'Elemental Journeys' - Ceramic Review (Issue 289)

This summer I wrote an article about ceramics residencies in Japan for the international magazine for ceramic art - Ceramic Review.

I interviewed three artists about their experiences in Japan and highlighted my own at the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park in March this year.

Anne Mette Hjortshoj told me about her residency at Mashiko - the historic home of Shoji Hamada - and the realisation of a life long dream to fire her own work in one of Hamada’s own climbing kilns. Christopher McHugh has a long association with Japan but until only recently undertook a residency there. He was particularly attracted to the programme at Seto in a town with a history of pottery making extending as far back as the 13th century. Jennifer Lee , like me, also attended the Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park, and as a Guest Artist there, spoke about the significant impact making work in Japan has had on her practice.

All three artists seemed to share a deep sense that Japan offered a complete change from life in the West, but also a chance to connect to an elemental source of inspiration. 

I was able to recount one of my own memorable experiences - the creation of a teabowl with Shigaraki tea master Okuda Eizan. In many ways this bowl has become a kind of self portrait of my time in Japan, and its dramatic firing back in England at Oxford Anagama Project - reminds me of the transformation I underwent.

The article also highlights some tips for planning a residency in Japan and one additional one which I want to add here, is the bi-lingual book I was recommended before my trip: The Japanese Pottery Handbook.

Ceramic Review (Issue 289) is out now.

 

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15 seconds and 60 years

Tomoo Hamada is the grandson of Shoji Hamada famous in the mid 20th century for helping to re-introduce folk pottery to Japan (the Mingei Movement) and for establishing his renowned partnership with English potter, Bernard Leach.

I heard Tomoo speaking at the Japanese Embassy in London a couple of weeks ago at a celebration event marking the centenary of the links made between Hamada and Leach - in particular, the ongoing collaboration between their respective potteries at Mashiko and St Ives.

Tomoo, now a ceramicist in his own right,  recalled several moments as a young child growing up with Shoji, watching him at work in the atmospheric wooden buildings at Mashiko - and one memory, in particular, stood out.

A young Tomoo was helping Shoji in the studio one day, decorating wares in preparation for a firing. Shoji often admired Tomoo's playful, free style with the brush. This looseness was a trademark of Hamada's own wares and he enjoyed seeing his grandson quickly work his way through the vessels, the youngster often beating him in the challenge to 'finish first'.

Tomoo then recalled what his grandfather said about brushwork - 'I describe it as 15 seconds and 60 years - it is possible to make quick brush strokes like you are doing, which are very good - but it also takes experience and age to get it just right.'

Returning to my studio to begin new work, I realise the benefits of this kind of playfulness - looking at tests from 12 months ago, finding them fresh again - I hope to capture their original essence but with the added benefit of another year's experience.

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A tenmoku plate by Shoji Hamada. (philrogerspottery.com) 

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My stoneware tests.

When we stop the dance

The Reith Lectures this year have been given by British author Hilary Mantel.

As an artist working with both materials and ideas about the past Mantel has become an important figure in the conceptual development of my practice.

She recently described the past as not 'behind us but alongside' and for a while I felt this was the closest anyone had come to expressing what ultimately motivates and informs my work.

Now in her series of five in depth reflections she considers her craft as a writer in what she describes as 'resurrecting' the past.

But her main argument calls for the value of the imagined historical narrative as a potent and valid conduit to understanding the past, and how this can complement, rather than conflict, with the historian's role - a seemingly revolutionary notion...

The following section is transcribed from her first lecture 'The Day is for the Living', where she talks about the need to re-create rather than reproduce history, as '99% of supposed evidence' e.g. unrecorded speech, is unavailable to us:

 

'....Facts are not truth - although they are part of it - and information is not knowledge.

History is not the past: it's the method we've evolved of organising our ignorance of the past.

It's the record of what's left on the record.

It's the plan of the positions taken when we stop the dance to take them down.

It's what's left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it.

A few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth - it's no more the past than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey.

It's the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and reliable witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them.

It's no more than the best we can do.

And often it falls short of that.'

 

The full list of lectures can be found here:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08vkm52/episodes/guide

Silent utterances

Looking recently at chawan by Raku Kichizaemon XV and reading Kato Shuichi's autobiography 'A Sheep's Song' I am also reflecting on new works created since coming back from Japan.

Working through my feelings about returning to the West I am conscious of a pervading tension: to maintain the positivity of my life in Japan amidst the almost overwhelming shadow of political life in the U.K.

Observing society showing signs of imploding with a growing sense of powerlessness is unnerving.

I then began to make some tea bowls and found they were almost immediately dysfunctional.

I am interested in the way the tea bowl holds a particular power in Japan as a philosophical and functional vessel. It embodies stillness and hope and silently speaks volumes.

As I struggle to maintain the deep silence I found there and navigate the extreme difference between our two cultures - I hope the work in clay will quietly speak and make small footholds. 

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Hand built stoneware fired teabowl, June 2017. 

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As paths intersect

The final armature was removed from my clay sculpture installation 'Exhume' today. 

It is the culmination of two weeks work in the wonderful environment of Bryggens Museum in Bergen. 

The exhibition will open on Friday and will showcase research findings from Bergen University's exploration of the history and cultural heritage of Palmyra and the Middle East.

In the space will be gathered stories, artefacts, books and photos from museum collections and archives as well as images taken by the team on site visits to Syria.

Visitors will have a chance to see classical pieces such as Atenatan and Salmat on loan from the Glyptotek in Copenhagen alongside ceramic pot sherds revealed from Bryggens' own collection.

Over 2000 years of history is illustrated in a vibrant mix of textures and voices culminating with the present day conflict in Syria.

It has been a very rainy June in Bergen (even for Bergen standards) so seeing the space begin to fill up with images of the desert and items that look as though they have just been plucked from the sand is appealing. 

I think about all the layered journeys involved in this exhibition: the lives of the ancient  Palmyrenes (Tadamera in Arabic) nomadic and yet settled in the oasis in the desert; the project team of Eivind, Birgit and Håkon who have stood on that desert and now have rain on their shoes; the museum staff who handle the material and produce the pathway for visitors through the space; and my own contribution, dreamt up over several restless nights late in 2015 thinking the unthinkable in unfired clay.

But increasingly as the days have passed here and the sculptures have taken shape, with their patient, watchful presence, I have been conscious of the plight of present day Syrians and wondering when the conflict will end.

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Professor Eivind Heldaas Seland from Bergen University's Archaeology and Religious Studies Department with the 2nd century funerary bust 'Atenatan and Salmat' .

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Birgit van der Lans and Håkon Fiane Teigen from Bergen University. My stay here has been made very pleasurable thanks to their hospitality. 

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An amazing day when this bust arrived from the Glyptotek with its own truck. It was carefully enshrined in a glass case by Eivind and Håkon. 

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Exhume - now completed and waiting patiently to be lit. Re-building this piece in Norway has told me so much about the balance of process and chance. 

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Bryggens Museum - built around the original foundations of the medieval town  - an inspiring location to make my work each day. The staff have been amazing.

Nature at the centre

I took a walk to the nearby mountain of Fløyen this evening which forms part of a ring of seven (or some say nine) summits that surround Bergen.

It's a route I have now walked a few times and each time the weather has been slightly different offering a new way of seeing things.

This evening I walked in the rain and into the mist line hovering above the summit. When I returned the cloud was lifting and slowly the landscape revealed itself in silver sunlight. 

The pine trees and moss covered undergrowth reminded me simultaneously of Tolkien and the books I had read as a child inspired by Scandinavian sagas. But also inevitably of Japan and its mountain woods.

I have a strong sense of nature at the centre of things and it's one of the reasons I have been drawn to Norway and Japan.

I have also been listening to the words of Raku Kichizaemon XV a renowned chawan (tea bowl) maker from Kyoto and his views on nature and art.

He describes the importance of 'committing yourself to chance' as part of the creative process and also the idea that 'the whole of nature is contained within each of us'.

He is being interviewed by the late cultural commentator and teacher Kato Shuichi in the NHK series 'Japan: Spirit and Form' from the late 1980s - whose response was this:

 'That’s quite modern. It is not always possible to have nature and chance move as you would like. But when these uncontrollable elements fall into place, then you have a work of art’.

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On the summit of Floyen, Bergen, Norway.

Cloud lifting and sun setting

Cloud lifting and sun setting

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The pine wood on the mountain side at Gero,  Gifu Prefecture in Japan.

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Raku Kichizaemon XV (Image: NHK series 'Japan Spirit and Form')

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Kato Shuichi  (Image: NHK series 'Japan Spirit and Form')

A tacit understanding

Non-verbal communication was a key aspect of life for me in Japan.

It may appear on the outside to be a challenging prospect when working abroad, but I found recalibrating communication methods invigorating - and it confirmed to me that less, is often, more.

The importance of making yourself understood in a culture where you can't always explain your actions creates a determination to be positive on both sides. After all, who wants to risk a break down in communication or to cause offence with no way out? This was civilising. 

I also found that the connections made with people with little English to be some of the most poignant and meaningful, with both parties taking a leap of faith. This was rewarding.

So it was an immense relief to be spared the trials of my native language and experience another way.

It occurred to me later that our encounters with art, history and the natural world are similar in that they are largely non-verbal - which might explain why they are often so potent and memorable - with sight, sound, scent and touch all coming to the fore.

Now, as I build the sculpture ‘Exhume’ I find it is very much an exercise in silent negotiation. A settlement will be reached, but only if I commit myself to chance and allow the clay to respond, until we finally reach a tacit understanding. 

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(Image: Birgit Van der Lans) 

Grounded

I have arrived in Bergen, Norway to take part in a collaborative exhibition with Bergen University and Bryggens Museum - Journeys to Tadmor (Palmyra).

This exciting opportunity comes hard on the heels of my Japanese adventure and I'm aware of the multiple, layered sensations this is creating. 

The work I am producing will form the basis of a two week residency when I will build the sculpture installation 'Exhume' which I produced last year in response to the attack on Palmyra in Syria in 2015.

Since returning from Japan I have been keen to retain a sense of hope for the future. 

I was aware on leaving England how tense and full of angst my work had become. 

In Japan I lost this anxiety and a lightness entered my thinking, freed, not least, from a turbulent political time in the West. 

In particular, the 'ground culture' in Japan resonated strongly with me. It is humbling and perhaps submissive but also elemental. 

To remove your shoes and make contact with 'the earth', to sit on mats with others to eat or share tea from hand made bowls - this lowering calms the senses and opens up a fresh perspective for the Westerner. 

Now, handling my clay again, in a very different setting,  reminds me that whilst I am back, dealing with subjects of conflict again, the clay in my hand gives me hope. Perhaps it always did.

And I've also taken my shoes off!

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Flying into Bergen.

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My neighbourhood for a few weeks.

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A wonderful welcome meal from my hosts at Bergen University  - thank you Birgit, Håkon and Alessandro.

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Work began on 'Exhume' today.

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Lucky Cat is with me! 

Image: Birgit Van Der Lans

Hai - The Culture of 'Yes'

As I prepared to leave the U.K. yesterday for my next project in Norway, the work I made in Japan arrived after its land journey across the world.

Miraculously, most of it survived, including some very fragile pieces.

Having described the journey of their creation in Japan in some detail it seems odd that this part has been shrouded in mystery and silence. But I like that.

In the interim I have had time to reflect on my experience. Initially this took a while to coherently form itself as I was barely conscious for the first few weeks of what I had undergone - it was so rich and detailed.

Several themes have since emerged which I will explore in the next few posts.

The overwhelming experience was one of positivity.  It was very unusual to ever be confronted with 'no'.

As I later understood more about the cultural emphasis on group harmony and the reasons why systems and infrastructure work so well in Japan - I could see why my own experience went so smoothly.

I was grateful for the quietly understated environment geared toward productivity.

This was evidenced by the dedication of the artists around me, many of whom worked around the clock to produce their work.

But also by the tireless efforts of the staff to support the process and find solutions. 

I also had a very strong sense of Japanese 'luck' - that somehow this positivity was rewarded by the gods.

On leaving I was given several gifts that symbolised this: an origami crane, a ceramic frog and the little wooden spirit of Jizou.

And when I returned to England I was able to make more sense of the nickname I was given by my Japanese friends:

'Hai! Hai!'

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Packed in Shigaraki, collected at Patchway depot! 12 June 2017.

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Everything had been carefully wrapped and placed on its side (smallest surface area) to prevent damage. Yoshiko gave me her collection of empty gift boxes which greatly helped. 

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Every piece is now layered with the memory of how they were made.

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This piece came from the wet day when the studio was closed and I sat on my own with the kerosene heater.

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Finished works and sketches.

Conversations with fire

Last night I helped to stoke the annual firing of the Oxford University Anagama Project.

This project was established to research and build ancient methods of Japanese wood firing kilns. The team at Oxford, led by Anthropologist Dr Robin Wilson and Jim Keeling at Whichford Pottery, invited support from Japan’s National Living Treasure Isezaki Jun and Bizen potters Ishida Kazuya and Takikawa Takuma.

Together, two Anagama kilns were made at the University’s research site at Wytham Woods and are now providing ceramic wares for projects and exhibitions in both the U.K. and Japan.

I arrived at 3.30pm yesterday afternoon as the rain fell steadily and spent the next 8 hours sheltering under the warm kiln roof taking part in what felt like a ritual going back many centuries. 

There were periods of intense activity when visitors arrived to moments of silence broken only by the sounds of birdsong and the splitting of pine in the fire box.

This project is helping me to develop my experiences in Japan - and in many ways sitting outdoors in England as the evening fell and turned toward night reminded me of the wood firings at Shigaraki - the heavy scent of the pine wood, the soft sounds of wood chippings under foot, bird song and running water.

However this time I learnt how to read the pyrometer and take responsibility for gauging the correct amount of wood needed to reach the desired temperature allocated for each hourly segment. This process of feeding the fire was balanced with watching, waiting and listening. In many ways it reminded me of conversations I had with the Japanese. - offering something up, maybe adding an extra gesture and then waiting for the response - always with a sense of excitement and joy!

It was particularly nice to meet Takuma san last night who helped to build the kiln. Together we shared many words, looked at photos, talked about food, found translations for kanji.

He reminded me that on the other side of the world in Japan, night was drawing to a close and a new day was about to begin.

Takuma san looks on as visitors arrive at the site.

Takuma san looks on as visitors arrive at the site.

Local school pupils watch Kazuya san stoke the kiln.

Local school pupils watch Kazuya san stoke the kiln.

Taking responsibility for the fire - wearing gloves bought in 'The Hardware Store' in Shigaraki!

Taking responsibility for the fire - wearing gloves bought in 'The Hardware Store' in Shigaraki!

The afternoon / evening shift! - a lovely group of ceramicists and kiln enthusiasts.

The afternoon / evening shift! - a lovely group of ceramicists and kiln enthusiasts.

Takuma san's first test pieces - beautiful lions inspired by the Shinto shrines of Japan.

Takuma san's first test pieces - beautiful lions inspired by the Shinto shrines of Japan.

Journeys to Tadmor (Palmyra)

My sculptures in unfired clay - 'Exhume' -  will form part of a collaborative exhibition in Norway this Summer. 

 'Journeys to Tadmor (Palmyra)' is an exploration of the historic site in Syria: its significance as a trade and cultural centre over 2000 years ago to its current position as a site of conflict and war.

It centres around Bergen University's four year research programme -'Mechanisms of cross cultural interaction - Networks in the Roman Near East' - and together with Bergen City Museum they will host an exhibition of artefacts, art and heritage that tells the story of the people and their pathways across this extraordinary region. 

I will be working as artist in residence in the lead up to the exhibition, re-making my temporary clay sculptures 'Exhume' inspired by the destruction of Palmyra in 2015.

The exhibition will run from 30th June - 17 September 2017 and is funded by the Research Council of Norway.

More details will follow shortly.

Image credit: Max McClure

Image credit: Max McClure

Arts Council England grant

I received exciting news whilst in Japan.

The Arts Council in England have awarded me a Research and Development grant to support my ceramics work.

This crucial funding will enable me to purchase my first electric kiln and a new wheel ensuring I can build on my residency in Japan and start to produce challenging and high quality work.

Thanks go to the Grants for the Arts team and to those who helped me to develop my application especially Bath Potters Supplies.

I look forward to an exciting phase of post residency collaborations and new work. 

Let it be

It's now time to reflect on the amazing time I've spent at the Ceramic Cutural Park in Shigaraki. 

This trip would not have been possible without the support of the Daiwa Foundation and Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation - thank you! 

It was made successful by the exceptional dedication and help of the staff at the centre.

And both enjoyable and thought provoking working alongside a very talented group of fellow artists.

Coming here gives you the space to not only explore your work but to examine your whole approach to life. 

As this was my first trip to Japan I was very grateful for the time and hospitality I received from staff at the centre who took me into the wider world to experience the culture and landscape of this incredible country.

I sensed there would be an affinity with Japan and this is what drove my ambition to realise this project. 

But actually finding it and then seeing those expectations exceeded will take some getting used to!  

I look forward to seeing how my work survives the shipping process and then developing it (thanks to an Arts Council grant) based on the learning I've gathered. 

But I have also experienced a special kindness in the people here which will stay with me in one shape or another for the rest of my life. 

I hope to return.

For now, thank you: All staff at SCCP especially Yuki Ando, Matsunami-san, Yoshiko Takahashi, Watarai-San, Yoko Yoshida, Erica Mikazuki, Akira Tao; Artists - Yabe Shunichi, Tomoko Konno, Garrett Masterson, Fabienne Whithofs, Xiao Li, Aya Murata, Hashimoto, Yugi, Kim Jin Seo, Hyun sang chul and Julia Ocampo.

And a special shout for young Ryo Yabe - may your life be filled with joy! 

ARIGATO! 

Last day

Things never truly come to an end and today felt like the start of connections that will hopefully last beyond this residency.

Staff and artists gather to say farewell to Watarai-san long standing staff member and those of us about to leave.

Staff and artists gather to say farewell to Watarai-san long standing staff member and those of us about to leave.

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Beautiful cold and wet day. 

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Nice to see Garrett and Fabienne bonding! 

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Moody. 

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Class of March 2017.

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Thank you to the amazing staff at SCCP for making my stay so productive and enjoyable! 


Packing yesterday. 

Packing yesterday. 

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Shipping today - thank you Yoshiko! 

Fabienne Withofs

Fabienne is a Belgian ceramicist and arrived at SCCP last week. 

She is exhibiting her work internationally and also working as a teacher in adult education. 

Porcelain is a medium which Fabienne currently favours and it will be interesting to see how living and working in Shigaraki influences her work. 

Like me she is here for one month and has already produced lots of pieces. 

Bon chance Fabienne! 

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Work is getting larger! 

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Jawan type bowls drying out.

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Interesting use of silicone to cast the utility objects we take for granted in everyday life. 

Peace

As packing commences, farewells begin. Look out for wistful posts over next 48 hours! 

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At the Noborigama firing - it will burn for 3 days with the community taking turns to stoke the kiln.

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Artists farewell gathering last night to say goodbye to Jin So and to Xiao Li and Yabe-san who join me in leaving this weekend. 

Yabe-San has had his amazing son Ryo with him all week - we hear him singing in the morning.

Yabe-San has had his amazing son Ryo with him all week - we hear him singing in the morning.

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It was busy in the studio today with many interested visitors including two women from Kyoto and Nara respectively. Rie-San (left) taught English and is now retired so we had an excellent chat.

Peace!  (Image: Erica Mikazuki) 

Peace! 

(Image: Erica Mikazuki) 

100%

No studio today so Yoko and Erica took me on a fantastic trip - hiking up mount Han Dou San and viewing the first plum blossoms at Tsukigase.

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Luck of the Kiln God

Garrett's Kiln God brought us luck today as the mini Anagama was unloaded.

Everyone seemed happy including me as this little turn of fate allowed me to experience a wood firing for the first time - and in Japan!

Factors such as heat, glazing, ash deposits, position in the kiln and proximity to other wares all play a part. 

It was interesting to place totally unglazed pieces in the kiln and see them transform subtly with fire flashes and a delicate green glaze in one case. 

To find out about Anagama firing go to:  https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anagama_kilni

I am also hoping to collaborate with an exciting U.K. based Anagama project in Oxford - see here for more details:  http://www.oxfordanagama.org/

Fresh from the kiln. 

Fresh from the kiln. 

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Huang and Kim So with Watarai San, Yabe San and Garrett. 

Getting the wares back to the studio. 

Getting the wares back to the studio. 

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More sake cup than tea bowl - tried and tested this evening!

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My katakana initial 'A'

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Life on the mountain

Loaded the last 10kw kiln this morning and discussed packaging and shipping.

My work is rather challenging on the transportation front. In the U.K. I have taken to moving the pieces in sand which perfectly protects them from bumps and knocks.  That's not an option here as too heavy.

Shipping is going to be harsh with the box getting rough treatment so each piece will need to be wrapped thoughtfully and probably slotted in and packed along the longest edge to mitigate large surface area contact.

Later, Fabienne and I walked up to the Noborigama where they are loading the annual community firing. 

I continued on via the mountain path in very warm sunshine to look again at the current exhibition.

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Noborigama. 

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Loading the wares. 

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Deer print

Deer print

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Made a quick iPhone sketch in the exhibition of an Ogawa Machiko piece 2015

Made a quick iPhone sketch in the exhibition of an Ogawa Machiko piece 2015

Invited a curious elderly Japanese visitor with hands that had worked hard for many years to try and he did this - more beautiful.

Invited a curious elderly Japanese visitor with hands that had worked hard for many years to try and he did this - more beautiful.

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The piece itself... 

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Ended the day on a visit to the hardware store to research packing materials!

Anagama at midnight

The Anagama reached its desired heat around 3am last night and was stoked to keep it maintained for 4 hours. 

Now we await the results!

It was a very cold night last when I popped up to check things out around midnight but no thought was given to proper jackets etc! 

It was a very cold night last when I popped up to check things out around midnight but no thought was given to proper jackets etc! 

A few shots taken in the studio this morning before the lights go on...

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Greenware tea pot ready to be fired tomorrow. 

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Greenware 'Jomon Pot' clay drawing.

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Code ...  fired successfully 

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Wires ...  ditto.

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Huge tyre - mysteriously turned up in the bike park ...