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Friendship and Influence:  part 2

A Japanese Friendship and its Influence on an American Potter:  A personal Narrative

copyright August 2007

Dick Lehman

all rights reserved

Three years later, in 2002, I again returned to Japan.  And this time I had asked Mr. and Mrs. Inoue if I might spend one day and one night with them.  When the time for my visit neared, I found myself second-guessing myself:  wondering why I’d positioned myself to impose on them.

It suddenly seemed inconsiderate of me to assume that, in their mid-eighties, they were still willing to host me and to struggle through the difficulties of “Japanese-English-Dictionary-conversations!”

The visit did not get off to the best of starts: We had a quiet and awkward lunch near the train station.  Mr. Inoue’s English skills, it seemed, had deteriorated as much as my Japanese skills had.

After we left the train station Mr. Inoue seemed almost tense – confused about what to do with me.  He didn’t seem to have a plan – this was unusual.  Perhaps inviting myself hadn‘t given him enough time to make plans.  I worried. 

We walked past a large deparment store and Mr. Inoue suggested that we visit the sixth floor gallery “just to see what might be there”.  We arrived at a small alcove where some very fine pots came into view.  Immediately we both noticed a remarkable yellow Seto teabowl made by Mr. Tokuro Kato, a famous Japanese potter, and former neighbor of Mr. Inoue.

A young salesman came to greet us.  I ventured a question about being able to see the feet – the undersides – of  several of the teabowls (which were safely displayed behind glass).  After a little hesitation, we were shown the beautifully trimmed feet. 

At that moment, the gallery Manager, who seemed to have been watching us, introduced himself.  He said he was curious at this American’s interest in the bottoms of pots.  “Would you like to see more of Kato sensei’s works?” he asked.  “Here, come with me….let me show you.”

As we were being led to yet another more-secluded room, I caught Mr. Inoue’s eyes:  they were sparkling!  And the corners of his mouth couldn’t control the smile that was breaking out.  I suspected that we were both remembering the magic that had happened to us in 1999.  It seemed that when we sought to surround ourselves with pottery, some “ceramic-magic” began to happen.  We both began to relax.

After we were seated, cupboards were opened, and the dark age-stained palomia boxes began to be unpacked:  among other things, we were treated to 4 teabowls by Tokuro Kato:  an example each of Shino, Gray Shino, Black Seto, and Karatsu styles.  It was a one-person exhibition for the two of us!  The conversation became even more-relaxed surrounding these exuberant and extraordinary pots.  (The gray Shino piece had the most remarkable foot!)   The viewing and handling flowed into “maatcha” tea and sweets, then barley tea….more pots…even the gallery-owner’s interest in photos of MY pots... more conversation…more magic:  for me….for Mr. Inoue…and even, I sensed, for the gallery Manager.

“This”, I thought to myself, “is why I dared to suggest to Inoue san that we spend some time together….and why, despite the gulf of language, age and culture, Mr. Inoue had said yes.  

And the next day…??  Well, apparently Mr. Inoue DID have enough time to plan for our time together.  We first visited Mitsuru Tsukamoto, who works in exquisite celedon-glazed porcelains.  Mitsuru is the son of Kaiiji Tsukamoto, who in 1983 became Ningen Kokuho/Living National Treasure…..and for whom Mr. Inoue’s father had worked as designer and mold-maker, for decades.  We had the opportunity to see works from both the father and the son – deep rich blue and blue-green celedon glazes over fine porcelain.

And as good luck would have it, some of Mr. Inoue’s father’s designs were still being made by the production studio.  It seemed only right that in this moment that I should purchase one of these small pieces……tying together with a symbol, Mr. Inoue’s father’s life-work, my friendship with Mr. Inoue, and the father-son team of celedon fame.  As I attempted to purchase the piece I heard these words from Mitsuru Tsukamoto:  (the first English words he had spoken during our visit) “Oh, please, take this gift  -- this will be important to you.”  He knew.

But Mr. Inoue was not finished:  the afternoon  included a visit to Osamu Suzuki, the current Ningen Kokuho in the Shino tradition.  Mr. Inoue’s father, and Suzuki sensei’s father, it turned out, had been close friends.  The remarkable kindness of both Mr. Inoue and Suzuki sensei capped another unforgettable visit to Nagoya. 

As I boarded the train at the station later that afternoon, I marveled at the remarkable friendship, and the wonderfully-improbable happenings that can occur when two people of different generations, cultures, and languages share a mutual love of fine pottery.

I suppose you must know, intuitively, that all these experiences, and others like them, during my visits to Japan have influenced my life and my work.  They have introduced me, first hand, to a larger ceramic aesthetic…have connected me to professionals I’d never have met… have offered me encouragments and opportunities I’d never have anticipated….put pots in my hands and collection that I’d never have held…given me a library that continues to educate and inspire….offered me friendships that continue to nurture and deepen. 

The challenge for me, having received these life-gifts, is to learn from these experiences and my exposure to Japanese pottery, without trying to make Japanese pots…. to remain true to my own culture, and my own aesthetic, while allowing the gift of these life experiences to be the yeast that “leavens” my work.  This challenge is my life’s work – the way and work of this American potter.

I’d like to return now to the story of our 1999 visit with Living National Treasure, Mr. Takuo Kato.  It illustrates, I think, something of the “way and work” of a Japanese “master”.   When we’d arrived at Kato’s studio, I’d purposely taken my portfolio out of my shoulder bag and surreptitiously left it in the car – nothing could be more presumptuous, or exhibit worse form than for a relatively unknown American potter to show HIS works to a National Treasure.  I knew better.

But after several hours together with Kato sensei, Mr. Inoue said, in English, “Dick san, show your portfolio of work to Sensei.”I pretended not to understand.“You know, your notebook with  photos of your work!” “I…….. don’t have it.”“Well, where is it?” (Mr. Inoue knew that ALL my travel luggage was with me……….and HE had already seen my portfolio!)“Perhaps it is in the car…..I don’t know….”“Well, go get it!” Inoue directed.  (This conversation was happening in English, so I mistakenly thought Mr. Kato was unaware of the subject.)“Oh, please,” I said, “I’d rather see more of Sensei’s work.”But then Takuo Kato chimed in, in English, “Yes, please, go get your notebook.  I want to see your works!”I was in an impossible position! But I didn’t see any way, short of being impolite, to wiggle my way out of this.  So I returned with the notebook…hoping to get this over with as quickly as possible. Instead, Kato sensei repeatedly looked through the album:   studying, noticing, questioning, complimenting.  Twenty minutes passed.“What kind of wood-fired kiln produced these works?”, he asked.I showed him a diagram of the kiln and I explained my 15-day approach to wood-firing.  He asked to photocopy the diagram.  “This is something new for me,” he said.  “Very interesting.”Mr. Kato leaned forward in his chair.  “You know, your works smell like Japanese works.  I can smell Japan.  But these are NOT Japanese works.  They are your own works.  I like them very much.”What remarkable modeling! Mr. Kato was at the peak of his career…., but still curious, still learning – even from an unknown, a foreigner, a “geigin”!  He was not intimidated by his own stature…..was absolutely secure in offering a compliment or an encouragement to someone less experienced.  Here, in my estimation, is the consummate learner/teacher/master.This experience reminds me of the words of two other Japanese potters who reflect upon maturing, and mastery.

 “Aging and gaining experience makes us more sensitive to nature and beauty. The older we get…….the more we grow up…..the more we are able to see real beauty – in nature, and in others.”  (Suketoshi Matsuyama)

“The ability to continue to have our cups [-of-learning] filled depends on a sense of humility: the ability to receive from even the smallest, youngest, and least significant. If we remain ready to receive, then our cups can be filled.” (Hiromi Matsukawa)

I’m concluding that perhaps the real meaning of “sensei” – “master”  is that one continues to carry an empty cup……waiting….expecting it to be filled: not by any single person or influence or experience…….., but by and through one’s increasing abilities to apprehend, receive, recognize, express, and embrace beauty.

Mr. Inoue is now in his 90’s….doing well, with only the “inconveniences of old age”, as he puts it.  He continues, although with less frequency, to send catalogs and letters.  Lately the letters have been entirely in Japanese….with an English post script, recommending that one my Japanese friends might be able to make his letter writing easier…..”please ask for translation”… he says.  But whether in English or in Japanese, his letters almost always end this way:  “Please try and challenge to more high level.”  or  “Please try harder for more simple shape and beautiful color.”  or  “Please try to widen your sphere of activity in the work of art and essays in magazine.”

For some years, these parting requests puzzled me.  Seldom has Mr. Inoue responded to me with a compliment or a congratulation on any publication or award, or exhibition that I have completed…..almost always his letters have included only a parting request for me to “try harder”, “please make more effort”, “please always work harder”.  Like the coach of the winning Sumo wrestler a few years ago, who said:  “You know, I will continue to say to him that if he continues to work hard, and to practice diligently, and to put all of his efforts into his work, perhaps some day he will amount to something.”

So, Mr. Inoue continues to nudge me to work harder.

This (pre-edited version) article is reprinted with expressed permission from the December 2007 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

Dick Lehman
Copyright 2007
All rights reserved