Friday, December 17, 2010


In the West where Brother Thomas is considered by many to be a pinnacle of perfection, the cracks, scars, clam shell impressions and even pottery fragments seen on predominantly Shigaraki and Iga pots would seem to be diametrically opposed, but not necessarily so. In Japan and among those who love wood fired pottery, such “flaws” are seen not only as a testament to the process but also as aesthetic enhancements that add to the character of the pot. In their own way, these scarred beauties are perfection.

From my experience, wood firing is in its way a cruel mistress. The process is one in which the potter is made to stand sentinel to the demands, groans and signals of the kiln. On the inside, the pottery is subjected to the violence and velocity of the atmosphere, constantly assaulted by flame, wood and erosion from the ash and fire. It is only inevitable that pots will have cracks and other flaws from the intensity of heat, from being struck by stoked wood, from rising too fast in temperature, hikidashi process and too quickly a cooling. Because these all affect the pot, it is an accepted reality that wood fired pots will bear the scars of the process, but it is this surface that can not be forged, forced or imitated. It simple adds to the identity and uniqueness of each pot. From Tsujimura to Tsukigata all the way back to the beginning of wood fired pottery, the process can not be separated from the pot.

Wood firing is an expensive process, if not necessarily in economic terms, certainly in sweat equity. The process is both demanding and labor intensive. The building of a wood kiln, acquiring and splitting the wood, the loading of the kiln in a confined and cramped space, the days of constantly stoking the fire all add to the investment in time, labor and money. Everything about wood firing is about a commitment and choice that also demands salvaging as many pots out of a firing as possible. In the early days, all of the various flaws were just accepted as scars of the process and as long as the pots were able to be used they were seen as a narrative of the kiln. Pots that couldn’t be used, were sometimes adapted to use by means of reconstruction, sometimes yobi-tsugi (making a single pot out of the pieces of several) and other times kintsugi (gold lacquer repairs).

All of these scars from the ash impregnated clam shell patterns resembling pate de verre glass, to cracks and fissures to imbedded shards and shadows of other pots in the firing, all add to the complex landscape, keshiki of wood fired pottery. Pots that are a throwback to the medieval times, today show every sign of blending tradition with the modern. All you have to do is take a look at the pottery of Tsujimura Shiro, Kojima Kenji and Kon Chiharu to understand why a potter would subject his/her self to the demanding process that creates pots with cracks, flaws and other problems to create objects of scarred beauty.

Over the years, I have handled a great number of Eastern and Western wood fired pots and have truly come to appreciate the battle scars of an intense process. Remebering my first exposure to Japanese pots was the Shino and Seto-guro of Arakawa, the Hagi of the Miwa and the glazed wares of Hamada and Kawai, it took me some time to accept and grow fond of kamakizu (kiln flaws) and the like. My tastes have matured and my understanding of the pots has grown as well. A few years back I had a wonderful opportunity to examine a collection of Shigaraki and Iga works by Tsujimura Shiro. Most if not all of them bore the scars of the process and in all honesty, many have benefited from such additions to the landscape of the pot.

Illustrated are two pots made by Tsujimura Shiro. The first is a medium sized Shigaraki tsubo with cracks from the coil building process along with the remnants of another pot (or two) where the pots were in contact with each other. The second pot, shown in a close-up, is a very large globe tsubo with the circular remnants of a guinomi or yunomi infused with wonderful blue-green bidoro.