Thinking about what is important


I continue to be amazed each day at the way ceramics has opened the world to me.  I grew up in northern Indiana, in a barely-no-longer-rural community. My father worked as a Fuller Brush door-to-door salesman; my mother worked as a secretary for a church organization.  It seems unlikely that my becoming a potter in northern Indiana would actually broaden my horizons.  But that is exactly what has happened.  My work in clay has created opportunities for me to write and teach and travel across the world.  Within that travel have been many rich experiences and scores of interesting stories.  And occasionally within those stories, unique moments of epiphany and clarity have occurred.  I want to share several of those stories with you today that come from my visits to Japan.  I invite you turn up your imagination, and  join me as I stand in the shadow of the smoke.



IN THE SHADOW OF THE SMOKE:  Stories from Japan

Dick Lehman


In early May of 1999 I found myself, at midnight, at the base of Mr. Shiho Kanzaki’s raging wood-fired kiln (anagama):  400 cubic feet of volcanic fury.  The firing was in full swing – already six days into a ten-day firing.  If it were not for my better judgment, I would have concluded that I had somehow been magically transported there, “Star-Trek” style….  Only hours earlier I had been kissing my wife and children goodbye in Indiana.   The transcontinental flight had been a blur of anticipation.  And almost faster than I could conceive of it, my friend Kanzaki had met me at the airport and we were quickly heading up out of Osaka, past Lake Biwa, and into the mountains – mountains which for millions of years before had been on the bottom of the then-much-larger Lake-Biwa seabed, collecting eons of rich sediment that later, in some earth-shearing geological discontentment, had risen to create the clay-rich mountains that are now the home of Shigaraki, our destination.  Into the mountains, which turned a pale blue gray in the deepening dusk, and seemed to push us up into the dark,….careening up tightly winding roads, being driven by someone on the wrong side of the car, on the wrong side of the road, seeing no farther ahead than the low-beam headlights, careening toward my dreams. I was headed to Shigaraki town for two exhibitions – something I’d long dreamed of.


Immediately after we arrived at Kanzaki’s studio, I was pressed into service stoking the kiln.  After an  hour I traded off with Kanzaki.



And from the base of the kiln I clambered up into the kiln shed, through the palpable smells of mold and dust and fire and dense sooty smoke, up to the top of the hill, past small mountains of split red pine, which although dry enough, still offered whiffs of their sappy astringency… through  an other-worldly glow of reflected light the color of radiant heat, to the top of the rise where the kiln’s chimney vented shimmering super-heated air into the bright moon-lit night.  The next stoke of pine went into the kiln, down below, and moments later the chimney belched black smoke so thick and turbulent that for a moment it blocked out the moon, and I stood there drenched in black, awash in the shadow of the smoke.


And there in the shadow of the smoke, for a moment, time seemed to stand still.   And I sensed a real clarity about the importance of this visit…and its meaning to my own life story.


Over time, I have come to see this phrase, ‘in-the-shadow-of-the-smoke’ as a metaphor for those epiphanies that sometimes occur when we pause to reflect on the important events of our lives, and intuitively grasp a deeper clarity in the STORIES that have shaped our lives.  As I contemplated bringing some stories to you today, three immediately came to mind.


  1. Mr. Takuo Kato



Mr. Kato was in Hiroshima that day in August, 1945 when the atomic bomb was detonated there.  At the exact moment of the explosion the train, on which Kato was riding, happened to be in a tunnel.  He credits that fortuitous event of fate as the only reason that he was not killed by the blast.  Nonetheless, he spent the greater part of the next ten years hospitalized for the effects of radiation sickness.


During his convalescence and recuperation he became interested in Persian luster-ware pottery (from what is now, Iraq).  As he began to heal, he traveled to Persia for a summer vacation, and to do some archeological exploration. On a 6 km hike he happened onto 3 precious shards of ancient Persian luster ware.



This chance discovery let him into a 25-year pursuit of a process which would duplicate the ancient luster ware results. After making, what he called, a “mountains of mistakes”, his first success came after a quarter century of work.  And only after another 10 years of firing, did he consider that he had actually perfected the process.  “Even at that”, he told me, “this is a most-difficult firing process.  Five degrees of temperature difference, bad weather conditions, or too much humidity, can even now ruin the results.”


I had the unexpected pleasure, as a foreigner, to twice meet with Mr. Kato.  During my visit to his studio in 1992 he showed me the results of 40 years of single-minded commitment to luster ware.



What has emerged is a distinctly Japanese expression of this rediscovered 9th-century process And it is for these efforts that in 1998 he and his work were recognized as “ningen kokuho” – sometimes translated as National Treasure, or Living National Treasure).


There were for me several epiphanies as a result of my meetings with Mr. Kato. I was impressed with his ability to continue working in the face of injustice, illness, and immense limitations.  He worked within his limitations, and never allowed his curiosity and single-minded determination to be quenched.

His story adds clarity to my own life experience:  I must live within the unchangeable limitations of my life…I hope that I am embracing my limitations as a kind of discipline….as a framework within which I can work to explore and discover the possibilities that blossom in the middle of limitation.



Secondly, I continually remember Kato’s words:  A “mountain of mistakes” in the pursuit of excellence is sometimes what it takes to fine one’s own way.


The second epiphany for me is a little different than Kato’s…but it also has to do with “mistakes”.  I have begun to change my response to my own mistakes:  I’ve become kinder and gentler – more tolerant —  with myself and my mistakes.  I’m more curious and more inclined to want to investigate the possibility that resides within the mistakes….to seek the genius that sometimes hides there.




  1. Yoko and Hiroshi Ishiwata




After an amazing evening with the Ishiwata family where I saw and held and fondled pots from their personal collection  (“just a small collection of things we like”, they’d said)…pots which ranged from 3000-5000B.C. Jomon-era shards (which they’d dug up while uprooting a palm tree in their back yard), 9th-century Chinese pots, 13th-century Korean pieces, 17th and 18th-century Japanese work, and finally an amazing collection of contemporary Japanese pots.  After they showed me all these pots,  Mr. Ishiwata proposed a test.


Actually, in his moderately inebriated condition he demanded that I comply to his testing.  He brought to the table three sake bottles from among the fifty or sixty pots that he had shown me earlier in the evening.  “Which one is best?” he asked.


The three pots were from three different traditions within Japan (actually one each from three of the six traditions considered to be the “old kiln” traditions – those unbroken traditions which have been continuous for nearly 1000 years):  one was from Shigaraki (with heavy natural ash glazing from a 10-day wood-firing,  and bulging feldspathic contaminants in the clay – a real beauty), one from Tokoname (wrapped in rice straw during the firing, orange-red salt-flashing striations encircled the piece – amazing), and one from the Bizen tradition (a rich reddish brown pot with a varied texture of ash accumulation – quiet serene, and wonderfully understated).  Of course to answer Mr. Ishiwata’s question was a near impossibility.  All were part of his collection, so I knew he favored each one.  And I recognized that all were museum quality examples of their respective traditions.


I tried, in an evasive way, to explain to Ishiwata what I appreciated about each one – “NO! Not good enough…I have been the teacher tonight!….you were to have been the student!…weren’t you paying attention?….which one is best?”


I tried another “end run” around his very pointed question – “NO!” he said.   “You must answer the question, because the one you choose will be the one you take home with you!”  (This, I had somewhat feared from the start…and was one reason I chose not to indicate a preference…for in Japan it sometimes happens that you may receive as a gift something for which you have expressed a liking or preference.  I did not want to take unfair advantage of their wonderful hospitality.)


“I cannot accept one of these fine pots,” I said.  “But I would love to discuss each one.”


Now you have to imagine, and remember, that all of this conversation that I have just reported to you, has happened in slow motion as an interpreter painfully explained to each of us what the other had just said.  At this point, Ishiwata stood up, put his palms flat on the table, and leaned across the table toward me, and challenged, in Japanese, “What is the matter?  Don’t you like them?  Aren’t they good enough for you?  Choose!  Which one is best?”


I had run out of excuses.  Any more stalling on my part would have been construed as rudeness to my host.  A quick conference – in English – with my translator, confirmed that I really was “on my own”…(actually, her professional evaluation of the situation…her exact words to me were:  “You’re in deep shit!”).  She had no advice for me….either on how to handle this unusual situation, or regarding the relative quality of the pots…..but she concurred that I had to make some kind of an answer.  I told her, that I could only follow my intuition, and see what happened.


Actually, I was surprised to hear what came out of my mouth next. It was a very odd circumstance – almost as if I was listening to myself say something that I had never before consciously thought.  I told Mr. Ishiwata that while I could not accept his generous offer of a gift of one of the pots, that I believed that I knew which one was best.



“The little Bizen piece is the finest,” I said.  He waited.  “While the ash deposits are quiet and subdued, they are still noticeable and varied, and speak for themselves with a clear voice.  With sensitive fingers”, I said, “even someone who is blind could ‘see’ this piece by feeling the ‘firing story’ that the surface of the pot has captured.  The Bizen piece is the best one.”


Ishiwata slumped into his chair with a sigh. “I have tested you, and you have passed,” he said.


Content that he had been a good teacher, and that I had been a good student, no amount of refusals or polite dodging on my part could thwart the inevitable:  the pot was packaged in an exquisite handmade wooden box, it was placed in my hands, and I was ushered to the door.


But before allowing me to leave, Ishiwata said this:  “I believe that you have made the right choice. Now let me tell you what you have. While I cannot afford to buy the works of Living National Treasure artists…..this artist, Mr. Yu Fujiwara, I predict, will become a Living National Treasure someday.  If I am right, you have made the best choice.”


As you may know, Mr. Yu Fujiwara did receive that designation in 1988.


The next day, as I rode in the car with Mrs. Ishiwata, I tried to explain to her that I would consider myself the caretaker of this piece, not its owner.


She responded by telling me, very quietly, that the little Bizen sake bottle had been her husband’s favorite….that he had used it every day…and that it had become more beautiful with use.  “Take good care of it, and use it every day,” she said.


What is the epiphany here?  I have learned to better trust my intuition…..even in the times…..perhaps especially in the times…..of great difficulty…times when there seem to be no “right” answers, and I feel myself to be between a rock and a hard place….when I’m most-compromised, most-vulnerable, most-unsure.


By the way, after I returned home in 1992, I sent to Mr. and Mrs. Ishiwata the absolutely finest saggar-fired pot that I had ever made… attempt to say “thank you”.


As a post script to this story:  In May of 1999 Mr. and Mrs.  Ishiwata came to my exhibition in Shigaraki.  I noticed him the moment he entered the gallery.  He was looking out over the top of his glasses, trying to spot me.  The moment he did, he made a bee-line for me.  I quickly got the attention of my interpreter, and as we three met, the first words out of his mouth were these (and I might add, with a king-size twinkle in his eye):  “I knew I should never have let you talk me out of that Fujiwara piece!!  You know what happened, right?  I was correct in my prediction!  I shouldn’t have let you talk me out of that piece!”


For my part, I had been prepared for just this moment, and without flinching asked my interpreter to tell this to Mr. Ishiwata:  “I think you are correct.  You should never have let me talk you out of that piece.  How about this:  why don’t we trade?  I will give you back the Fujiwara pot, and you give me back my saggar-fired pot, OK?”


Mr. Ishiwata, a quicker wit than I will ever be, eyes shining all the brighter, countered:  “Oh no you don’t…..I have already let you talk me out of one excellent piece; I am not about to let you talk me out of another!











  1. Jyotaro Inoue




Before I left for my 1992 trip to Japan, I told my traveling companion and interpreter, Georgia Leichty that the itinerary for the entire trip was negotiable with the exception of one appointment I’d arranged in the town of Tokoname.  This appointment could  not be changed!


Our travels took us to Nagoya.  There we met Mr. Inoue, a 75-year old friend of Georgia’s family.  He asked what travel plans we had and where we were going.  Upon hearing of our interest in pottery and our plans to visit the city of Tokoname, he replied, “I will take you there.  I grew up there.  I know everyone in Tokoname!”





I reminded Georgia of our agreement.  And after our three polite refusals (and an almost imperceptible elbow to his ribs by Mrs. Inoue) Mr. Inoue no longer persisted, and we thought that was the end of it.


The evening before our train trip to Tokoname arrived.  At 10:00 p.m. the P.A. system in the youth hostel called out Georgia’s name, asking her to come take a phone call.  I knew something had to be wrong, so I met her in the lobby.  It was Mrs. Inoue telling us that Mr. Inoue had arranged everything, as he’d promised, but that SHE would be coming to meet us at the train station the next morning to take us for a day in Tokoname.  I reminded Georgia of how important my plans and commitmenets were…..that all my arrangements had been made, that I  had people expecting to house and feed me in just a few short hours.  I told her that I wasn’t willing to change my plans.


Georgia reminded me that to refuse the direct request of an elder Japanese woman would be the height of rudeness……absolutely unconscionable, and that I would need to respond in “the Japanese way”…which meant that with Georgia’s help, I  would, at 10:30 p.m.,  call my hosts, and tell them honestly what had just happened.


To a person, they all complimented me on my response…saying that they understood how difficult it must be….and repeatedly told me that I was doing the right thing.


But I felt insulted and angry and agitated:  HOW COULD HE?!


But what happened the next day was a real lesson……and in many ways it was the single most important day of my trip to Japan.


Mr. Inoue DID know EVERYONE in Tokoname. Mrs. Inoue took us to meet Yoshiharu Sawada, one of Japan’s leading ceramic art critics (and the man who literally wrote the book about Tokoname for Kodansha Press).  The day-long trip he had planned for us included introductions to two of the area’s most prominent ceramic artists, Mr. Josan Yamada, and Mr. Mikio Oosako.


The Yamada visit included a trip to his kiln, some time in his showroom handling and examining his renowned small teapots, and a participatory tutorial in tea-making. “Everyone has forgotten the right way to make tea,” he complained.


A few years later, Mr. Yamada was designated a Living National Treasure.  And he passed away just  few months ago.


Mr.Oosako, for his part, had pulled out all the stops for art critic Sawada and his American visitors:  a three hour dining experience unfolded – a meal which was unparalleled in all my time in Japan.  Fine sake was served in Oosako’s cups, which sat on 11th century Kamakura-era-shard “saucers ”. We ate the most delightful bamboo shoots (which, according to Mr. Sawada’s impeccable palate, had to have been picked before daylight!).  For one of the soup dishes, our host excused himself from the table and stepped out to pick a twig from an exotic imported tree that was planted right outside of the  window.  The twig was teeming with flower buds, and each of us was instructed to select our own flower bud and put it into our soup – the mentholated-honey-sweet nectar was most amazing!


Each course arrived in ceramic pieces so diverse and amazing that it was as much a feast for the eyes as it was for the stomach.


Gifts of Mr. Oosako’s pots were the “dessert” course.


What began as something that I perceived to be intrusive, unkind, and bossy, turned out to be an amazing gift.  My cultural perspective had not been broad enough to understand or even imagine what kindnesses Mr. Inoue was intent on offering to us.  I had no anticipatory “receptors” for the magic that can occur when cultures cross and hospitality and good-intentions flourish.  (A vital lesson!)


In the intervening years Mr. Inoue and I have gained a wonderful respect for each other, and have forged a lasting friendship.  He has visited me here in the States on several occasions.  And every time that I go to Japan, I spend time with him and his wife and family.




In one of his recent letters he reflected on what it means to him to have lived through the atomic bombing.  He is steadfastly committed to a way of peace, and believes that the way to build world peace, is to work at it, one relationship at a time (which is exactly what he has been doing with me).  “You may think it is impossible, but it can be done.” he wrote to me.


Mr. Inoue has a son who is a curator of one of Japan’s major art museums.  Over the years, Inoue has attended many ceramics exhibits. One of his habits has been to purchase a catalog from these shows and send it to me (and for those of you who have not seen Japanese “catalogs”, I must tell you that they are full-color BOOKS of the highest quality, some with ISBN numbers).  In so doing, Inoue has single-handedly increased my ceramic library to enviable proportions.  I have told him that he is truly a “sensei”…a teacher…for in the best sense, he has afforded me a course of continuing education through, not only the catalogs, but the relationship which has enriched my life in so many ways.


An epiphany?  To receive the richness of other cultural traditions without prejudging or imposing my own cultural standards…… expect the unexpected…to watch for the magic…to, in turn, always offer my best… to work for peace….to believe in the impossible.



I have been graced to spend a few moments in the “shadow of the smoke”.  My life has been enriched in many and wonderful ways by these encounters.



I suppose that my best hope is that we all might have the opportunity to spend a few minutes in that shadow and sample some remarkable clarity…….. that those graceful moments might filter through our stories and point the way to a healthy world….. and that, as artists, our stories might infuse our work with a  powerful voice of vision and compassion, and joy.




Dick Lehman

Copyright 2001

All rights reserved



About dicklehman

Potter, writer, educator. Available for offering pottery teaching workshops. Available for curating exhibitions.
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5 Responses to Thinking about what is important

  1. Ann MacLean says:

    Domo arigato Dick Sama for your very sensitive writing about the effects of finding oneself in the shadow of the smoke. Ann

  2. Richard Aerni says:

    Your writing, and your stories, amaze me as much as your pots do. There is an expressiveness, a depth, a subtlety that create a rich impression for the underlying morals you carry. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences with us!

  3. Again I find myself in a new place, remembering a few years ago when I first saw your wood-fired creations and I decided to persue wood-firing as a re-entry into creating pottery. I want to thank you for your inspiration, your wonderful talent with writing or may I say “story sharing”, and the new place you have, yet again, taken me to. I will be thinking of these stories for some time.

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