Saturday, July 28, 2007

a beautiful result

The Olsen kiln firing was a terrific success. Our experiments worked, and Ryoji said it was the best firing ever to come out of the Olsen kiln. There was a TV crew on hand to film the unloading, and we are all thrilled. Here are a couple of pictures from the site-- my work top pic, bottom pic from inside the kiln:

i like fire

We are still waiting on our baby, the Olsen kiln, to cool down enough to crack open tomorrow and pull our work and see if our little experiment of blowing in ash on one side and sawdust on the other worked to create more beautiful surfaces. Every evening, after dinner, certain members of our tribe have been taking the walk up past the apple orchard to visit the kiln, drink some sake, and pray a little

I just can’t wait to see what comes out. We are all hopeful but also prepared for disasters. We had a meeting last night to discuss improvements for future programs. My suggestion was that there be room for one more firing for those of us who didn’t get enough. I’ve discovered that I like fire. I like the rawness of the firings, the different personalities of the kilns, and attempting to control the heat. Three firings just isn’t enough. I feel like I’ve met a new lover but I’ve only been allowed a couple of dates. I’m a demanding girl so I want more, more more!

By the way, it was my birthday yesterday on July 27. I had one of the most fabulous birthdays ever. I was given lots of small gifts from my friends, and best of all, a group photo of all of us together with notes that everyone wrote to me. And there were birthday songs and other small gifts throughout the day. I was on the verge of tears to receive so much. I feel a deep affection and love for the people here, all so different yet so lovable, just like my friends back home. I can’t believe I will be leaving in a few days and some of them I will never see again. This program that happens here in Kanayama is amazing, but the people who I’ve met here make it magical. I have to stop typing now because I feel tears coming again.

Monday, July 23, 2007

final firing

We are in the middle of firing our last kiln, the Olsen kiln. There are only 6 of this type of Olsen kilns in the world, and they are tricky things to fire. For those of you who like to geek out on kilns, I refer you to this site where you can read all about it. This kiln was built a couple of years ago and has been fired a few times, and results have been boring. Brown, brown, and if you don’t like brown—well, still more brown.

We had several hours of group discussion on how to change the results: How to load the work in, should we build walls inside, should we blow in sawdust or ash or both, how to adjust the airflow… The airflow element is fascinating because this kiln has 4 chimneys, three in the back and one on the side, across from two stoking chambers. It’s referred to as the three queens and a king. At one point in the discussion I wrote a note to Kristin, “Are we in a senior seminar?” Then we both straightened up when we realized at the same moment that yes indeed, we are.

It took 8 hours to load the Olsen kiln, and we’ve been babying it along, raising the temperature very slowly to protect the big work that will only fit in this kiln. I’ve worked two shifts and at some point I started to feel very connected to this kiln. I loved stoking the different sides and observing their differences: how the anagama side would shoot the temperature up like a hot-headed teenager, how the groundhog side would shower beautiful sparks when I dropped the wood in, like little fire butterflies. My shift was done at 8 PM but I went back out there after midnight last night and hung out till almost 4 AM, I really did not want to leave. The kiln was getting hotter, some of my arm hair got burned off, and we just kept feeding our baby wood. By now we were off the smaller pieces and on to the big square chunks, and the kiln just ate it up. It really is starting to seem like a person.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

more beautiful disasters

I’ve written before about the importance of letting go as a general philosophy. This philosophy is imperative if you are a ceramic artist, working with a material that breaks, cracks, explodes, sticks to the kiln shelf, and the hundreds if other things that can go wrong when you work with clay. I slaved over this butterfly piece, one of the handbuilt pieces I made during my break from the wheel. In the process I got very attached. I got so attached that after I finished it and dried it very slowly, nursing it like a little baby, I decided to take a picture of it before I put it in the Olsen kiln, our final firing as a group. I thought it needed a beautiful natural background so I picked it up to take it to the proper place. I still don’t know what happened, I think I was holding it in the middle and the wings were too heavy, and it fell apart in my hands. Everyone was so upset because they knew I spent a whole day making it and a half day beautifying it, and there was a tense moment as my studio mates watched to see what would happen next. I just shrugged and said, “I’ll make another, and it’ll be better, not so damn heavy”. Well, you know I didn't say "damn", but another word... Anyway, tension released. The work that has gotten destroyed around here could break anyone’s heart: two of Park’s effortless teapots shattered during a clumsy moment, Madhur’s sculpted ram lost his horns, Hwang’s life-size table developed a crack during drying, a collapsed composite vase, and a half dozen other things that went awry at some point. No one cries, no one complains. It’s clay, and you just make another.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

one master leaves

Our time is running out here at Kanayama, and certain members of our program have duties to return to at home. Today we are celebrating with Park Kook-Hyun, as he prepares to return to Korea early tomorrow morning. Park-san is one of the top three Unggi masters in Korea, and it has been an amazing honor to work in the same room with him. He has also provided all of us with more laughter than we could have possibly imagined with his frat boy sense of humor, his “mushroom" pots, and perpetual drinking of soju throughout the day. Park is also a very kind person, always ready to share his "Korean water", clay technique, and dirty jokes. We’ll miss you Park-san!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

4 am

The sun is rising, birds are singing, and the kilns are burning.

This is a special kiln that Ryoji designed specifically for creating consistent wood ash effects called a Hai Kaburi. There was a detailed article written about it in the June/July 2006 Ceramics Monthly for those of you interested. This baby eats wood like the monster it is; once it reaches temperature you stoke it for 24 hours straight firing at 1250 degrees Celsius. Below is a picture of Ryoji bringing reinforcements-- this is one of three pallets of wood we burned. When you stoke, the fire is leaping out at you and the heat is incredible. Stoking happens about every 8-12 minutes, and you need that downtime just to make sure you didn't catch on fire anywhere. I was feeling pretty dang studly when my shift ended at 8 am this morning, just in time to feel some aftershocks from the earthquake.

Monday, July 16, 2007

breaking the rules

I don’t have a lot of rules in my studio, but one I do have is I never drink alcohol while I make work. Occasionally I’ll have a beer on a Friday afternoon while I’m cleaning, but that’s it. Looks like in Japan my rules are made to be broken.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

pot off!

When you have a group of potters in the house, a little competiton is called for. We had a pot off on Sunday with two categories of competition: who could throw the most cups in 15 minutes, and who could throw the tallest form in 10 minutes. Ryoji and Park were the most formidable and were therefore given handicaps—Park threw on a kick wheel and Ryoji threw on his first wheel. He built it himself and there are only 30 revolutions per minute. The sad thing is, he still beat us all.

time to expand

Being a ceramic artist puts you in a community where when you meet another potter, you have an instant connection because you understand all the heartache and difficulty-and the joy and accomplishment-that goes into creating work. So much can go wrong at every stage of creation. I think it's probably like parenthood, how parents understand each other in a way that non-parents cannot.

Participating in this residency has put me in a wider world community of potters, and even though we have some language barriers, we all come in with a certain understanding of one another and there is communication despite lack of language comprehension. It reminds me of when I first started going to Grateful Dead concerts as a teenager. I got hooked on going to shows because I felt like I was in a community of people who were interested in living life in the way I wanted to live it too. That was the first time I ever felt that feeling of love and support from strangers and I continue to find it in my clay community

And like following the Grateful Dead, you can also tour around the globe, hooking up with residency programs and visiting with the potters you meet there in their home countries. There is a whole other ceramic scene out there, and now I know this is only the first time I will be traveling the world for my work. And at the same time I can indulge my other passion: experiencing different cultures.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

get off the wheel!

My greatest creative passion in life is throwing on the wheel. For me it’s fun, it’s easy, and I can make stuff quickly, which suits my impatient and snappy nature. When I arrived in Japan, the first thing I did was start throwing on the wheel, but I wasn’t making anything that excited me. So I threw a bunch of the local porcelain, the shortest porcelain I’ve ever thrown. But I conquered it after a few hours and didn’t know what to do after that. I’m obsessed with nesting bowls and I’ve always wanted to find the time to do a nesting set of 18, so I figured I would work on that. Did that… bored with myself again. Then I thought I would assign myself a task; no more throwing for a week, only handbuilding. I have never gotten into handbuilding. The last time I handbuilt anything was back when I first took a pottery class and had to take the handbuilding before I took the throwing class. I barely scraped by with a “C”. And I handbuilt the leaf platter but that was a nightmare for me.

So, I rolled some slabs on Ryoji’s electric slab roller; so great cause I can drink coffee while my slabs roll out. I made an awful box, but I had fun. Then I made a few lily pads, kind of falling back into old habits, but at least they were not thrown. Then I made this vase you see here, and I think I love it. And I think I love handbuilding too!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

where am I?

People want to know where I am exactly in Japan. I’m staying in the very small town of Kanayama, located just outside Goshogawara City in the northern province of Aomori. Aomori is highlighted here on the map. We are not far from the Sea of Japan, about a 30 minute drive away. Kanayama is in the countryside, and apple orchards along with rice are the major agricultural products. Everywhere you look there are apple orchards, and each apple is wrapped in a little bag for protection-- talk about labor intensive farming! Goshagawara City is minutes away by car, and about 15 minutes by bicycle. Goshagawara is not particularly charming, akin perhaps to Bakersfield, California (no offense to people on Bakersfield) and there are all the modern conveniences that you would find in any large city. But I must say that Kanayama is magical, and I am so happy to be here.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

kiln on fire

This is a picture of our first kiln firing. The kiln fires for a 36 hour cycle, and it must be continually stoked, which means someone has to be there at all times to feed wood to the kiln every minute or two. My stoking shift was with Madhur (of New Delhi) and Kim (of Seoul). We had a very difficult shift because we were at a point where the kiln was almost at the final firing temperature. It is so difficult to get the rhythm down of feeding the kiln at the right moment—too much wood and you pull the temperature down, too little and the same happens. We had it going for a while, then a party showed up bearing sake and we lost 20 degrees Celsius in the ensuing commotion. It took almost an hour to get back to where we were. It was a wonderful and new experience for me though. At my studio I just press a button and the kiln fires. I’ve never felt so in touch with a firing before. We’ll see on Sunday what comes out!

Monday, July 09, 2007

first firing

Today we loaded our first kiln. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen as everyone participated in bringing in the work, stacking the shelves, prepping posts, making wadding… I got in there with Nick to load the last shelves, and he is a pro at tumble stacking. After the door was sealed all of us gathered for a ceremonial prayer which included pouring some sake out on the kiln, throwing some salt around, two claps all together, and then our heads lowered as we prayed to the kiln gods. We’ll be firing over the next two days with everyone working shifts throughout the day and night. This is my first wood firing ever so I am anxious to see what comes out!

Sunday, July 08, 2007

craft show

This weekend is my favorite show of the year, the Palo Alto Clay and Glass Festival in California. While my sister, Brena, ran my booth at Palo Alto, we were at a craft fair in Japan. As tourists and buyers, that is! There are really no differences between an American craft show and a Japanese one. There is some beautiful work, some clever and unusual design, interspersed with some serious crap. I felt right at home. I was really only interested in the pottery, and there were a lot of ceramic artists there with their work.

I was captured by several artists, and I was so aware as I picked up their work and checked it out how they must be feeling. There were a lot of people at the show, but not a lot of people carrying shoppping bags, and sales seemed a bit on the slow side.

I bought several things. Two beautiful pieces of porcelain work from a woman named Takahashi Masako. You can see Royoji posing with the pieces here. He thought I was crazy buying pottery when I can just make it myself! Like at a craft show in America, people were saying how expensive everything was. I thought differently; I thought the prices were very reasonable. The delicate porcelain platter I bought with a beautiful and subtle decoration was only $40, and a matching cup with little pointy feet for $16. From another woman I bought what I would describe as an altar piece. It looks to me like a little fort or a hut that a tribe in a remote desert might live in. The artist who created the piece is pictured at the top. It was $20. Her business cards were all written by hand on a little piece of paper, it was a tiny work of art in itself.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

unloading a kiln

Everything in these kilns? Sold already!

one minute

Our wonderful host, Riyoji, is a master potter. Late at night, after he is done running his small empire and making sure the needs of all his guest artists are met, he throws pots. Tonight myself and a few other resident artists were privileged to watch him throw plates while he also answered our questions with humor and good nature. His studio is always filled with laughter, and intense concentration. Riyoji threw each platter in one minute. My camera could barely keep up.

Friday, July 06, 2007

first days

I am living in unimaginable luxury here at Rioji Matsumiya studio/compound with some of the most amazing artists I have ever met. I will post more later about the setup here, but I’ll just share with you now what I have been doing. The first few days… not much. The jetlag was difficult and my brain was not fully operational. I was also coming down off all the stress from the last orders I shipped before leaving the States. I finally made a vase, a very typical vase for me, the cherry blossom branch one you see here. I hated it. It was so boring, but I made it and put it aside. That night, after drinking too much whiskey with my new pals, I went to bed thinking about how much I didn’t like this vase I made. It seemed like a fussy old lady. I laid in bed and couldn’t get to sleep, imagining cutting up this vase into pieces. Finally I realized I could get up and go to the studio (it’s open 24 hours) and cut it up if I wanted to. After all, that’s what I’m here for and I have nothing else to do but stay up all night cutting up vases if that’s my thing! So I went down to the studio, cranked up some Led Zeppelin, and went at the vase with a razor blade. The vase was already to too hard and dry to cut up much, so this is what I did, and I love it now!