DISCOVERING BEAUTY

The last time I spoke with you I described the process of waiting that takes place for wood-firing potters:  months of making and preparation; cords and cords of wood gathered, split and seasoned; days of loading the kiln; a week or more of 24/7 firing; and then the WAITING….

During that waiting period I often find myself second-guessing my decision-making:  was that clay body appropriate for the location that I selected in the kiln?; should the pot-sitters on those wall vases have been wider so that they won’t have fallen over during the stresses of firing?; was the side-stoking too rambunctious? — were those noises that I heard coming  from pots that fell over?;  were those side-fired pots in the best location?

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Did I include the “right” clay bodies for the species of wood that I selected for the firing?;  did I fire hot enough…too hot?;  did I soak the kiln at top temperature long enough?;  was the cooling slow enough to allow for crystal growth and the lovely complexity that comes from it?

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And I find myself wondering:  how will this firing surprise me?;  what kinds of results will I see that I never could have imagined?

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 What were some of my “inspired” decisions in loading that will only become evident when we unload?; how will my visual literacy be expanded by this process which — on every level — is a collaborative event:  not only am I collaborating with other peiople to pull of this huge physical and emotional undertaking, but I collaborate with the weather over the course of the roughly 60 years that affected the growth and chemical content of the bark and cambium layer of trees that I’m using for fuel, I colaborate with combustion chemistry of which I know pitifully little, I collaborate with the variations in clay chemistry, with barometric pressure, with wind and rain, with the magical unpredicability and capriciousness of a process of which one does not fully control.

And so……we waited.  And then we finally unloaded.  As some say….it is Christmas!!  And yes it is…..but too, it is sometimes……well….Halloween. And then there are those Halloween pieces that reveal themselves as better than Christmas after I have had a period of time to take them in, to shake off my imposed expectations, to allow my understanding of beauty to be shaken-up and expanded….enriched (“don’t toss that piece in the dumpster just yet…..sit with it a while and come to know it”).

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And there are the pieces that surpass, by so far, my expectations that I just wilt in awe at their beauty!

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I am not only a maker…..I am a receiver….these works aren’t entirely mine….yet they are mine alone:  the wonderful and endearing paradox that these works are not just for me…but they are also wholly mine.

This is a process that grows over time, for those of us in wood-firing.  And the learning that is gained from wood-firing expands to much of the rest of life.  I’m reminded of the words of Mr. Matsuyama — the teacher of one of my teachers:  “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.”

May we all continue to find this beauty!

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Copyright November 28, 2011

All rights reserved

 

To see all of Dick’s posts, just click on “add a comment” below…… then click “view all posts by Dick Lehman”.

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WAITING

On Sunday I completed the week of firing at the University of Notre Dame anagama.  We’d spent three weekends preparing wood…two days loading the kiln, and 7 days of firing to about 2500 degrees F.

Now we are waiting.  Waiting for the results of the firing for 12 potters/ceramics artists, 6 cords of wood, and days of envisioning and hope.

Here’s an article from some years ago, about a similar time of waiting.  Enjoy!

WAITING

DICK LEHMAN

copyright December, 1995

We had come from many places with varied motivations.  We had  caffein-ed through the night, our trucks weighted down with “the goods”; we had traveled all day, through 3 or 4 States, cartop carriers groaning under the pounds of pots which had  ‘wonder’ wedged into them, ‘purpose’ pulled through the throwing rings, and ‘hope’ hardening as pots dried on the ride.  Others of us merely walked from dorm or home, or from “real” jobs close-by with boxes of yet-to-be-sintered forms in tow, skidding across the base of snow.

We were English majors, and nurses; orchid-growers and builders.  We were professional clay artists and administrators.  We were teachers, writers,  cooks and psychiatrists, and all…learners.  We were all…potters.


Our life stories were like yours:   carpenter ants in our attics, driveways that needed to be shoveled, and exams for which to study.  Our pantries were full for the winter, there was venison in the freezer, we had good books to read.  We were falling in and out of love.  Our relatives were very ill, were recovering…..were fine.  We felt inquisitive, sentimental, curious, nervous, bored and contented.    And our pots told all these stories — to those who listened.

The clays themselves must have thought it a convention, being gathered as they were from the corners of the nation, and from Europe.  Oh the stories which could have been told from eons of geological time spent waiting!… stories far more complex and interesting than the ones which of late had caused this clay to change shape and be gathered here. One can almost imagine those conversations  as pots sat by the hundreds awaiting loading, arranged by height, by maker, by clay-type, by firing preference.

“Did you hear the story of the silica?…how it rested in the light of this same Huntingdon moon for scores of centuries, waiting,… only to be uprooted, crushed, ground, sieved,  bagged and shipped off halfway across the continent?   Now, mixed with peers who carry equally long views of history and pre-history, it returns to Huntingdon — to sit once more under the same moon, and to await an experience which will change it forever.”

The mountains of pots were dwarfed only by the stacks of firewood ready to collaborate in bringing  the clay to a new place of waiting…slabs with only 70 or 100 year-stories…trees which no doubt had  been nourished by, and now stored some of the mineral solubles which had accompanied the silica through the eons of pre-history…wood which in the inferno of the firebox would very soon redeposit these  exact minerals on the very  material which had held it for so long.

As the last of the side stoking  was completed  the kiln seemed to shudder, to shiver. And I shivered a reply,   inhaling a soul full of new energy, feeling for a moment like I could stoke for another three days.  But it was time to close the stoke holes, to join the others for supper, and make a small Glenlivet toast to hope, to our own time of waiting , and a full night’s sleep.

What had been a restful slumber was abruptly ended by a fitful dream:  a raucous woodpecker rapped incessantly.  Exasperated,  I cracked one eye and the bird flew off, disappearing mysteriously into the swirling steam of a fresh cup of coffee just a few inches from my nose.  The pecking sound ended…a distant chuckle:  my host had tired of waiting for me to wake up — breakfast was served.

After breakfast our host announced that we would be going on a secret mission known only to him:  “dress warm” was the only instruction.  After a short drive we arrived at Sinking Valley, then walked to the mouth of the cave.  Tytoona Cave was formed by a stream cutting under a mile-long hill.  It was a low anagama-shaped bluff, and the cave’s interior seemed to mimic the shape of the exterior.  Having just completed three and a half days of firing, I believe we all saw the similarity.

Flashlights were distributed at the cave’s foreboding entrance.  The intense cold had caused the seeping water at the cave’s mouth to freeze into giant “stalac-teeth” — rows of uppers and lowers giving the mouth a beastly appearance.  We picked our way through and around the fangs, and progressed past the second curve, where light from the outside no longer penetrated.

The water was high, and the noise inside had the moaning rush of a firing at it’s height:  the rocks around which the water rushed were the pots…the darkness in the cave, as efficient as the blinding white light of the kiln…the orchestration of resonance,  as thunderous and delicate as the flames.  We each found our way to a spot of our own, groping along in this lightless belly of the earth, mesmerized by the timpanic thunder and the delicate filigree….waiting in the music of the stream.

Individually we returned to the mouth of the cave, having had the chance to make peace with something larger than ourselves.  We traveled to the opposite end of the kiln-hill, stopping at the base of the last large bluff to unpack our politically correct lunch:  sandwiches made of Jewish rye, Swiss cheese, Korean kimche, and Norwegian sardines.  It wasn’t much — almost more  a sacrament than a lunch.

We were silent as we climbed through knee-deep snow to the crest.  Looking down a hundred feet or more, we saw the flue of the cave:  mysterious swirling plumes of water, not unlike the orange-red curls at the top of our chimney not so long ago.  Jack told us the tragic tale of the lone scuba diver who attempted, but failed, to negotiate the entire route of the underground river.  I winced at her misguided misfortune, but used the last bite of my sandwich to toast her courage.

Only four more days of waiting until advent:  we unload on Thursday.

To see all of Dick’s posts, just click on “add a comment” below…… then click “view all posts by Dick Lehman”.

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AUTUMN SALE/OPEN HOUSE/WOOD-FIRED KILN UNLOADING: Saturday, October 1, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. CONSTANTINE, MI

It has been a year since Mark Goertzen purchased my production pottery studio.  Now a year later, we are collaborating on a special one day sale, open house, and wood-fired kiln unloading.  (The kiln will be unloaded in three shifts, so come see the new pots being birthed from the fire.) The date is Saturday October 1, and the location is at Mark’s home and kiln site in Constantine, Michigan.  Come join the fun.

DIRECTIONS AND UNLOADING TIMES ARE INCLUDED BELOW:

Mark Goertzen 13991 Timm Rd. Constantine, MI 49042

DIRECTIONS to Mark’s home below (or visit us on the web):

From the south – Take SR 15 north through Bristol; becomes 103 in MI. In Mottville, turn left on 12 and right on North River Road. Go 5.1 miles and look for open house signs.

From the north – Take 131 into Constantine; travel west 1/2 mile on Locust St./North River Rd. and watch for open house signs.

Please come join Mark and Dick at Mark’s home for a collaborative SALE and Kiln Opening.

WHEN: Saturday – October 1, 2011 from 10 a.m.- 5 p.m. Note: Join us as we unload the kiln in three shifts

at 11 a.m., 1 p.m., and 3 p.m.

More information online at www.goertzenpottery.com or www.dicklehman.com


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A FUNNY (and insightful) DAY AT THE STUDIO

“THAT WOULD BE JUST RIDICULOUS, DON’T YOU THINK?”

….a true story from a day in the life of a pottery seller…

The other day, two people came into my studio.  It turned out to be a mother and son.  Mother was in her late-seventies/early-eighties.  Son was well into his 50’s .

Both were rather poorly dressed.  Mother wore a “Goodwill” skirt and blouse.  Son was wearing very thick, old, glasses ….scratched and smudged.   His T-shirt did not cover about 4 inches of his pendulous midriff.

I greeted both of them, as I always do, remembering that everyone can appreciate pottery, even if they may not be able to purchase it.  We exchanged some pleasant conversation.  I learned that it was their first time in the studio.  And while I did not expect them to be customers, I spent 4 or 5 minutes giving them the “lay of the land”:  showing them our line of ‘production’ works in the Showroom, and describing some of the ‘one-of-a-kind’ works in the Gallery.  They thanked me and made a bee-line straight for the Gallery.

After only a few moments, Mother came back to where I was working, holding one of my finer wood-fired pieces – a flattened bottle that sits on three feet.  It was priced at $295.  “This is remarkable!” she said.  “I must have this.  This is a special process, isn’t it?  Do you have anything to describe this process?….something written?”  (She obviously had a well-developed sense of visual literacy.)

Wood-fired vase...... (not the one she selected)

I told her that I did, and that I would get it for her.

As I walked into my office, I “clunked” myself on the head, reminding myself again how important it is to avoid making quick judgments based on appearance….how unnecessary and hurtful it can be to wear an elitist attitude on one’s sleeve….and what a remarkable experience it is to have one’s stereotypes “re-arranged”. And I would have to admit, if I were to be forthcoming, that for a moment I think that I offered to myself a smug and undeserved pat on the back for not having entirely overlooked these customers.

As I returned to the sales counter and was beginning to package the pot, Mother said, “You know, this is for one of my daughters.  I have a second daughter who might like one of those vases that hang on the wall.  Let me go look at those again.”

She walked back into the Gallery, and with hardly a moment’s hesitation, went straight to what I considered to be the finest wood-fired wall vase in my collection.  “This is perfect.  I’ll take it!”

Wood-fired Wall-Vase

Back at the check-out counter, I was busy taking price tags off, and gathering the fine fabric draw-string bags in which I put my finest works, before packaging.

At this point, Mother asked a thoughtful and sensitive question:  “You know, I can pay you with Travelers Checks, or a credit card.  Which do you prefer?”

I told her that I paid less commission on the Travelers Checks, and thanked her for the kind offer.

She pulled out some Travelers Checks and began to fill in the date.

It was at this point that I noticed that she had only two $50 Travelers Checks on the counter (and she had $600 worth of pots sitting next to them).

Knowing that once a Travelers Check is filled out, it must be used, I interrupted her in a rather abrupt way.
“You know, this is going to be rather awkward for me, but I must bring this to your attention.  I am noticing that you have only two $50 Travelers Checks there.”

“Yes???”, she wondered.

“Well,” I said, “you have two pots here that are both ‘two-ninety-five’.”

“Two-ninety-five,” she repeated,  “and……………?”

“Two hundred and ninety five dollars……..each…….,” I said.

There was a huge  pause as she drew in a great breath of air…………”Two hundred and ninety five dollars, EACH!!!?,” she asked incredulously…………. “Why……why…..that would be just…….just RIDICULOUS!……just RIDICULOUS!!,  don’t you think?…..don’t you think??”

At this point, I made what was perhaps a well-tempered Retailer’s “knee-jerk” response (not taking offence at the implication of her question, not losing control, but perhaps, also, not directly addressing her question):  I tried to sidestep the issue by automatically responding with a compliment.

“Well, you know, I was so delighted that you selected two of my finest pieces.  You obviously have a well-developed visual literacy and you appreciate………”

She was having nothing of the compliment.   Before I could finish my sentence she leaned over the counter, getting a little closer to my face and with eyes squinted and intensity in her quiet voice, asked again:  “It would be RIDICULOUS, don’t you think? Why, if I paid $300 each for these two pots, my dead husband would come back from his grave and pay me a VISIT!!!”

If there is anything that I pride myself in, it is in maintaining some semblance of propriety in difficult  situations: not getting too ruffled, and maintaining a sense of humor.  But at that moment, a kind of magical and uncontrollable transformation occurred in me.  It was as if I could see myself leaving my own body….drifting away to a  “safe”distance.  Then I was absolutely shocked – and a little horrified – as I heard my (uncensored) self say:  “Well gee, if you could get your dead husband back for only $600, that  would be a hell of a deal, don’t you think?!?”

I cannot describe the deafening silence that next occurred, nor the absolute un-readability of her face.  I wanted desperately to disappear, or to conjure myself back in time to negate this horrible faux pas.  There was a gasp, and for a moment I didn’t know if she was going to have a heart attack , or if she was going to slap me.  Then she cocked her head, some of the intensity draining from her face, and she ‘sighed’ a laugh saying, “Well, that would all depend on what kind of a mood he was in!”

I did my best to recover my senses and to regain a little dignity.  I said, “Well, I suppose you and I will both have good stories on each other.  I’ll just put the price tags back on these fine pots and return them to the gallery.”

I did so, fully expecting to see that these two had already “make tracks” out of my studio. But instead I overheard Mother saying to Son, ”I still think we can find something, don’t you?”

Then, spying the Brie Bakers in the production-pottery portion of our Showroom, Mother looked at me and pointed, “That pot’s kinda small.  What does THAT price-tag say?”  (It was at this point that I realized that neither Mother nor Son could see well enough to read anything, much less the small printing on my price tags!)

“The Brie Bakers are eighteen-ninety-five”, I said.

Facetted bowl with many uses.

Mother squinted her eyes again, and walked over to me gently, touched my elbow, and, grinning, said in a low tone, “Now honey, are you saying eighteen hundred and ninety-five dollars…….or eighteen-ninety-five?”

I laughed – we all laughed – and I assured here that they were each priced at less than twenty dollars and that she could buy one for each of her daughters for less than the price of one of her Travelers Checks…..and she did!

I remain grateful, each day, for the lessons offered by regular contact and relationships with the Retail Public.

Studio showroom view #1

Studio Showroom view #2

Gallery view #1

Gallery view #2.

Gallery view #3

Dick Lehman Clay Art

56832 Via Mirafore

Elkhart, IN   46516

USA

copyright June 2003, all rights reserved

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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…..my 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……..to 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

 

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SEEING AND APPRECIATING THE DETAILS

Over the last three decades of making pots, the works themselves, in many ways,  have been my teachers.  They’ve called me to take note of the little things:  a small change of line, a minor shift of visual weight, the rhythm and lyric qualities of a piece.  But most of all the works themselves have called me to look more closely….to expand my visual literacy…to enlarge my conceptions of beauty…to see and appreciate the details!

Detail of side-fired porcelain jar.

Cosmic Comets

Over the course of the next months I hope to share with you some images that have had a strong influence on my way of seeing, my way of photographing and presenting my work.

Along with this change in the way I see pots has come an interest in expanding my literacy and enlarging my understanding about my clay art business.  This ‘paradigm of seeing’ has caused me to pay attention to the details involved in running a successful studio clay art business.  Over the next months I hope to share with you some of what I consider to be the important details of running a successful clay art business….the details, the literacy and the beauty.  Stay tuned.

The Essential Center

detail image of the center of a porcelain bowl

Talk to you soon.

Dick

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