It has been nearly two years since a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit northern Japan. After the disaster, we posted an entry from potter Euan Craig’s blog (Euan the Potter) documenting how his family and his pottery were impacted.
Euan and his family made the difficult decision to relocate and start over. In today’s post, an excerpt from his Studio Visit article in the March 2013 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Euan gives us an update from his new studio in Minakami, Japan. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
As I throw pots on the wooden kick wheel in the soft winter light, there is only a paper thickness between my home, just on the other side of the shoji screens, and the studio. In the summer, when the screens are open, there is no separation between home and studio at all. While our four children are at school during the day it is quiet, just the susurration of kettles on the wood stove or the irori (sunken hearth) charcoal brazier, the trundle of the wheel on its bearing, the pat of my bare foot on the wooden fly wheel or the slap of my hands on the clay. This wheel is the pivot around which my studio revolves, and it was the first and most important step in re-establishing my studio after the great earthquake and nuclear disaster of 2011.
It is only a year since we moved into this house. Less than two years since the great East Japan earthquake severely damaged my home and kiln and we evacuated from Mashiko in the face of the nuclear disaster that followed. Minakami is my wife’s home town, in the top corner of Gunma prefecture, 180 kilometers northwest and about an hour and a half from Tokyo by bullet train, then taxi. There are many artisans and crafts people in this village, Takumi no Sato (Village of Skills), but only one other potter. For nearly a year, we took refuge with my wife’s relatives while I commuted weekly between a borrowed kiln and studio in Nagano, to clay and materials in Mashiko, and back here; a round trip of 500 kilometers. I had lived in the Mashiko area for over 20 years, and leaving was a very difficult decision. Financially speaking, it would have been wiser to remain there, where I had an established market and reputation, in a community of 400 potteries with dozens of shops and galleries. The welfare of my family, however, always takes precedence over my work, and it is more important to live a good life than to make a good living.
The disaster forced me to start from scratch; to reassess my work ethic and rebuild on a clean slate. It was reassuring, in a sense, to find that those qualities that I had deemed important throughout my career were still valid in the face of disaster; that the simple beauty of functional pottery has the power to nourish and give strength to the human spirit, even in the most dire of times. It was that belief that led me to come to Mashiko in 1990, after potting in Australia for twelve years, in order to learn more about the Mingei movement. If there is one lesson I learned from my apprenticeship with the National Living Treasure, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, it is this; the beauty of an object springs from the beauty of the process by which it was created.
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I planned a new studio that would be off the grid, using traditional wisdom and selected technology; to be safe, healthy, environmentally responsible, and beautiful. I began by searching for a second-hand kick wheel in Mashiko. When Tomoo Hamada heard about this, he gave me an old kick wheel that had been left over when they moved to the new studio after his grandfather, Shoji, passed away and the original studio was made into a museum. We de-rusted the bearing and restored the wheel to its original state. It is this wheel on which I now throw, a part of Mashiko that has come with me.
When relatives offered to sell us this farm house, I knew it was right for us. It is huge, and despite the general state of disrepair, the iron roof was sound and the traditional construction was solid and designed to flex in an earthquake. With the help of friends, we replaced much of the rotten floor, insulated, cleaned, and repaired enough to move in before winter. We laid reinforced concrete foundations for a new kiln shed, designed to carry the 7 tons of a wood kiln. During the snowy months, we worked in the studio space, cutting the joints for the kiln-shed frame in recycled timber, and come spring we raised the shed, though it is just a roof yet, and needs walls before the worst of this winter sets in. By summer we had built the new kiln, reusing the old bricks, redesigned to withstand an earthquake of the magnitude of 3.11. The chimney is interlocked with the kiln wall to reduce sway, a more compact construction, with an angle-iron frame bolted firmly to the concrete foundation. It is imperative for me to ensure the absolute safety of my functional vessels, so the last hurdle was to have our firewood tested and proven free of radioactive materials. We were back in business.
Half of the studio is a dark wooden floor, the throwing deck a raised section along the back wall that houses three wheel wells for kick wheels, a lower deck with space for two electric wheels, and a general purpose area that has the staircase to the loft and the irori set into the floor. I imagine a time when there will be deshi (apprentices) or shokunin (artisans), guest potters, or even heirs to use these wheels, but for the moment it is just me.
The other half of the studio is an earth floor, which maintains a constant humidity in the studio and prevents dust. There are alcoves that used to be stables along the wall; one holds bamboo drying shelves and a manual slab roller, the other contains a concrete wedging table on a stone foundation and clay storage against the damp-room wall. The double-door damp room (say that three times fast!) was originally built for raising silk worms, and has adjustable bamboo shelving and vents perfect for controlling the drying of my work. It is large enough to hold one full kiln load of pots. I fire my work with wood in a 1-cubic-meter “Euan-gama” fast-fire kiln. With an analog pyrometer in the kiln now, I can make my work without using any electricity or fossil fuels at all. Behind the house is a stone well that provides fresh clean water for the studio all year round.
After a two-year gap, on November 23rd, 2012, I had my first solo exhibition of work from the new kiln, at the Ebiya Gallery in Nihombashi, Tokyo. This has been my main annual exhibition since 1993, and solo exhibitions like this form at least half of my annual income. The other half is divided equally between wholesale to galleries and restaurants, and direct-to-the-public sales at the Mashiko pottery festival or through our own gallery space. We have yet to establish a dedicated gallery space here, though we have an interim display of recent work on antique chests of drawers on the back half of the throwing deck. A proper gallery or showroom will happen sometime down the line, along with the repair and restoration of the rest of the house.
For the rest of this article, see the March 2013 issue of Ceramics Monthly.
Euan Craig is an Australian-born potter living and working in Minakami, Japan. Check out his blog at http://euancraig.blogspot.com.