Tatsuzo Shimaoka was an interesting role model for me. Until I went to Mashiko I had never worked with a teacher who actually made work in front of me. In Mashiko I was able to work with the workshop craftsmen all day and although each of them was in full possession of well defined skill sets not one of them was the slightest bit interested in discussing what they did everyday.
After 18 months in Mashiko at the pottery I was invited by Mr. Shimaoka to leave the main workshop where I had worked with all of the craftsmen to join him in his private studio as a replacement for a Japanese apprentice that was about to graduate. To this day, it was easily the most complex and difficult year and a half of my life. For the next 18 months I was either trying to stay 3 steps ahead of Shimaoka so that he could continue to make pots through the many interruptions on any given workday or I was simply trying to stay out of his way. It was profound to watch him with such certainty make pot after pot and think through his hands.
Shoji Hamada with his first and most prominent apprentice, Tatsuzo Shimaoka. Both men became designated "Living National Treasure" by the government of Japan
Tastes Shimaoka with his teacher and neighbor Shoji Hamada in Mashiko, Japan
In the studio speaking with an assistant
Mr. Shimaoka was not the easiest person to work for because of his intense focus, high expectations and enormous appetite for hard work. Nonetheless; there was something that I admired very deeply in him. His art was an homage and a walk through the heart of an enormous and rich pan Asian ceramic history. In my opinion It is extraordinarily difficult to add significantly to a rich history in a meaningful way when the measuring stick is so long. He borrowed, rearranged and morphed his way through a lifetime of work towards a ceramic expression which was at the same time, quintessentially Japanese and uniquely his own. I was intreauged by Shimaoka's complexity. While he was Hamada’s first apprentice and sworn to uphold and steward what had become recognized world wide as the Mingei Movement, he was not overly romantic about it. His pots are signed and in many ways they feel of his time and place. He is also a man of restraint and ambition and a man with tremendous pride in his culture and his significant position in it. He understood quite clearly that it was his job to be a very good potter and there was absolutely nothing in his life4 that was more important. He made everything from Tea Ceremony accoutrements to ware for the daily table and even ashtrays (the most beautiful I have seen by the way!). He also possessed a powerful ambition to be relevant and an important cultural standard bearer in his time. He went about conducting himself in life with enough restraint so that his ambition was not in conflict with his humility and dignity. I think it was in part what ultimately made him so successful.
I also found Mr. Shimaoka’s artistic curiosity and breadth of expression exciting. The following is a list of the different types of firing techniques that he employed in finishing his ware: Gas fired, wood oxidation, wood reduction for copper red, wood fired for ash deposits, yohen, charcoal fired, lo-temp. wood-fired overglaze enamels and salt glazed ware, Shigaraki hidaski firing. He borrowed techniques and materials from Shigaraki, Bizen, Okinawa and Korea. He established a set of givens and a set of variables in his work and then freely wove a tapestry of controlled change through those options.
It is also worth mentioning that working on a daily basis for 3 years with the shokunin “skilled craftsmen” at the pottery was an enlightening experience, as they were also interesting models for me. They were all enormously skilled, hard working and proud but also humble in many ways. Each of them grew up in Mashiko, were farmers or the sons of farmers and clearly possessed an intrinsic understanding of their place in the community and the universe for that matter. To watch them everyday was to understand that their clarity in most matters, their mannerisms, values and assorted patterns was handed down to them or informed by the past 5000 years of cultural history on the Island. There was a profound and economic understanding of how things sorted and were meant to be over time. As a young American I lived in no such certain world.
I stayed three years almost to the day. When I returned there was a greater sense of trauma and culture shock then I had experienced in going to Japan. I lived in the countryside north of Tokyo and never returned home during my stay. My hose was simple with no hot running water, no heating or cooling and no flush toilet. There was no phone and this was pre-internet. For 3 years I was only to communicate with friends and family via handwritten letters, which took 2 weeks to cross the pacific.
It seemed both fascinating and cruel to have been away for so long in such a foreign land and then to return by plane so suddenly in 11 hours with no time to decompress. I landed in San Francisco and was immediately struck with sensory overload. For the first time in years I could read everything and simultaneously understand most of everything that was being spoken around me. I was shocked at the variety in human body size, shape, skin & hair color. I took a bus ride down the coast from San Francisco to Monterey and was stunned at the width of the road and size of the cars. The sense of personal space and public space are radically different in Japan & America. I remember going to a large supermarket at home in Monterey after years of shopping in small family owned speciality markets in Mashiko for a daily ration of food and seeing enormous quantities of food, especially up and down the red meat cold case and then making the correlation between the large people roaming the store and the amount of food they had access to. I couldn't unpack my bags for two weeks after returning, I had this curious feeling that I was a Japanese tourist in a strange land and due to go home at any moment. There is much more to this story and my time there. Until I write it, please enjoy the images that were taken during my stay.