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.
Shiho Kanzaki describes his philosophy of life, living and pottery making.
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...
revealing 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
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
What sorts of ceramic works move you? Which ones touch your spirit? And why
do you think that some pots move you more than others?
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...
to 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
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.
I asked Kanzaki how he measures success in the works he makes.
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... their 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.
How does your ceramic work change and grow over the years? Do you
intentionally try to make it grow, or are you responding to what happens in
I have already told you how I believe our thoughts and spirits change and
grow as we go through life... and 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.
How important is it to add to the tradition as opposed to simply continuing
to make work which is in line with the Shigaraki tradition?
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
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
I asked Shiho Kanzaki who are the contemporary potters whose work he admires,
what it is he likes about their work and why it is that their work appeals to
him more than the work of other contemporary potters?
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.
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.