The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
Japanese Americana is the nickname for a prevailing micro-fashion trend. Creatives in the fashion industry are importing vintage American fabric and designs from the US and incorporating them into stylish clothing manufactured in Japan, then shipping the finished apparel back to the US to sell in trendy stores in SoHo or online.1 This clothing appeals to a young hipster American audience of varied identities, many of whom have some connection or attachment to Japanese and American culture. Is this cultural appropriation? I do not believe so. According to Nadra Kareem Nittle, “Cultural appropriation is the adoption of certain elements from another culture without the consent of people who belong to that culture.”2 The concept of cultural appropriation implies that there is a perpetuation of offensive stereotypes or purposeful exploitation for the benefit of a dominant cultural group. In contrast, Japanese Americana is evidence of a present-day globally accessible culture.
Perhaps for the fashion-conscious audience, Japanese Americana retrofit jackets and jeans are simply cool. We can speculate that this clothing speaks to individuals from diverse backgrounds and envelopes those who wear it with an affirmation of blended identity. For now, let’s assume that blended culture is a given in our world and that acculturation, which is multi-directional, is not cultural appropriation. Underlying this issue is the question, “Whose culture is it anyway?” While I do not have a definitive answer to that question, I would suggest that culture “belongs” to those who participate in creating, forming, nurturing, and sustaining it. What happens if we shift this lens from fashion to ceramic culture, and specifically chawan, a Japanese teabowl? Historically, the aesthetic of Japanese teabowls emerged from the interaction of tea ceremony practitioners and potters. Today, American chawan has found a place of belonging within contemporary ceramics that acknowledges the reality of blended culture. The work and life story of Willi Singleton exemplifies the creation of American chawan.
An Active Maker
Willi Singleton began making pottery by hand approximately forty years ago. He exhibits internationally; teaches part-time as a faculty member in ceramics at Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pennsylvania; and leads occasional workshops and demonstrations. His home and studio are in Kempton, Pennsylvania, on the outskirts of Hawk Mountain.
Singleton’s process of making pottery is heavily influenced by ancient ceramic technologies from Japan. He uses a wooden kickwheel to throw and trim his forms. He also uses a Noborigama wood-fueled kiln to fire his pottery. The clay bodies, glazes, and slips are comprised of locally sourced raw materials. These are all important choices Singleton has made and continues to make deliberately.3 Over time, he has created a place for “blended ware” that integrates old and new, and the East and West authentically. Singleton’s blended ware emerges from his connectedness to lived experience, a personal passion for place-based pottery, and through engagement and learning from the perspectives of others.4
Originally, Singleton had no clear intention of becoming a potter. One day when he was in college, one of his parent’s friends, a businessman named Bud, saw a batch of pottery the young Singleton was making and said, “You know Willi, you could really develop a market for that stuff.” He had never entertained the idea of eking out a living as a potter. That one brief statement lit a spark. Inspired, Singleton traveled to Japan after college and lived there for several years to learn and study pottery. He learned to speak Japanese fluently and apprenticed with potters in Tamba and Mashiko. He started on a path that has become a life-long journey. At present, he makes utilitarian ceramic ware at his home studio, firing the climbing-hill kiln about twice a year. However, I would like to suggest that we expand our understanding of his pottery making as being guided and informed by the communities to which he belongs. In this context, making pottery, even if authored by an individual, is not an isolated task, it is a communal one.
Communal Pottery Making
In introducing the notion of shared pottery making, I want to be clear I am not talking about making pottery in a community clay center where people share materials or tasks, work collaboratively to maintain the studio, or even sit adjacent to one another while they build or maintain their skills or pursue their artistic creative visions. When speaking of shared pottery making, I am, in one sense, referring to how Singleton communes with clay. The ritual begins when he prepares his unprocessed clay bodies, which are literally dug out of the ground from the creek bed in his yard, a local clay deposit, or a regional clay mine. He listens and attunes himself to the qualities and characteristics of the clay, which manifest as pieces thrown on the wheel.
In throwing teabowls (Matcha-jawan), he works spontaneously using the least amount of touch possible, keeping the energy and vitality of the throwing immediate and direct. As he presses against the clay, the clay presses back creating a moment of contact improvisation. Not wanting to overwork or fuss over the pieces, he lets what has become just be. Making teabowls for Singleton is similar to making calligraphic art. There is the stroke, the gesture, and then that’s it. He minimizes trimming. He works collaboratively with the vicissitudes of each season’s clay body—a tactile and dynamic earth partner in the pottery-making process. And, the truth is, not all pieces work. He may keep one dozen teabowls after having thrown one hundred on the wheel. The unsatisfying pieces get reclaimed and never make it to the kiln.
This leads me to wonder, “What makes a teabowl (chawan) worth keeping from inception to finished product?” According to Singleton, there are three pivotal aspects to a teabowl: the way it feels, the way it looks, and the way it performs or fits within the context of a tea ceremony. This requires Singleton to have an adroit touch or feel for form. By holding a teabowl in his hands, he can assess the surface texture, weight, and volume of a teabowl. He also needs a keen eye for detail as he examines the nuances and subtleties of the teabowl’s visual appearance. I find it interesting that Singleton is an unabashed non-specialist when it comes to the tea ceremony. He is not a regular practitioner or devotee of the Japanese tea ceremony. However, returning to the notion of making pottery as a shared practice, he has received invaluable guidance, coaching, and feedback from Urasenke tea ceremony teachers and serious practitioners from Philadelphia, New Mexico, and Washington, DC.
Singleton sustains an ongoing dialog with them and is responsive to their suggestions. They provide specific details about the visual and tactile aesthetic properties of the teabowls, which are desirable and sought after for their tea ceremony practice. When Singleton sits down to throw or trim, or stands to glaze and fire his teabowls, these collective understandings, developed in conversation with others in a community, contribute to his choices. Eventually, the most important choice is deciding which teabowl to keep and share by making it available to interested collectors.
Listening to the Earth
It would be misleading to think that Singleton focuses exclusively on making teabowls (Matcha-jawan). He is interested in making a variety of vessels including jars, vases, bottles, lidded forms, bowls, and platters, which are evident in his expansive portfolio. Many, but not all, of his pieces reference classical East Asian forms, which speaks to his early apprenticeships where he was immersed in Japanese ceramic culture firsthand. I find his altered forms intriguing. Quite often his altered forms are round jars that have been flattened slightly so they may appear to have a front and back. Historically, flattening the sides of water jugs may have been an adaptation for ceramic vessels carried by horses. Today, altered forms may serve to capture a viewer’s attention and invite them to explore the surface more closely while contemplating the bilateral design of the human body. Given Singleton’s strong commitment to a philosophy wherein his pottery embodies place,5 I suspect that viewing an altered form for him is much like watching a tree blow in the wind or listening to the sounds of the brook bubbling at midday. Do not overthink it. Be with it.
This “being with” while maintaining respect, regard, and reverence—starting with listening to the earth and others—may be what Singleton’s pottery offers everyone, regardless of where they come from. This is a human value transmitted through the finished work. Some may raise the question of whether you need to be an informed viewer to appreciate Singletons’ pottery. I am not sure. I trust that his pottery appeals to people in diverse ways, depending on how their perceptions are filtered by their range of experience and knowledge. For now, I encourage you to look at the work and decide if it speaks to you. My guess is that bringing a piece into your home would probably be the best way to develop an understanding relationship with him and his work.
the author Andrew Buck, EdD, is an artist and arts writer who enjoys contributing to Ceramics Monthly. To learn more, please visit andrew-buck.net.
1 Kapital Clothing, https://www.kapital.jp/ and https://www.grailed.com/drycleanonly/what-is-japanese-americana (Accessed from the web February 16, 2023).
2 Nadra Kareem Nittle. “A Guide to Understanding and Avoiding Cultural Appropriation,” https://www.thoughtco.com/cultural-appropriation-and-why-iits-wrong-2834561 (Updated on February 04, 2021).
3 Jacqueline Ruyak, “Willi Singleton: Pots from a Quiet Place,” Ceramics: Art & Perception, 51 (2003): 42-46.
4 Willi Singleton, “Ash Glaze as Ceramic Terroir,” The Log Book - International Journal of Wood-firing No.45 (2011): 10-14.
5 Andrew Buck, “Form as Embodied Place: The Pottery of Willi Singleton,” Ceramics: Art+Perception (in press).