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Different stokes for Iowan folks

 for The Japan Times, Oct. 9, 1999

Piece by Jeff Shapiro
Piece by Jeff Shapiro

I never thought my interest in Japanese pottery would lead me to Iowa.

That's exactly where I was last week, though, for the Different Stokes international wood-fired ceramics conference. Ceramists from around the world converged on the small college town of Iowa City for the four-day affair, which featured various speeches and breakout discussion groups as well as an invitational exhibition at the university's museum. 

Wood-firing is usually done in a noborigama (chambered climbing kiln) or an anagama (single-tunnel kiln). So many Western potters now use an anagama that it has become part of their jargon.

Quite a lot of leading Western potters first learned of the anagama during their studies in Japan; these include John Neely, Randy Johnston, Fred Olsen, Malcolm Wright and Joy Brown. Through their teachings, the use of the anagama has spread to a younger generation, as was clear from the large turnout of potters in their 20s and early 30s. All in all over 400 people of all ages were in attendance. 

The first day started off with a look at wood-firers in Australia, presented by Owen Rye. In the course of the conference 16 other countries had their turn to be introduced, Japan included.

I may be biased (though I don't think so), but Japan had the highest quality of work shown. That shouldn't surprise anyone. History and culture here support ceramics in a way that no other country can.

Japan was represented by Suzuki Goro, Kaneko Jun, Koie Ryoji, Bizen's Kakurezaki Ryuichi, Kanzaki Shiho and his 83-year-old mentor Matsuyama Suketoshi, and Morioka Shigeyoshi.

In all due respect to Suzuki, who is an incredible potter, he shouldn't have been there, for he rarely fires a wood-burning kiln. As Japan presenter Jeff Shapiro said, it's more the attitude and process of Suzuki's work that brought him there. Which leads me to blow off a little steam: I was initially asked to present Japan  at this affair, but had to introduce potters who had already been chosen. Do I look like a marionette? 

Actually, I really don't know much about the ceramic scene outside of Japan. Quite honestly, there's not much reason to. What I saw in Iowa paled in comparison with what goes on here.

A few exceptions: Mark Hewitt's beautiful salt-glazed "ice tea ceremony" large cups, Paul Chaleff's powerful tsubo (large jars), Jeff Shapiro's sculptured vessels and Joy Brown's large figures. Other interesting Western potters included Peter Callas, Ken Ferguson, Torbjorn Kvasbo, Dick Lehman and David Shaner.

These were the exceptions, though. Too many potters are focusing strictly on how well they can fire their kilns, without giving much thought to form or originality; I saw a lot of sloppy work that wouldn't pass an art college course here in Japan.

Still, I don't want to sound too cold. The anagama has only been in the West for the past 20 years or so, and there were some young artists who show potential (Tim Rowan, Scot Parady). 

One of the more interesting speeches, titled "Gifts of Fire: Gods, Heros and Icons," was given by Studio Potter magazine editor Gerry Williams, who introduced how fire has been portrayed in mythological literature. These included Prometheus, Vulcan, Berserker (a Scandinavian being), Agni from the Vedic tradition -- and even Bill Clinton, who was caught playing with fire in a lesser realm. 

All in all it was a gathering of like-minded people who are starting what may turn out to be a Western movement in an art that has existed here for centuries: the magical, powerful, but controllable world of a wood-burning kiln. 

The Japan Times: Oct. 9, 1999
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