Craig was born in Melborne ,
Australia and began his pottery career in Bendigo in 1978. He became
a deshi to Tatsuzo Shimaoka in 1991 and since
completing his training has established his own pottery in Mashiko,
Japan, were he now lives with wife, three children and a wood fired
kiln to feed.
He is the author of several articles oncermics.
the Masters Gate
The main studio
was a rustic affair, the walls made of grey, rough hewn stone to
about knee height, then hand cut timber, weathered to the same grey
as the stone. Icicles hung like ornaments from the fringe of the
thatched roof. I raised the wooden shutters to reveal the paper
screen windows, pushed open the heavy wooden door and the paper
screen behind it, and entered the gloom within.
studio was slightly warmer, though only just, as a small kerosene
stove had been left on overnight to prevent the pots from freezing.
I turned on the larger stove and went to fill the kettle while it
primed. Removing the box from the top of the well, I cracked the
ice in the top of the hand pump with my knuckle, then heaved upon
the handle to free the rest of the ice.The first few gushes of water
were brown and rusty, but soon it was running clear and sweet. With
the kettle filled I went to remove my hand from the pump, only to
find that my glove had frozen to the handle. I peeled it off with
a slight tearing sound and went back inside to set the kettle on
As a deshi,
my next job was to sweep the grounds before the workers arrived.The
broom was made of hardy rushes and a bamboo handle, not an elegant
tool,but sturdy and functional.Beginning with the immediate surrounds
of sensei's house I worked my way back through the compound cleaning
up any unsightly leaves and clearing the paths of hoarfrost. I'd
never seen hoarfrost before I came to Mashiko, as where I come from
in Australia, it never got that cold. Millions of ice needles would
form a thick, glistening carpet accross the barren ground. A sweep
of the broom would leave a glittering swathe, like the stroke of
an artists brush.
the workers would arrive, elderly men and their wives, simple folk
in simple farming attire. Indeed, they all had farms which they
worked in the spring when the ground had thawed. Of the six of them,
only one had a drivers licence. They had worked all their lives
at Shimaoka's, lived within walking distance of the pottery, and
would retire and grow old in Mashiko. Their childrens lives were
different, many of them drawn to the bright lights of Tokyo, like
most of their generation. Their world was brighter and broader than
their parents, but somehow shallow and trite by comparison. The
quiet dedication of the old workers was alien to the new world,
but as regular and natural as the seasons.They would greet me in
the garden as they passed, with a smile and a breif, "Good
morning, cold isn't it?" then shuffle off to the studio to
gather round the stove till starting time. When I had finished my
chores I would join them breifly, then the days work would begin.
At a signal
from the foreman, the oldest of the workers, everyone would scatter
to their allotted space to perform their daily routines. Fukuyan
would start press moulding, perhaps water drippers for calligraphy,
perhaps square bottle forms for ikebana. Sabuyan, axe in hand, would
make his way to the wood shed and split logs for the next firing.
The women would settle themselves into their habitual spots and
start trimming the slip inlayed rope decoration. Mitsuyan, the head
thrower, Hamada, the other deshi, and I would go to our wheels and
set to making whatever of sensei's forms he had assigned to us.
As I had
only been at Shimaoka's for a month or so at that time, I was still
making green tea cups, the standard shape that all deshi make in
their first year. I was given an example peice, which sat on the
wheel bench in front of me, and I made that shape until I got it
right. There was no deadline. I had been working in potteries for
twelve years before I was lucky enough to be introduced to Shimaoka
sensei and for the first time in my life the only consideration
was quality. I had learnt to throw in Australia with a stop watch
beside the wheel. Yet here, speed and quantity were absolutely irrelevent.
After a days throwing, first Mitsuyan would carefully scrutinize
the work, picking up one, then another, feeling the weight, looking
at the shape, checking the wall thickness. Anything that wasn't
quite right would be set aside to be remade the following day. After
his editing was done, Sensei himself would go through the same process.
In the beginning, I was sometimes left with only ten percent of
my days work in tact. "Too thick," he would say, "Too
thin", or "Too fat".I was often left confused about
the correct shape. So I would start again, each day thinking, maybe
today, maybe today.
was no different. Taking about ten kilo of clay I began to knead,
one hundred times this way, one hundred the reverse. When it was
ready I threw it on the wheel and prepared to start. The wheel was
the simplest design, just a wooden wheel head and a wooden fly wheel
balanced on a steel shaft, pushed around by foot. I removed my shoes
and socks, avoiding standing on the bare earth floor, and began
to rotate the wheel. All the throwers worked in bare feet, mainly
for better traction on the fly wheel, but also to save wear on the
wood. After the first hour or so the act of constantly kicking got
the blood circulating through your feet and it wasn't too bad.
applied to your hands. Everyone topped up their water bowls from
the kettle that I had put on first thing in the morning, so by the
time it got around to me it was empty. I would refill it and replace
it on the stove and make do with the water I had. Once I had removed
the ice from my bowl it wasn't long before it warmed up, along with
the clay, just from the heat of my hands. It was fascinating to
watch the tendrils of steam rising off my hands as I formed the
pots, spiralling up and then vanishing into thin air. And the air
was so dry. The combination of the cold and the dryness, the constant
wetting and drying of my hand, cracked the skin on my fingers so
that there was nothing I could do without them opening up and bleeding.
Still, work had to be done, so I persevered, blood or not, and the
pain , like the mist, would eventually fade.
The day was
punctuated by tea breaks, morning and afternoon, of green tea and
pickled radish, or sometimes rice crackers. Lunch was a tin of salmon,
some vinegared rice and seaweed. Conversation round the stove filled
the dark emptiness hanging over us in the cavity of the thatched
roof. Not a soul spoke english, and occasionally Hamada, who came
from the neighbouring prefecture, would translate peices of Mashiko
dialect that I didn't understand into standard Japanese for me.
I was never without a dictionary, but much of my Japanese was mastered
by studying Kanji scratched in the dirt floor.
end of day Sensei entered the main studio. His personal studio was
separate and slightly newer, and he would work there undisturbed,
calling for us when there were pots to move or clay to knead. I
treasured those times when I was able to be assisting him in his
studio, watching him work, talking with him. He is a man of few
words. The atmosphere changed when he entered the room, everyone
suddenly self conscious and ready to jump to his requests. Not that
he is an overbearing figure, to the contrary, he is a serene and
dignified man, and I have never once heard him raise his voice nor
speak in anger. He simply commands respect, with quiet, calm assertion.
to examine my tea cups silently, picking them up at random, feeling
their balance, holding them up to see their silhouette against the
paper screen, then putting them down and going to the next board.
I had made eighty cups that day, and when he had finished, eighty
he said, "next week you may make coffee sets. Mitsuyan will
teach you." and with that he left the studio, and the sound
of his wooden sandals could be heard moving across the pebbled driveway
to the house. I looked over at Mitsuyan, who grinned and said "Good,"
just as sensei had. Hamada smiled at me and said "Congratulations".
That was all. Yet somehow my world had changed. In that moment,
I almost felt as if I belonged.
day was over, and we turned off the main stove and set the small
one for the night. Hamada and I closed the shutters, and the box
was replaced on the well. The workers and their wives turned towards
their homes in pairs with calls of, "Good night," and,
"Thankyou for your efforts today".
was night when work finished, and as I closed the door of the studio
the darkness was almost complete. I waited there for a moment until
my eyes had adjusted, and looked up at the cloudless sky. The stars
were pale and sparse, and for a moment I thought of the sea of stars
that washes across the night sky of home. With a shiver, perhaps
only of cold, I pushed that thought aside and made my way back down
the hill to my paper and plywood domicile, another day complete,
another frozen night ahead, and tomorrow the ritual would begin
It has been
ten years since I studied at Shimaoka's, but I have remained in
Mashiko. I live in an old farm house with my wife and children,
and work towards an ideal that is alive at Shimaoka's. My work and
my life will never be like his, nor should they be. Shimaoka sensei's
work is an expression of the man, and we are different men. But
I will carry with me what he taught me for all my days, the beauty
of the object springing from the beauty of the process, and quality
above all. And the stop watch? I stopped watching years ago.