by Dick Lehman
Over the past several years I have enjoyed ongoing e-mail conversations with my friend and potter, Shiho Kanzaki. Kanzaki lives in Shigaraki, Japan. He produces pottery within the Shigaraki tradition, employing the long-established methods of that tradition to create and fire his works. As time has passed, our correspondence has steadily drifted toward the themes which we hold most important to our lives and art. With his permission, I share some excerpts from Kanzaki's contributions to our conversations which I have found most stimulating.
Before everything, I would like to review for you my basic thoughts concerning the making of ceramic works and how it is that we can live fully in this world. I believe that our spirits and thoughts are what make our ceramics. The making of ceramics and our attitude towards living are closely related. The two may seem to be unrelated at a glance but I think that the relationship between the two is important. An attitude of disarray towards living can cause us to make works which have a 'wrong spirit' or which are without soul. However, the reverse is also true: sometimes when we see certain ceramic works, we get a feeling of emotion and they touch our hearts. Now I believe that our response to this work is not simply because of the shape, or due to excellent technique, or the beauty of the surface. These ceramic works possess the spirit, soul and personal history of the potter. This is why we might be so impressed with these particular ceramic works. For if the beauty of a ceramic work exists only in its good shape, design and colour, I suspect that its effect upon us may fade over the years. But if the spirit, the heart and the soul of the potter are in the pieces, these ceramic works can touch our heart and soul for many years.
The art of ceramics isn't to be found in technique and skill alone. We must extend beyond technique. And it is those who are extending beyond technique who are becoming real potters: living within their spirits, thoughts and religion. Because they have already discarded their sense of self-will, they live in freedom. They move in a living way. As a result their works have a feeling of strength, and are full of life. It is important that we live our lives purposefully. Our spirits, thoughts and hearts all parts of us are constantly changing when we live with this sense of purpose. As we each strive to live up to the best that we know as a way of life, then that is when the ceramic work is the potter...the potter becomes embodied in the ceramic work itself. Out of our moments of true being come the ceramic work. I asked Shiho Kanzaki to explain what he looks for in good work. What does he think are the characteristics of the best ceramics?
Ceramic works which have a tender heart, which reveal emotion and life, which show a feeling of strength these are the real ceramic works. Such feelings come from the potter's heart. It is quite natural that these pieces are not overworked for effect.
If one tries to make wonderful and marvellous works in order to gain the applause and approving words of others, it will be obvious. Greedy and desirous potters tend to express their motivations by putting excess decoration on the pot. This excess obscures the real heart of the pot...evealing only the desires of the potter.
In order to make good work, I find that I must make an effort to release myself from greed and desires. I believe that if someone abandons their greed, their true spirit will come through and the pots themselves will reveal a heart. For me, it is at this point that the pots become real ceramic works.
To summarise, these are the characteristics of good ceramic works: they are made by potters who have moved beyond single-minded reliance upon skilful technique. The work is simple and natural. The maker has given up any greedy motivation. The works show us a 'look of delight', a feeling of strength, and a full-of-life stance. And these works we experience as beautiful. In fact, as I think of it, I suppose that the beauty in these works is 'continuing forever'.
I like the natural-ash-deposit works, like those which come from the Shigaraki, Iga, Bizen, Tamba and Tokoname traditions. The ancient pieces from these traditions especially touch my heart. You see, our ancestors were mainly farmers who, in their free time, made pottery utensils for their daily needs. Their purposes were to make durable and useful pots, and to make as many as possible in the limited time that they had. I suppose that they didn't give a great deal of thought to the colour and shape of the pieces...o the beauty of the works. But despite the likelihood that they were not concerned about beauty, I find them to be beautiful with their rich natural ash deposits.
Their pots came from anagama firings. Of course, in an anagama, nobody can foresee the results of the pots. The atmosphere surrounding the pots determines the results. And the ash deposits grow naturally from the effects of the flames. One can say that the resulting pots were created by nature. And these natural-ash-deposit pots move me more than others.
There is an easy way to judge the works...whether they are successful or not. The work, just after having been made, is wet and glitters in much the same way that it does when it has much natural ash glaze. I think that this sheen affects our response to the work...making it seem bigger and better than it really is. We tend to become infatuated with the 'make-up' on the pots...heir costumes of colour, glaze, shape and decorations. However to judge the work, I look at it when it is dry greenware. The real beauty is to be found here in the greenware. I look at the work and see it with no 'make-up'...this is the time when I measure the success of the piece.
I have already told you how I believe our thoughts and spirits change and grow as we go through life...nd how our ceramic works reflect those changes. However, I would like to tell you about how the firing affects the work, as well.
As you know, each firing is different because of differences in weather, season, air pressure and other circumstances. I have never used a pyrometer or pyrometric cones. I decided against cones and pyrometer because I think that if I used them, I would tend to rely upon them to make my decisions during the firings. At that point my concentration would move from the firing to the tools of firing. When one chooses not to use the tools, one must concentrate only on the fire, the smoke colour, the sound of the kiln, and the shape of the flame and smoke. When you accumulate these experiences during the firings, you tend not to forget them. You develop an understanding of a whole variety of phenomena, and then each firing tells you what you need to do, and how you need to do it. Clearly, gaining experience is most important for this kind of firing.
Each firing condition is, of course, different. While I may begin each firing with work which is similar to the work I have previously made, what happens in the firing changes and adds to the intentions and decisions I made while creating the pots. This means that all of my works change and grow over the years in response to the changing conditions of firing.
I believe that the changes and maturity that occurs in our lives have a direct impact on our works. In other words, our works are changing day by day...as a direct result of, and as we make an effort to advance our lives: to change our spirits and our souls. But there is also a relationship between the long tradition of Shigaraki ceramics and our daily lives. For those of us who work in the Shigaraki tradition, it is one of the most important things in our lives, as potters, and as human beings. You see, our ancestors were continuing to build upon the traditions which they had inherited. They contributed to a tradition which was long and continuous. The reason we have inherited this tradition is tied to their commitment and contribution to this tradition. One might ask, "Is there something new in the Shigaraki tradition?" I don't think so.
I suspect that there are the changes which come from the changes in our daily lives. And while parts of those changes are genuinely new, they are at the same time connected to the existing tradition. I do think that I live in line with the Shigaraki tradition: I live in the traditional way, and am devoted to Buddha. I pray and always say:
Namu Ami Da Butsu (I depend upon the mind of Buddha).
In so doing I try to give up my desires, make my heart vacant and make room for Buddha to live in me. I try to do this day by day. And this commitment is important for making my work and for extending the Shigaraki tradition. Another way of thinking about this is: Who I am, is myself...changing in spirit and soul, day by day.
I have ancestors and many good friends. I was born in Shigaraki. I have my own history which, fortunately, included being a mendicant and being swindled while in poverty. Who I am is this: I am now, in this moment, a result of my unique past: a result of how I have received and thought about the many opportunities and circumstances given to me in life. My works are the only things (like them) in the world at the moment that I made them.
Yet I always make works which are in line with the Shigaraki tradition and, because of my individuality, they also extend the Shigaraki tradition. But what is most important is what is inside our minds: the thoughts coming from our philosophy and religion make our work (jobs/tasks) and our works (pottery/sculpture). We are able to express our 'fullof-life' attitude in our pots, no more than at this moment. So I can say to you that one can make one's works according to one's abilities at the moment. Our ability, therefore, is not only in technique, but our thoughts, our way of living, and so on.
I greatly respect two potters: the master potters, Suketoshi Matsuyama and Hakuou Kanou. Before I built my anagama kiln, I visited many potters living in the pottery centres throughout Japan. I saw many of their works. There were only two potters whose works touched my heart:
Suketoshi Matsuyama and Hakuou Kanou.
I first visited Suketoshi Matsuyama in 1972, before I built my anagama kiln in Shigaraki. He invited me to his thatched studio to show me his works. He brought out his works from his store room and placed them, piece by piece, on the tatami mats. At that moment, I patted myself on my knees, in spite of myself. I was amazed, and the works impressed themselves on my spirit: "Here it is. The work for which I have been searching, for long years." The works... many works, were now in front of me.
The shapes of all his works were simple, and were reflective of his daily life. But some of the pieces had sharp cut marks (which had been made with a wooden or metal tool) which ran from the bottom to the top or from the top to the bottom. I trembled at seeing the cut marks. Matsuyama said that at the moment when he cut the surface of his works, he had made himself a 'samurai' a Japanese warrior. All his works had a rich natural ash deposit. At this time, I had not been able to find any other potters who were currently making this kind of natural ash deposit works. I felt his tenderness and life coming through his simply-shaped works. Yet his cut works were full of strength. I could see the beauty of creation in non-intention in his works. I was so impressed with his works that I found myself wondering whether what I was seeing was real, or a dream. In the following years, I visited his studio many times. He generously offered to teach me all that he knew. And in 1974, he permitted me to call myself his apprentice. Hakuou Kanou is a priest of the Zen (Buddhist) sect, a black-and-white painter (Chinese ink painting and calligraphy) and a potter. He taught me his way of making tea bowls. And he shared his basic thoughts about tea ceremony. At the tea ceremony, the host puts his thoughts in his guest's position, and the guest also puts his own thoughts in the host's place - they always try to think of each others' point of view, according to a precept from (Zen) Buddhism.
He invited me into his tea room. He entered the room with a towel over the edge of a metal washbowl in his left hand, and a vacuum thermos bottle in his right hand (not the normal utensils for tea ceremony). This way of entering the room seemed strange to me. But after I had drunk much tea, I could understand why he had arrived in this manner: in this circumstance, the washbowl, the towel, and the thermos bottle were the right tools, because he served me 13 bowls of tea. The utensils for tea ceremony are controlled by many requirements and regulations, according to each tradition (school) of tea. The first, second and third time that he served me tea, the bowls were beautiful, and well within the requirements of tea ceremony. However, as he continued to serve me tea, one after the other, using different tea bowls each time, my feelings began to change little by little. One bowl had no foot; another had such a small foot that the pot did not sit stably and almost spilled; the rim of yet another was sharp like the teeth of a saw; and finally, one bowl appeared to have been made to be used as an ash tray. Each time he served me tea, he said only, "This tea bowl is good." And then when I began feeling a little strange about his choice of tea bowls, he said, "This tea bowl is better than all the others before, isn't it?" And when he served tea from the bowl with the saw teeth and from the ash tray, he said "These are the best tea bowls, don't you think?"
Beyond this, he never said another word. I was thinking and thinking...pondering what he wanted to tell me by all this. He sat there in front of me during all the time of my thinking, and he offered no words. I looked at the tea bowls for long hours. I began to feel a sense of freedom from the tea bowls: all of the bowls exhibited a tender heart, revealed his strength of spirit and his feelings of delicate sensibilities. Finally I decided to tell him my feelings. I said to him, "I gain a feeling of freedom from your tea bowls. Your tea bowls are telling me that one has to be free always, and to make tea bowls with the feeling of freedom. One need not think about the regulations of tea bowls. After all, as we know, the founder of tea ceremony selected as the best bowls, pots which were being used by farmers as common utensils of their daily lives." He only gave me an affirmative nod. Both of these two potters' works reveal life, spirit and thoughtfulness. And their magnificent technique is indeed superior to others' techniques. But these technical skills are behind their works. I don't think that I need to make my works new through some technique. Their works have taught me this. And you may think that only new things are able to extend the tradition. But I can say this: our own spirits and our lives are what make our own works...and they are what extend the tradition.
Dick Lehman is a potter and writer who lives, works and maintains a full-time studio in Goshen, Indiana, USA.
This article is reprinted from Ceramics: Art and Perception. Pty Ltd, 35 William Street, Paddington, NSW 2120 Australia, www.ceramicart.com.au
© Dick Lehman 1998. All Rights Reserved.