Imagine you are a student and you are required to make a large pot using 22 pounds of clay. Now imagine that your instructor demonstrates how to do this once, and then leaves. At Tokyo University of the Fine Arts, also referred to as Geidai, the professors trust that students of all levels will be self-directed, receptive, and willing to share their knowledge with other students.
In today’s post, an excerpt from the May 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly, Geidai graduate student Maggie Connolly presents a snapshot of the intensive, yet self-directed approach the school uses to prepare students for life as ceramic artists. – Jennifer Harnetty, editor.
Student self-reliance; zero reliance on technicians in the studio; and an immense amount of trust from the professors that students at all levels will find their own way form the basis of the education model at Tokyo University of the Fine Arts (commonly referred to as Geidai), where I am currently a doctoral student. Even though we are in a modern university setting, it is easy to see how the traditional apprentice system, known as senpai (upperclassmen) and kohai (underclassmen), has affected the structure of education.
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Shared Studio Space
Undergraduate students enter Geidai under the general Crafts Department, complete general requisite classes during the first year, then, during the first semester of the second year, they rotate every three weeks between the varying crafts, such as ceramics, lacquer, metal casting, etc. At the end of the semester, they select the major they would like to enter, are interviewed by the professors and only then they are formally accepted and begin studying their chosen craft. Graduate and doctoral students share the studio with undergraduates.
At the beginning of the year, students are strategically positioned throughout the studio so that the upperclassmen and underclassmen are evenly dispersed. It is expected that the upperclassmen provide the front line of instruction to the underclassmen. There is something that keeps you very honest when you know you have to show underclassmen a certain technique, and vice versa, when you know those with more experience are keeping an eye on you. In this way, the professors have more time to devote to other tasks and focus on helping the graduating students. At the same time, students gain confidence in their abilities as they help others.
The ceramics department has a material-based approach, with a heavy emphasis on wheel throwing. The idea behind this is that if a student can control something that is outside of their immediate influence—i.e. the spinning of the wheel—then the slab-making and coiling processes will come more intuitively to them. In their second semester, students are given a wheel and instructed to make more than 300 cups and 100 test pieces for stains and glazes. At the end of the semester, no one truly counts if they have reached their 300 cup quota. The hope is that they will be busy the entire semester and gain ability in the basics of wheel throwing as well as a sense of timing that is required with the overall throwing, trimming, and glazing processes. In addition, students receive a one-week plaster press-molding class. When they have met the requirements, they are expected to explore their own direction.
Refining Skills, Choosing Directions
In the third year, undergraduate students continue with wheel throwing, but progress to harder forms, such as tsubo (the traditional Japanese large pot) and large platters in their first semester. When they learn to throw tsubo, the professor gives one example demonstration then leaves. It isn’t too long into the first time a third year tries to center 22 pounds (10 kg) of clay that the doctoral students and master-two students come along, to give one-on-one advice and demonstrations to the students. For the next week or so, it is common to see the Ph.D. students and master-two students gathering around a third-year’s wheel, keenly watching their technique and giving advice.
Third-year students must take a year-long glaze-making class, where they learn the chemistry and physics of glaze development and firing, and a month-long slip-casting class. In the second semester they continue to make progressively harder forms, such as tokuli, the traditional Japanese sake jar form, teapots, and plates, for which they make their own kotte, or wooden ribs.
Beyond their technical practice, the third-year students are in charge of the studio, including its daily cleaning, as well as placing orders for clay and tools for the whole studio. Because the kiln firings are communal, every Thursday we sit down for kama gohan or kiln dinner in the studio’s kitchen, prepared by the third-years, which provides a break between the kiln loading that takes a better part of the day and a night of firing.
To learn more about the education model at Tokyo University of the Fine Arts and to learn more about Maggie Connolly’s experience in the program, be sure to read the entire article in the May 2015 issue of Ceramics Monthly.