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An Australian Potter in Japan – Part 4

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


The work journal which Alistair kept from the time he started at Katsuno’s workshop reveals an experience which was probably typical for a deshi. Each week consisted of six full days working from 8 a.m. till 5 p.m. with sundays free. However, whenever there was a kiln firing, the deshi would be required to stay back to finish any preperations, working until the kiln was loaded and firing began. There was often very little talk in the workshop and there were even days when not a word was spoken. On such days, the only sound in the workshop was the turning of the wheel heads and classical music from the radio which was “controlled” by the shokuninsan.

Even though he was an experienced porcelain thrower by the time he started at the workshop, the first task Alistair was given was the making of tochin, small porcelain pads, thrown on the wheel and used to support individual pieces during firing to prevent warping of the fine porcelain wares. A different tochin is required for each different shape to be fired and they are often required in the hundreds so although Alistair soon became adept at making them, they were a constant requirement of the workshop.

Alistair then moved on to throwing various shapes beginning with a sake cup. Each new shape presented the problem of making accurate new tools, a tonbo for measuring, a kote and hera for throwing to the inside shape and a kanna for trimming the outside. Because these forms were required for production orders, Alistair was often required to throw dozens, even hundreds of the same shape, an experience which helped to perfect his throwing technique but which, because of the long hours spent at the wheel (see Figure 10), also left him with the legacy of a recurring back problem.

Alistair was permitted to do his own work in the evenings so he often stayed back for a couple of hours to make pieces of his own design. It was in Katsuno’s workshop that Alistair first began to use gosu, the natural cobalt blue colour characteristic of Kiyomizu sometsuke (blue-and-white ware), which has become a hallmark of much of his own work (see Figures 11-12). The gosu is painted on the porcelain biscuit
ware (once-fired pieces) and then covered by a coating of transparent, colourless glaze before it is fired again.

With a seven-year apprenticeship in pottery being not uncommon in Japan, it is not surprising that a special relationship often develops between master and deshi. The master often feels a responsibility to help his deshi get started on his own. Even in Alistair’s case, in which he spent only twelve months with his master, this sense of responsibility is apparent. Before Alistair left Japan, his master organised a joint exhibition of their work in Kyoto. This effectively introduced Alistair to the Japanese art world and publicly linked his name with that of his master. Katsuno has also come to Australia at Alistair’s invitation, on two occasions to give exhibitions and workshops. Although Alistair feels that exposure in Australia is good for Katsuno, there is also the aspect, from his master’s point of view, of a responsibility to his former deshi – that his coming to Australia will also enhance Alistair’s reputation. This reciprocal relationship will culminate in a joint exhibition in Melbourne in 1994.

From Alistair’s journal, which is mainly concerned with the details of work assigned to him by his master, and from the idea of the heavy workload it conveys, one gets the impression that Alistair had very little time for anything else but work during this period. However, the journal offers occasional glimpses of life outside the workshop. His Sundays off, for example, were spent on a visit to a sencha tea ceremony in Arashiyama, at a temple market, on a visit to another Kyoto potter’s workshop or, as on his birthday, on a trip to Lake Biwa. Brief mention is made of holidays for festivals such 0-bon, the Kyoto Matsuri and the end of year clean-up in the workshop prior to New Year. He was also able to take ten days off in October to go to Hokkaido to get married, having made special pieces in his own time at the workshop to give to the guests.

Alistair returned to Australia in 1982 with his wife, Miyako, bringing with him unique skills in fine porcelain making. He has maintained a continuous output since arriving back in Australia, exhibiting in numerous galleries and receiving several awards (see Appendix 1). His work (see Figures 13-17) exhibits a technical perfection rarely seen in “thrown” pottery and some of his work is so finely made it is translucent. According to one critic of his early work, he “already … has the hallmarks of a genuine master craftsman.”42 Alistair tends to create mainly classical forms which he describes as Korean-inspired and the influence of his master can be seen in the elegant simplicity of much of his work.

Although Alistair still finds it necessary to import the porcelain clay he uses from Japan, he experiments with local clays in the hope of finding a substitute of acceptable quality. He also has his own source, in Japan, of the natural gosu, which is unavailable in Australia. His work, he believes, is becoming much more his own, although the Japanese influence is still obvious, particularly in the blue-and-white wares and in the simple foliage or floral motifs that decorate much of his work. These are often reminiscent of bamboo or plum, but are more likely to be an Australian species found in his own garden or in the bush around his home in Warburton East. He also uses celadon glazing (Figure 15B), ranging in colour from an icy blue to a soft khaki and, more recently he has begun to use copper reds on white (Figure 15A) and gold lustre sparingly (Figures 17A & B).
Alistair has been back in Australia for more than ten years now. He has learnt a great deal about Japanese pottery and tradition which he has had time to assimilate and now feels ready to return to Japan, if the opportunity arises, to research specific areas of interest. However, as his work evolves he is also beginning to look to other parts of the world for inspiration, finding recently a particular affinity for Islamic decoration. Alistair shares the experience of many Australian potters who have drawn inspiration and techniques from other parts of the world to create something that is uniquely their own.