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An Australian Potter in Japan – Part 1

Posted on Mar 24, 2013 by in Articles | 0 comments


Born in Melboume in 1954, Alistair Whyte spent his childhood in various towns in country Victoria. His grandmother, who had spent twenty years in China, had a collection of Chinese memorabilia and visits to her house as a child, exposed Alistair, at an early age, to the beauty of Oriental art. In particular, several pieces of Chinese blue and white ceramics inspired in him a fascination for translucent porcelain and sowed the seeds of his future career.

Alistair began his study of Ceramic Design at Bendigo Institute of Technology in 1973. Although Leach’s book was still very much the potter’s ‘bible’ at that time, the focus of the course tended to be on the English slipware tradition and even some European traditions, such as the Scandanavian, rather than the Japanese tradition. He was also unable to do much work in porcelain since the clays were not available at that time and, although he managed to blend up some porcelain clay bodies that were translucent, they were impossible to work with.

It was the arrival of Japanese potter Shunichi Inoue to teach at Bendigo in 1974, that fuelled Alistair’s interest in working in Japan, and it was with his encouragement that Alistair wrote to Hirokuni Katsuno, a master porcelain maker in Kyoto, seeking an apprenticeship. As Alistair remembers, “I just had this great dream that I would go and do something in the elitist of clays, porcelain, in Japan. I didn’t realise just how hard it was going to be.” Being an unknown, he received no response to his letter but Inoue continued to encourage him to apply for post-graduate training at Kyoto City University of Art. Two years of letter-writing finally paid off when Alistair was accepted into the University in 1978.

Alistair saw the prospect of studying in Japan, not only as a great chance to develop his craft, but also as an opportunity for personal growth through being on his own – a chance to “find himself” away from family influences. Despite his enthusiasm for this undertaking, it is hard to imagine the impact that the first few months in Japan must have had on a young man who had spent all of his life in country Victoria. A quiet person by nature, Alistair believes his experience in Japan has made him even quieter, much more patient and tolerant. Arriving in Kyoto with no Japanese language, he was forced “to sit back, be quiet and observant and watch … and try to understand,” This approach wasn’t always successful, however, as in his initial experience at the University where Alistair was under the impression for some time, that he was being ignored by the staff until he discovered that, as a post-graduate student, he was expected to chart his own course of study and research. Everything seemed back the front in Japan. Even the very basis of producing ceramics, the method of throwing pots was opposite to the way that Alistair had been trained. Unwilling to adapt to a potter’s wheel turning in the reverse direction to that he was used to, Alistair developed his own method of throwing to accommodate Japanese techniques, much to the amusement of other Japanese students.

His experience in Japan changed the way he worked almost totally. Much of what he had learnt in Bendigo had to be put to one side and he had to start anew. Assuming a “beginner’s mind”40, was a necessary and humbling experience.

Even the preperation of clay was different in Japan. Alistair had been taught to bring the clay to workable condition, by “wedging” it using a wire-cutter. The clay was literally cut in two using the wire, the two pieces were thumped down together, turned over, cut in two again and the process was repeated until the clay was thoroughly mixed. Little actual kneading of the clay was used. However, in Japan, he was taught the kikumomi method, a much more sophisticated technique, in which the clay was kneaded in a circular movement resulting in a pattern reminiscent of a chrysanthemum flower.


(By Wendy Watson)