For the last couple of months I haven’t had much time to work. Which means I’ve been dreaming of that faraway between the sea and the mountains, working with local clays to the harmonious melody of birds and waves. Not yet…

There is always much to be excited about in the use of clays. I occasionally read about great masters of the past and present who never got sick of working with clay. There was always so much to learn and so many variables in the process that surprises were emminent in every firing and with every new body of clay, and every new idea. This, coupled with the observation that ceramic artists (and any artist worth their salt) seem hard-wired to experimentation. And when it comes to working with clay, there are a myriad of avenues one can proceed down.

. Perhaps the aim should simply be doing it the best one can, making an effort towards quality. In this I don’t mean perfection, that would imply perfect control of all the variables, perfect understanding inside every second of the process of making. Sincerity in the pursuit of the upper limits of one’s ability translating into authenticity in final product.

The great art and social critic John Ruskin said:

“There is hardly anything in this world that some man cannot make a little worse
and sell a little cheaper, . . . and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.”

We could easily substitute the word ‘man’ for ‘factory’ in this quote. But for some time now, people have been returning to the handmade. The handmade in all areas of possible craft. Many people are now willing to spend that extra shilling on something which they can see came from someone, rather than only somewhere; where design is only part of the story of a piece; where plates have personality and cups, character; where functionality is a secondary consideration; where objects are bought with the heart, head has to pay for it; where inspiration bounces down a chain of transmission from something, to someone to others…

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While in Japan, I took a motorcycle trip one weekend to Hakone. My two main aims of the trip were to enjoy the Hakone Skyline road, a twisting ridgeline full of fantastic corners and smooth bitumen. My second aim was to visit the Hakone Museum of Art to view some 10,000 year old Jomon pottery. Large coiled forms dominated the interior of the museum, which were much larger and more detailed than I had imagined. Jomon pottery is widely accepted as being the oldest in the world. Some of it dating back to 14,000 BC. What really amazed me is that in the last 16000 years, much has remained the same regarding technique.

The Jomon pottery culture not only begins early, but it continues till well down into the first millennium BC, for the Bronze Age did not begin till very late in Japan. Thus the majority of Jomon pottery is of the third and second millennia BC, when it achieved numerous exotic forms. Jomon means twisted cord in Japanese, and the main characteristic is the twisted cord decoration. Many of these vessels form fine displays in museums round the world (Current Archaeology, UK).

Jomon, in Japanese means ‘twisted cord’. And as can be seen, the works are made with a twisted cord decoration.

Pottery of a similar age and style was also discovered in Russia, in the far eastern end, in the Vladivostok region. A theory suggested for this is that at the height of the Ice age, the sea levels would have been much lower. The northern island of Japan, Honshu, may have been joined by a land bridge to the mainland of Asia at this time. Early pottery has also been reported from sites in China.

This map shows the position of Odai Yamamoto at the extreme northen end of the main island of Japan, and also the Amur river sites in Russia which have also produced pottery made in the coldest part of the last Ice Age

For anyone in the area, I would highly recommend a visit to the Hakone Museum of Art , in Saitama prefecture to see some of the oldest pottery in the world. The setting is very beautiful and will enhance your experience of the museum.

My father used to say, “a good workman never blames their tools”. This was usually on the back of me at the age of 7 bending a nail and saying it was the hammer’s fault.

I also spent many a weekend digging around in the basement of the house that my grandfather built. I saw nothing in his basement that would lead me to conclude that he had built the house with those tools. They all seemed too small.

What I have learned through a string of short bursts with various pottery teachers, is that what qualifies as a “tool” in ceramic work could literally be anything.

One of my teachers would say:

Your hands are your best tool. So I prefer to use my hands as much as much as possible, but you can use anything.

Another of my teachers had a strangely extensive collection of tooth brushes and flossing machines which were kept in an old glass jam jar.

I continue to learn that the potter need never be pressed for tools.

1. A strip from a car chamois

2. Bowl

3. A computer bracket for turning

4. The broken head of a plastic spatula

5. An old brush

6. Strips cut from a softdrink can bent over a pencil and wound with cotton
for turning

7. The wire from a pen straightened, twisted and looped over a pencil from Ikea.
For turning.

8. A swiss army knife (various uses, no pun intended).

9. A length of dental floss tied between two rings from my wife’s keychain
for cutting clay.

10. A few old bread and butter plates to shift pots from the
wheel onto for drying.

11. And of course, my hands.

 

I know I am not the only one who draws inspiration from this man. His work; simple, austere, technically amazing (watch his demo below). He really is something to watch. I don’t know what it is about his work that attaches me to it. It could be the spirit of tradition that it imbues. I would love to have met him.

“To return to mingei, the problem is how does the individual artist today approach folkcraft. Of course the answer is that he should look after his character first. The problem of his own character must come foremost. With one’s intellect, with one’s mind, one can understand what tradition means. The folk art formula may be fed though the mind and through the intellect. But in work, what comes out must come out through one’s own fingertips, one’s own hands, otherwise it is no work at all…. Because Yanagi was a critic and dealt in words, he used the term “beauty” a great deal to express what he was trying to say. In my case, being a workman, I do not feel any lack by not using that word…. Beauty is not in the head or in the heart, but in the abdomen.”

– Shoji Hamada

His close friend Bernard Leach said of his work: ‘His pots are a living expression of the man himself’. For biographical information visit this site.

Shoji Hamada demonstrating at the University of Hawaii during a lecture tour which Leach and Hamada under took in 1953.

Signature and Hamada’s chop

(inside of b
ox lid)

Press Moulded Bottle:
A press moulded rectangular bottle by Shoji Hamada. Decorated in typical fashion with Hamada’s distinctive brush work.

Teabowls by Shoji Hamada

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Take, for instance, eating and apple. The primitives took it right off the tree and ate it, skin, seeds, and all. But today we seem to think that peeling it looks better, and then we cut it up and stew it and make a jam of it and prepare it in all kinds of ways. In preparing the apple, quite often we commit many errors on the way. But in just taking it off the tree and eating the whole thing, there are no mistakes to be made”.

– Shoji Hamada

Watch a little bit about what he means below:

For a more comprehensive video of Hamada in action:

Shoji Hamada: A Potter’s Way and Work VHS

 

 

Every time I take a substantial break from pottery, and then come to my senses. I have a great deal of trouble centreing the clay on the wheel when I get back into it. This is the situation I am facing right now. Some mounds go into the middle, some don’t. This is something that historically corrects itself over a couple of sessions, but is especially good for the ego, as one can hear it chime “aha, so you are not as good as you thought you were”.

Despite these teething problems I was still keen to try “throwing off the mound” for the first time. What a great technique. Clearly it would save time and perhaps even clean the potter’s canvas even more, pun intended. After a couple of lumps attempting this, I found it practically impossible to keep the bottom of the mound and the top centred at the same time. It was like trying to control a push me pull you. I just couldn’t get it to work together, even after ten minutes of coning and nudging. It seems to require skill and a touch that I don’t have. Inshallah it will come with some more practice, and a serious review of the basics.

For some inspiration I turned to Michael Cardew who shows us how to “throw off the hump”. He really does make it look easy. The commentary is interesting as well.

Thanks to samkellystudio for posting this video of Cardew demonstrating.

 

Recently my uncle asked whether I could help do a couple of pottery sessions with some elderly Bangladeshi folk in the community. I had only been around for six months and had no equipment to offer. He was chasing a hunch in that I had made him a pot while I was in Japan and had presented it to him on my arrival in London. To cut a long story short, his organisation has funding for such an experimental community project, which means…

He decided we needed a wheel to demonstrate some throwing technique to the elders as a way of inspiring them and perhaps giving them a go. The wheel we chose: A Discus Compact.

I was excited to test this little gem (I tend to believe most advertising), but slightly cynical as well. It came, I got it muddy, and…..wow. For people like me with little space, it is the ultimate throwing machine. It has high torque even at low speed and very quiet. Place it on a level surface and it remains stable. Little difference can be felt when throwing small pieces.

For those who might consider purchasing one, the foot pedal would make it feel more like a proper sit-down wheel, but is ultimately unnessessary as the hand dial works fine. I’m not an expert, but this little wheel really will surprise you. I haven’t tried to throw a large lump of clay on it yet. But I am told it will be fine.