Pottery, the spiritual method
Ancient Japanese craft finds Hawke’s Bay haven
Staff reporter Mary Hollywood talks to a Hawke’s Bay couple and a Japanese potter about a 1000-year-old way of making pottery.
New Zealand could become one of the last outposts of anagama fired pottery – a technique more than 1000 years old.
Anagama craftsmen in Japan use natural methods to produce fine pottery and it is a spiritual experience for its adherents.
But a shortage of raw materials and tough anti-pollution laws in overcrowded Japan means the craft is dying out.
Not only has New Zealand the resources to continue the craft but it has two potters learning the techniques from a master of anagama.
Hastings potters Estelle and Bruce Martin of Bridge Pa have concentrated on the technique since they went to Japan four years ago to discover pottery.
“We had been making domestic ware for the New Zealand market for many years but were still searching for deeper satisfaction,’’ Mrs Martin said.
In Japan the couple visited master potter Mr Sanyo Fujii at Himeji, near Kobe.
“We saw his work with an anagama kiln and knew we had found what we were searching for,” Mr Martin said.
On their return to New Zealand the Martins built the special type of kiln and fired a collection of pots. Some of their efforts so impressed Mr Fujii that he offered to join them at Bridge Pa and help improve their techniques and make another firing.
Mr Fujii, who became a potter at the age of 30 after working for many years as an archaeologist, arrived in Hawke’s Bay at the end of last year.
“He loaded the kiln for the present firing but before that he showed us the shapes for several pottery pieces used in traditional rituals such as the Japanese tea ceremony.
“He applied his techniques to New Zealand clays which he thinks are marvellous,” Mrs Martin said.
Loading the kiln was no hit and miss affair. Slowly the 2000 pieces were fitted into place and then the nine-day firing started.
There was no throwing a switch, turning a dial or lighting a diesel jet, but precision-laid timber within the kiln was set on fire.
“Anagama is an ancient style of kiln which has changed little in modern times. I have made some modifications and improvements but generally it is the same as the kilns used by Japanese people for about 1000 years,” Mr Fujii said.
“But it was used also in other parts of the world. When I was an archaeologist I knew of ancient pottery diggings which unearthed pieces of anagama-fired pottery as far away as France.
“Originally the anagama kiln was dug into a clay bank in the hillside and fired very slowly because the clay vitrified – one modern modification is the use of brick to shore up the earth,” he added.
Today, anagama is used rarely in Japan. It is difficult to fire and expensive to maintain. There is also a high percentage of loss so it is not economical, but it still brings the best results,” Bruce Martin said.
The Martins and Mr Fujii said the challenge of anagama firing was “part of themselves – an expression of self; a response of the soul.”
“You can not get the same effects from any other type of firing. The results are produced naturally by a combination of wood ash, flame, heat, moisture and air.
“We use no glazing; the elements do that. It means we do not know what colour blendings will result until the kiln is cool and emptied,” Estelle Martin said.
The proof of the group’s statements were revealed last weekend, when the kiln was opened after 9 1/2 days firing. The first pots to be removed were small sake cups which were put to immediate use for a toast.
The subtle colours of the pots seemed to have a great depth and the blending and mixture of tonings had a comfortable feeling of neutrality.
“The wood ash helps attain many of the tonings and the heat control and air influences them as well. We had to use precision temperature gauges but Mr Fujii could tell simply by laying his hand on the outside of the kiln or by simply looking at the flames,” Mr Martin said.
“If the heat had to be increased we added wood through the side-loading portals.”
In Japan, pine is used for firing anagama kilns, Mr Fujii explained.
“But anagama is dying in Japan because pollution and anti-pollution laws are creating problems. Every day it is becoming more difficult to get wood and the cost is almost prohibitive.”
Anagama kilns could possibly survive in New Zealand longer than most other areas in the world. “You have the space and timber and you are not too restricted by anti-pollution laws,” Mr Fujii said.
One element of New Zealand pottery which concerns the master is the way many craftsmen and women here label pots with defects “seconds’’.
“Japanese people appreciate the creativity and craftsmanship which has gone into their work. Traditional Japanese potters would simply apply coats of lacquer to any cracks or defects to make their works usable.
“We feel a piece of pottery is like a child. If there is an imperfection or defect you don’t throw it away or call it second-rate. It is a creation that is cherished and treated with loving care.
“When we open the anagama kiln it is a time of pure discovery. You have committed everything to the elements. After that challenge the result is a living thing to last a life-time – just like a child,” Mr Fujii said. The spiritual element is deeply engulfed in the work of Japanese potters and despite the distance from his homeland, Mr Fujii conducted a special salt, rice and sake ceremony before the Martin’s kiln was fired earlier this month.
Throughout the 9½ firing, prayer flags fluttered above the kiln entrance to ensure spiritual succour for human effort.
Photo captions –
VIEWING the results of months of work are (from left) Mr Martin, Mr Fujii, Mrs Martin and assistant and interpreter, Mrs Hiromi Stewart.
HEAT, moisture, air and flames have left their particular natural glaze on many of the pots, like the one held by Mr Sanyo Fujii.
OUT in the open air after almost a fortnight in the anagama kiln, each pot is studied by Mr Fujii and Mr Martin (right). The prayer flags still flutter above the kiln door.