My studio is spread across three buildings that are adjacent to our main residence. The house is about 160 years old, with dirt walls, huge wooden beams and posts, and a thatch roof covered in copper. In the first studio building I have a 105-square-foot forming/carving room immediately adjacent to a clay prep/drying room (also 105 square feet).
Here I throw, alter the forms, rough trim when the clay is soft leather hard, finish-trim at close to bone dry, clean up the formed surfaces, and then carve patterns. Having a separate space for these raw-clay processes greatly aids in the essential task of keeping the porcelain clean. Quality standards are high in Japan, so all flaws must be avoided. I restrict access to the studio where I work on porcelain forms to avoid contamination from iron or other impurities that can be tracked in.
It’s only a short distance from my studio through a covered open-air space (335 square feet) to my kiln room (240 square feet) in an old cement-block garage, which is across from a 180-square-foot multipurpose room and my glaze prep room (120 square feet). The multipurpose room (mainly for glazing and stoneware production) and glaze prep room are in a new building that I helped design so that the rooms can be easily cleaned with a hose. I can clean this room well enough in 20 minutes to switch between stoneware throwing and porcelain glazing without worrying about contaminating the glazes. This allows me to throw stoneware or do just about anything else in the same room. Also in this room, there is a large clay pit in the floor (it’s good for storing red wines as well).
Several other spaces have more specific purposes. I use the open-air space mainly for dirty jobs, like washing ash (which I use in stoneware glazes for tea ware) and spraying glazes onto larger pieces. I also have packing and storage rooms on the second floor of the new building and a display room in yet another building.
My favorite aspect of the studio is the forming/carving room because it is cool and quiet almost all of the time. In the winter, it heats very quickly. It was built with traditional Japanese construction methods, which means thick dirt (literally) walls that function ideally as insulation and sound proofing. (I did have to seal them with gallons of sealer to keep the dirt out of the clay; it was a lot like painting walls made of sponge.)
When we moved to our current location, I had to improvise with the existing structures. It was a joy when we built the new building because I could draw on the many studios I have seen and experienced over the years to make a sensible workspace. I now save a lot of time in cleaning and packing, as well as in signing and preparing the boxes that most of my pieces are delivered in. Having work surfaces that are the correct height has saved a lot of back pain over the years.
I’m very conscious of environmental conservation, so all my work rooms are well insulated. I use only space heaters so unused areas are not heated, and I do not have any hot water in the studio (you get used to it). Also, I use our own well water for any water-intensive tasks.
I had an apprentice for three years, but I realized I work in ceramics because I like doing all of it, so there was often not much work for the apprentice to do. He was very helpful when it came to tasks like packing, box preparations, etc.
Paying Dues (and Bills)
I was trained in art at Graceland University in Southern Iowa and retrained at the ceramics school of the Tekisui Museum in Japan to learn the different methods, materials, and concepts of Japanese ceramics. I met the tea master that I still study under at the Tekisui Museum, and the 30+ years I have studied the tea ceremony are vital to the work I do.
For the past 30 years, I have worked full time in both ceramics and technical translation of Japanese to English. The ability to do most of the translation work at home allowed me to baby-sit drying pots or even fire kilns while working on the computer. I would split my time about half and half, but the split over any given period was variable. Unfortunately, as I approach 60, I’m finding that working 300-hour months is not as much fun, so I am currently in the process of retiring from translation. Hopefully this will allow me to achieve some of my remaining ceramics goals over the next 20 years or so. I doubt if the 300-hour months will actually change much, but I’ll be doing the work that I love.
I lived in New Zealand for over three years, and it was a growing period for me. I was influenced by just about every potter I met, and there are a lot of potters in New Zealand. Particularly Len Castle and Doris Dutch come to mind.
In New Zealand, I moved repeatedly, improvising studios as I went. Sometimes I borrowed space in a corner of a potter’s studio or built makeshift shelves in a vacant building. I even claimed an unused corner in a storage room at the Dunedin School of Art in the Otago Polytechnic where I taught for a while. I shiver thinking back on some of the environments that I worked in, wondering how on earth I kept the porcelain clean. If nothing else, all of those studios taught me how to improvise (and that you can improvise when necessary), and what to not do when I finally got my own studio some 10 years after I first started in ceramics. (I had already made most of the studio mistakes.)
Research and Inspiration
My inspiration comes from the Japanese Kogei Association, the tea ceremony, and the mountains that surround our home. Kogei is the traditional word for all of the traditional arts and crafts in Japan, and this association allows me to socialize with and be educated by all sorts of craft artists in lacquer, weaving, metalwork, etc., in addition to potters. Most of my reading/studying time is related to the tea ceremony and I spend a great deal of time helping and putting on tea ceremonies, particularly in the spring and fall.
I recharge by walking in the mountains, running, or weight lifting. They not only re-energize me, but my body is by far the most important tool that I have, and I would no more let it get out of shape than I would let my pottery wheels rust for lack of attention.
I am represented by several of the Mitsukoshi Department Stores in Japan, where I do solo shows, and am represented by Onishi Gallery in New York City. I also belong to and show with three ceramics/craft associations in Japan. My work was often purchased by either collectors or tea people, but the art/craft business and the tea world in Japan are currently changing radically, and it’s hard to tell where things will end up.
With my translation work, I did not have the need to sell ceramics per se and concentrated more on quality and juried exhibitions, so marketing is an area I need to develop more in the near future, including marketing online. With so much high-quality, mass-produced ceramics in Japan, however, marketing becomes a special challenge.
Local Environment and Tea Ceremonies
We live in a rural environment, but we are only about an hour’s train ride from the city of Osaka. We are also in a tourist area and have good access from the entire Kansai area. We are very close to Tachikui, one of the six old kiln sites of Japan, as well as to the Hyogo Ceramic Art Museum.
Combined with the ambiance of our old residence, it is the perfect environment for making ceramics or for putting on a tea ceremony. I use a lot of the pieces I make to serve tea, which gives me an idea of how well they function, including in terms of relative sizes. We do tea ceremonies throughout the year, including a major one for around 200 people every spring. It’s a learning and social event rather than a business event, but it does provide good general PR, as well as a chance to get firsthand feedback on the tea pieces that I make. And, with the tea ceremony being repeated every spring, it forces me to think ahead and develop my work so that my guests do not end up using the same types of pieces every year.
Most Important Lesson
The most important lesson I’ve learned, I learned far too late. I love to make just about anything and everything, but I now realize how important it is to develop and market an easily identifiable body of work. I still have to fight the urge to go off on a tangent.