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apprentice in mashiko: another clay myth exploded?

updated mon 20 may 02


Janet Kaiser on mon 20 may 02

When my Mother was working as a nanny, one of her charges came running
to tell-tale to her mother, that her little sister was being very
naughty shouting rude words out of the window. What, inquired both
women, was she saying? "Oh, Mummy darling, Nanny dear, she is saying
'Lavatories, bottoms and knickers'!" Needless to say, that entered our
family annals as a valid expression of disgust, which I had cause to
use last week.

I obviously missed the most amazing demonstration and talk by Charlie
Obum, an American working in Japan, who was invited over to Wales by
David and Margaret Frith when they were out in Mashiko. One North
Wales and another South Wales potter were in The Chapel of Art and
falling over themselves enthusing about him, his philosophy and
wisdom, the way he worked on the traditional wooden kick wheel he
brought over with him and... well, I will leave to others to expand
further, if they feel brave enough! :-)

What interested me most was his personal history and the learning
process from the time he went out as a 16 year old. Settled, learned
the language and married. He apparently even had difficulty with some
words and expressions in English during the demonstration. This is not
unusual for ex-pats who are abroad a long time and totally immersed in
their new culture and especially work, where they only learn the local
vocabulary for tools and other skills, techniques, expressions etc.

He apparently teaches English and has another job to pay his way
whilst an apprentice. I had not realised that was a requisite. And
his apprenticeship, far from being the structured and repetitive job I
have always understood it to be in Japan, is apparently based on
learning each of a certain set of TOOLS (not skill, pot shape or
whatever) at a time. Once a particular tool-skill is learned to the
Nth degree, one moves on to the next with the mutual agreement and
blessing of the Master, but not at his edict. The Master does not set
tasks or production quotas either. At least not at the pottery Charlie
works at.

He also explained that each job is done by a different expert with a
very definite "job description"... From wedging to throwing to
decorating. Building wheels, firing kilns... Every task is undertaken
by someone different. Wedging, incidentally, is a woman's task in the
macho world of a Japanese pottery. All Masters of a Single Skill, cogs
in the wheel. So really.... Hey, Clay Buddies!! Grab this: Japan must
therefore be a nation of "dabblers"! How about that? This puts a
completely new complexion on the romantic notion we have in the West.

Far from a production and apprenticeship ethos very similar to
European production potteries prior to the industrial revolution, it
is nothing of the sort! How about that? Another clay myth exploded! I
am almost (but not quite) speechless! Can it be that there is one sort
of apprenticeship for foreigners and another for home-grown potters?
Has the basis of the myth been a form of spin or entrepeneurship
providing the external market with a product they wanted and sought? I
find it all quite intriguing!

I will leave it up to the Clayarters who were there in the flesh to
fill you in on the wonderful story of the Old Man potting to the day
he died and other fantastic details of what was surely one of the best
days North Wales Potters has ever hosted. Kudos to them and the
Friths. Woe is me! Alas! Alack! that I missed it all first hand...

Janet Kaiser - Delighted to have some great Avril Farley in the Forest
of Dean pots to exhibit! Another Clayart Connection! And she has even
met Ivor in Australia... What a small world!
The Chapel of Art / Capel Celfyddyd
Home of The International Potters' Path
8 Marine Crescent : Criccieth : GB-Wales