Recently, one afternoon I went to a pottery shop on the outskirts of Tokyo and happened to meet the head potter who had stopped by to check on her staff.
After looking around the shop, I asked the potter if she had a few minutes to chat and explain her work to me. The first thing she talked about was how a potter never knew what was going to wind up coming out of the kiln. “Each kiln opening,” she said, “was somewhat like Christmas morning. Sometimes you get many wonderful gifts, and sometimes you wound up with coal in your stocking, like when most of the pieces explode in the kiln due to severe changes in atmospheric weather conditions.”
“It is the serendipity,” she said, “that makes the work so magical. It helps you stay humble, and you learn to surrender and accept the unknown.”
Next she talked to me about design and functionality, topics important to every potter. “No sense in having a good looking piece that is awkward to use, and no sense having a boring piece that is highly functional,” she said.
Since, I had decided that I very much liked her work and was definitely going to buy something, I picked out three pieces. I set them on the counter and asked the lady to tell me a bit about each piece.
“Let me share with you how I recognize the hoped for imperfections in my work,” she said, “by talking about the pieces you have an interest in.”
“Notice this first piece. The glaze is not of consistent thickness over the inside surface. I tried the best I could do to smooth out the glaze,” she said, “but this is a very tough glaze to work with. Nonetheless, for me, it’s the inconsistency that makes for the range of color that shines forth in this piece.”
“With this next piece, you notice that the bowl is not fully round in shape. I am a small woman, and this is a large piece for me to throw on the wheel. In fact it’s the biggest piece I am currently able to throw. I love making some of this size, because these bowls really test my limits. There’s a certain tension present when the shape goes out of being fully round, and this is what draws me to this piece. I hope when people look at it they get the sense that I am testing my limits.”
“Finally, with this third piece, you’ll notice the price is considerably less than the other two pieces. I feel it is a good piece of work; in fact, I feel it is a bit too good and looks like it could have been machine made. That is why the price is less than for the others.”
“The shape is perfectly round, and the glaze flows evenly over the entire pot, so the piece does not have a sense of uniqueness. I’ve stopped making this shape and size, because I know how to make them all too well. When they come out this perfect, I feel like the soul of the pot gets left in the kiln. It does not come across as being one of a kind.”
She bowed ever so much and said, “Do you have a moment? I have some locally grown strawberries, and it is always best to eat them at this time of year with a warm cup of tea.”