”
I asked Matsukawa how it is that he would describe “the full measure of success” in a master/apprentice relationship. He paused for long minutes before saying, “During my apprenticeship years, I ‘grew up’: I gained skills, I became more successful, I began to learn the most important lessons, and my cup continued to be filled. Also during this time Kanzaki grew up: he became more successful too.”
“If there is a good match between the master and the apprentice, both can grow and succeed and change: there is mutual benefit. The benefits are different for each, of course, But a poor match can inhibit the growth of both. It is a little like the relationship between a husband and a wife: while it may be difficult to put words on the exact qualities for a successful marriage, we know when it is happening successfully, and when it is not. The measure of the most successful relationships is when there is mutual benefit.”
Matsukawa continued, “I want to add one more thing. Earlier I told you, ‘To receive is the most important work of the apprentice.’ But there is another equally important job of the apprentice. After receiving, it is important that you take all that you have been given and invest it into and through your work, just as Matsuyama and Kanzaki have done. In fact, all the work I make comes through Matsuyama sensei and Kanzaki sensei. The pots were not made by me alone. Yet the works are wholly my own. But one must make work, not only to satisfy oneself….not just for self-satisfaction or self-expression. That is not enough, of course. The work must satisfy others and share happiness with them. The works dare not satisfy only the one who produced them.”
As I listened to this wonderful and endearing paradox, I could not help but believe that both are true at the same time: wholly my own, but not just for me. There is a similar and beautiful mystery in the way the true artist/apprentice looks backward, honoring the teachings of the master…..but, at the same time, looks forward, honoring the master by surpassing the master. It is the remarkable paradox of mutuality.
Matsukawa reminded me of something Matsuyama used to say: “Aging and gaining experience makes you more sensitive to nature and beauty. The older we get…….the more we grow up…..the more we are able to see real beauty – in nature, and in others.”
“The ability to continue to have your cup filled,” said Matsukawa, “depends on a sense of humility: the ability to receive even from the smallest, youngest, and least significant. If you remain ready to receive, then your cup can be filled.” Maybe the real meaning of ‘ independent’ apprentice is that you keep carrying an empty cup……waiting….expecting it to be filled: not by any single person or master, but by and through your increasing abilities to apprehend, receive, recognize, express, and embrace beauty.
Some final thoughts:
I should say, perhaps, what I am not trying to do by sharing these stories: I am not trying to form or draw any conclusions about the whole of the Japanese Master/Apprentice Tradition, based on these few specific anecdotal narratives. Such a goal could only be the aim of a far-more systematic, disciplined and far-reaching project.
What we might be able to do, however, is to make some observations about how the system/tradition served these three men, in their individual and quite-different life circumstances. We can observe that this system seems to have had a certain amount of flexibility built into it –that it was responsive and not rigid: at least in how it operated in the lives of these three. And within the flexibility there seems to have been (what Eric Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development calls) generativity: the ability to pass along, to subsequent generations, important techniques and values and vision and inspiration….in a manner that will allow them to surpass us.
But perhaps of even more importance to us, these anecdotal narratives may give us all the opportunity to reflect upon our own settings and to ask ourselves: how are we contributing toward generativity?
If I may offer just a few observations in this regard: with even a few moments of reflection, it is clear that here in North America (and I address this location, not to the exclusion of others, but only because this is my area of familiarity) we have a remarkable number of organizations and events and systems in place which may function to pass along what is important: we have national workshops like the Wooster Functional Ceramics Workshop and other similar events which focus on a specific area of the clay discipline; we host international conferences like NCECA; there are an abundance of craft centers and residencies which serve us – we could name Anderson Ranch, Arrowmont and the Archie Bray Foundation, without even exhausting the A’s; demonstration workshops by accomplished practitioners are held at colleges, universities, and professional guilds; we are resourced by College and University course-of-study opportunities, professional Ceramics Periodicals, the wonderful proliferation of books, texts, and videos in the field of ceramics; and (to the extent that they are not only focused on marketing) exhibitions…..to mention just a few.
Perhaps it is precisely because we, here in North American, have not inherited a “system” – or some other prescribed tradition– that we have this abundance of methods that hold within themselves the possibility of our being generative. Yet their mere presence does not insure that we will move, with generativity, toward the “other”. That, it seems to me, is the challenge of our living. And Matsuyama sensei’s words may indeed be the measure of whether we are meeting the challenge of living, by really “growing up”: “The older we get…….the more we grow up…..the more we are able to see real beauty – in nature, and in others.”
Copyright January 2003
All rights reserved
This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the December 2003 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org
Springtime came early to Indiana. It’s that season of the year that I begin to make “saggar-fired pots”… those which some paleotologists who have seen them have dubbed “fast fossils”. (You can Google “carbonization fossils” to see how Mother Nature, in her own sweet time, makes fossils that are not too different from what this firing process produces.)
Here are a few images and detail images to show the magic and mystery this way of firing creates:
And here are a few more: just look at this magic!
There are more than 2 dozen of these saggar-fired works on my web site: go to http://www.dicklehman.com and select this link at the top of the page: ceramics for sale. There you can use the “sort” mechanism at the top of the page, selecting “saggar firing” as the technique, and you will see all of these works currently offered.
I also have some new work to show you. When our son announced his engagement, it came with a request for 250 cups for the guests who are invited to the wedding. I’ve been working on some new things for them……and as a result, have some new things to offer you on the web site as well. Here is a glimpse of some of the new “nature inspired” cups that will be at the wedding and which are offered on the web site as well. (Thanks to Jack Troy who inspired this way of working.)
You’ll also find new cups:
…new figurative “His and Hers: mugs:
…some lovely wall vases:
Visit the web site often, as there will be plenty more new things for you to see. Please keep me in mind for your wedding, anniversary and holiday gifts over the summer.
Happy Springtime, everyone!
To see all of Dick’s posts, just click on “add a comment” below…… then click “view all posts by Dick Lehman”.
Here is what the kiln looked like when we opened it last Friday. It had been cooling since the previous Sunday after having been fired for about 50 hours…utilizing 3 cords of mixed hardwoods.
As it turned out we could have benefitted from having a few of the “sentinels” to warn us not to sit the unloaded pots next to a rank of wood that was listing a bit. When we were about half finished with the unloading, we heard a terrible crash….. and then abject silence for 15 or 20 seconds as we tried to take in what had just happened. Half the walll of wood fell onto the pots. There were about 40 pieces buried under the split wood. A little more than half survived, with everyone having some losses, and all being pleased that a few of their works survived the crash. In this image you can see only parts of several pots. The rest are still buried under the wood.
Here are a few of the “sentinals” that you may have seen in the previous blog in the unfired state:
And of course, there were the six singing sisters. I’ll show you three of them with front and back views:
And finally, here are a few more images of works that we unloaded last Friday:
Soon I will be mounting more of these new works on my web site http://www.dicklehman.com (go to the “Ceramics For Sale” link at the top of the page).
Also, check out my Esty store for some other new wood-fired works.
To see all of Dick’s posts, just click on “add a comment” below…… then click “view all posts by Dick Lehman”.
So this is what the kiln site looked like after we completed the loading, and before we bricked up the doorway. Only partially visible is the nearly 3 cords of wood that John split in the last months. Thanks John!
Here’s another view:
Here are some of the works of mine that are in this firing: The “Four Wise Sentinels”.
The “Dance of the Flattened Bottles”:
And the “Six Singing Sisters”:
And an assortment of trays, wall vases, teabowls, and much more: cups, vases, bottles, facetted bowls….
After the tiring work of loading, we have taken a week to get back to work and to rest up a bit for the exertion of the coming firing. Not only the works have been loaded, but our hopes and wishes and anticipations — along with our pursuit of mystery and surprise. I’ll let you know how it goes.
“Beauty is the vocation of the world.”*** And the world is full of clay. Could it be that beauty is the vocation of clay?
You likely already know that clay is derived from weathering of other rocks. But did you know that one third of the sedimentary rock in the world is derived from clay? Rocks being re-made into rocks through clay. Or that if you spread all the clay that exists evenly, it would create a layer at least a mile thick over the surface of the whole Earth? Think of that! (Yet that would account for only about one tenth of one percent of the earth’s volume.)
Just one gram of this clay powder (that’s about half a thimble- full) can have a total surface area larger than a football field. “A (single) particle of clay (dropped into four inches of water )will take 860 years” to settle to the bottom!
If you took a pinch of that gram of clay and placed it under an electron microscope you would see, depending on the kind of clay, an amazing array of crystal formations: wild labyrinthan lava tubes, piles of hexagonal bars, “millions of parchment sheets each, curled slightly at the edge…fireworks…the corona of the sun during an eclipse…dense growths of watercress…a cupboard full of plates…a bowl full of needles…the capillaries of the lungs…the wall of a stomach, the intricate folds of the womb.”
Alone, these clay crystals are both remarkable and beautiful. Should we be surprised that Beauty is the vocation of clay?
“Physicist Erwin Schrodinger speculated (on what I would call Beauty, with an upper case ‘B’) that the fundamental building blocks of life would require an ‘aperiodic crystal’ — that is, an ordered and repeated structure that left room for a whole variety of actualizations…supple and dynamic to engage and accommodate the constantly shifting behaviors of metabolism, growth, and reproduction.” Later discoveries rather confirmed his hypothesis: “DNA fulfills these conditions…but so does clay.”
“There are only two things in the universe that require liquid water for their existence: organic life and clay.”
And those who speculate on the origins of life through both science and myth are quick to connect organic life and clay: “The seeds of organic life, attracted to the patterns of a clay matrix, might well have found there the structure that makes all of us possible, and the means to maintain and reproduce it.”
“Richly patterned clays might have served at templates for biosynthesis, that is, for the beginning of organic life.”
“…it is easy to believe that the protected interior of such a crystal might have been the site where organic polymers of the sort that would form nucleic and amino acids were born.”
“…seaborn clays on ancient Earth, deriving their energy by feeding on CO2, nitrogen, and light, might produce the building blocks of organic life.”
The Genesis 6 story speaks of the sons of God coming down to earth to begot children on the daughters of men. “Perhaps this Genesis story can symbolize the rise of life as we experience it, from the joining of organic and inorganic realms. Wouldn’t it be strange if, in the history of the living, clay performed the function of angels?”
Perhaps it is no coincidence that some clay crystals resemble wombs. Is it a surprise to us that “adam”, the name for the first man in the Christian creation myth, is the Hebrew word for clay? This word, this substance is now remarkably connected to physicists, chemists, biologists, theologians and philosphers who, two millenia hence, are still trying to unravel life’s origins and meaning….to unravel Beauty.
But beauty is also in the making. As potters, we know this in our hearts. We make beauty. We make objects that approach life’s fragile moments to offer beauty and order to them. We attempt to be “sufficiently supple and dynamic (and responsive in order) to engage and accommodate the shifting behaviors”, needs and growth of those who use our works.
William Bryant Logan, in speaking of how “alive” clay is, says that “If we admit that clay is alive, we must say that it is both more ancient, more widespread in the universe, more durable and more powerful than we are. Yet it is also less supple and less about to make abrupt transformations.”
Perhaps on a macro level, this is where we potters fit in. We are supple — or at least we can be. Celebrating our own visual literacy, while being responsive to those who use our works, we use clay to make beauty that points to Beauty….that participates in Beauty.
Like contentment, hope, pleasure, faith, joy, love and inspiration…….Beauty cannot fully be quantified. It remains a mystery — but one in which we have the luxuriant choice of participating.
*** All quotes and much of the technical information about clay are taken, with thanks, from William Bryant Logan’s poetic, playful, and almost prayer-like book, DIRT The exstatic Skin of the Earth.
Dick Lehman is a studio potter in Elkhart, Indiana. You can see more of his writing and his pottery at www.dicklehman.com
Also see Dick’s Etsy store at dicklehman.etsy.com