Ceramics Monthly: Can you describe the significant influence of a non-ceramic artist on your studio practice?
Dick Lehman: Almost three decades ago, while traveling in Japan with Georgia Liechty, we had a chance meeting with a family friend of hers. His name is Mr. Jyotaro Inoue. This unexpected introduction led, ultimately, to a decades-long and singularly positive influence on my life and work.
Within moments of meeting, and after he learned that we had studio appointments in Tokoname, he told us that he would take us instead, and that we must change our travel plans. After repeatedly declining, we thought it resolved, but somehow, days later, he tracked us down at a youth hostel, and a late night phone call informed us that his wife, Sei, would meet us at the train station the very next morning for our trip to Tokoname.
Inoue, who worked in electrical energy, must have called in some very large favors, because we spent the day visiting with one of the most famous and influential ceramic art critics of his day, Yoshiharu Sawada. Sawada directed the Tokoname Ceramic Institute, and he quite literally wrote the book on Tokoname ceramics for Kodansha Press.
More importantly, Sawada was a king maker (AKA Ningen-Kokuho-maker or Living National Treasure-maker). He took us to historic kiln sites, museums, restaurants, and we visited several potters whom he was grooming to achieve, and one of whom attained, Living National Treasure status.
After returning home, it took me some time to understand the significance of that exceptional and unrepeatable day. My plans had been abruptly changed, my appointments cancelled; but I’d been gifted, instead, with an opportunity beyond any I could have imagined.
Then to my surprise, the long-distance relationship with Inoue continued over the decades, the gifting of a library of resources (70+ books, catalogs, and texts); meetings in Indianapolis, Chicago, Shigaraki, and Nagoya; visits to the studios of past, current, and future Ningen Kokuho—all with a view toward encouraging my ceramic career.
And letters, dozens and dozens of letters, each ending with a gentle and nurturing refrain: “Work harder. Try for more simple form. Simple is the best.”
CM: Is there anything about this relationship that left you with questions you were able to address to Inoue?
DL: During this quarter century, I have carried an increasingly urgent question: Why? Why had Inoue continued the generous friendship across cultures, languages, and decades?
The last time I visited Inoue in Japan, I invited my bilingual friend Minoru Shiino with me to help me ask my questions of Inoue in Japanese. After a long pause, he breathed a single-word answer, in English, “Gentleness.”
I’m left with the gift of this one word and the rest of my life to ponder his meaning.
Thanks to Minoru Shiino for interpreting assistance. Thanks to Akifumi Shiino for translation assistance.