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19 American Potters in Japan

By Gregory Miller

From the January/February 1998 issue of Clay Times.

Japan exists as a mythical land for many in the American ceramics community. The origin of Shoji Hamada, Bernard Leach, Mingei, noborigama, and the Tea Ceremony, it is a nation where pottery is a national pastime. In America, not everyone plays baseball, but they are likely to know the lexicon and what it means to make a home run. If seen on TV, it's usually comprehensible: we know to "root for the home team" and what it means to be "two games behind in the race for the pennant." Similarly, in Japan, potters do commercial spots on TV; pottery towns like Mashiko, Hagi, Bizen, and Shigaraki are thriving tourist destinations; and pretty much everybody has a pot or two.

Along with this general ceramics literacy comes an interest in pots from countries outside of Japan. After being quizzed enough times about American pots and potters during my apprenticeship with Tatsuzo Shimaoka in Mashiko, I thought people might be interested in seeing actual American pots. I began thinking about ideas for a group show in 1994, as a way to increase contact between American and Japanese potters, as well as to provide exposure for American artists in Japan. So I started asking people for slides and other materials to make a presentation to various Japanese galleries during the 1995 NCECA in Minnesota, and people seemed enthused about the idea.

As the organizer of the show, I was able to select works by some of my favorite potters. Everyone I asked to participate agreed: Joseph Bennion, Cynthia Bringle, Linda Christianson, Victoria Christen, Andrew Gemrich, Randy Johnston, Louise Harter, Mary Law, Warren MacKenzie, Jan McKeachie, Matthew Metz, Gregory Miller, Will Ruggles and Douglass Rankin, Linda Sikora, Sandy Simon, Willi Singleton, Jack Troy, and Mike Weber. I tried to choose people who made work which would not be out of place in Japan. Not surprisingly, many of the pots were fired in wood kilns and several utilized locally dug materials and even forms that I saw often in Japan. Once I had images and a resume from everyone, I was ready to travel.

Since Mashiko is one of Japan's largest pottery towns, and my aim was primarily to provide an introduction for American potters, it seemed natural to hold the exhibition there. After I finished my apprenticeship in Mashiko with Tatsuzo Shimaoka, the Moegi Gallery had been kind enough to rent me their studio and kiln so that I could fire work for my first show in Japan. I felt obligated to approach them about the show first. Their store was newly rebuilt, and this exhibition was just the kind of event they wanted to produce. This was all arranged by the summer of 1996. I came back and wrote all of the potters, getting a confirmation that they still wanted to participate. Everyone said yes.

The format of the exhibition was simple: each potter sent 10 pieces they selected, and the gallery took care of the PR work and the invitation expenses. Potters were responsible for shipping expenses, which averaged between $150-250 for the ten pots, one way. In return for arranging the exhibition, I asked for one piece from each participant. Four potters in the exhibition were able to attend at least the opening and part of the show. Since I was having a solo show at the same time in the downstairs gallery, I or another potter was usually available to answer any questions or give a sales pitch. A brief history and a personal photo were displayed with the respective work of each artist.

The show was held from June 28-July 10, 1997. Mashiko is a destination for travelers from all over Japan. People came from as far south as Kyushu, and also from the Northern Island of Hokkaido, but most were from Tokyo, since Mashiko is a day trip from there. The Moegi Gallery has extensive wholesale connections to other ceramics stores throughout Japan, and a number of gallery owners came to examine the work as well. Hopefully this will result in additional shows for several artists, of which there was much talk.

Most of the pots in the show could be described as functional, and the prices ranged from $15 to $1200, but were generally between $40 to $120 (US dollars). There were cups, plates, vases, teapots, tea bowls, dishes, lidded jars, and boxes, as well as other forms. In general, I found that most people purchased the work because they liked it, and secondarily because it was an American pot. Japanese consumers have a good eye for pots. Rather than requesting an explanation of irregularities of surface and form, these aspects of the work were praised. It was surprising for some to see so many different pots assembled and identified as "American."

In conjunction with the exhibition, there was a reception/slide lecture about one week into the show. Presentations by two American potters who have studied in Japan, Willi Singleton and myself, and two Japanese ceramists who have spent time in the United States, Takumi Sato and Hiro Tajima, were given. Mr. Sato had an exhibition of his work up at the same time in the gallery across the street from the group show. He showed slides of the 1995 and 1996 NCECA which he visited. Willi Singleton, who apprenticed in both Tachikui and Mashiko a decade ago, showed slides of his workshop and kiln in Kempton, PA, and talked about how his Japanese experience affected the pots he makes now. Hiro Tajima, a sculptor, gave a presentation about his educational experience and many exhibitions in the United States. I followed with general slides of the group show. My own presentation focused on the American potters in the group show. I was asked at one point by Mr. Sato if I was familiar with tea aesthetic of wabi-sabi, central to which is the acceptance of beauty in imperfection, and I replied, "Yes."

"Do you understand it?" came the next question, to which I responded, "Wabi-sabi is very difficult to describe, isn't it? Japanese, too, have difficulty putting it into words. I find the best I can do is to attempt to understand it through the pots that I make. Isn't that what we all do?" Some things are beyond rational understanding.

This discussion underscored many of the commonalities of potters in both Japan and the U.S. The event was well attended by Mashiko area potters, with excellent questions and discussion about ceramics communities in both countries. Two weeks later, I was able to give a short slide presentation at the Shigaraki Ceramic Culture Park, featuring the artists in the group exhibition, where there were many questions about materials, process, and what it is like to be a young potter in America. The Shigaraki facilities were outstanding, and I was happy to be hosted throughout my time in Shigaraki by potter Shiho Kanzaki.

My travel also included a stop in Hagi, a pottery village and samurai town on the northern coast of western Japan. As part of the present generation of a long line of tea ceremony potters, Ryusaku Miwa has made his career through rebelling against "tradition".

"What are Americans doing making these Japanese looking pots?" he wanted to know. "This has no meaning! These people should find their own tradition, or invent one. It's pointless for Americans to make Japanese pots. In fact, it's pointless for Japanese to make them too. These pots have already been done. The important thing is to find a new path."

His comments helped me to focus my own thoughts on the matter. I am sure that pots will continue to be important, as long as we think of them as objects for use. When we try to pigeon-hole art into a conceptual framework, it loses the immediacy of materials, and process. If pots were objects which could be loved at one point, then they will continue to be so now, and in the future. Pots, especially through use, fill a deep-seated human need for contact with a natural and unrefined environment, something which is not always accessible in either Japan or the United States.

Potters in America and Japan have been affecting each other for a long time. Notions which we hold of unique or shared identity are often blurred by previous contact with other cultures. Asian pots existed in Europe long before Columbus came to the Caribbean. What kind of effect did Leach, Hamada, and Yanagi have on our community? Newness alone will not make good pots. If everyone reinvents their work each time we make it, who will have any context to understand?

I prefer to point out the commonalties of Japanese and American potters: we work in a medium which demands technical skill, perseverance, and a certain depth of perception about how our work is used and what it might mean to different individuals and cultures. That our pots are either different or similar should not be surprising. Many people commented that the pots in the show were like Japanese pots, but that they were not Japanese. That the pots in the show were objects that they wanted to include in their own lives pleased me most.

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