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To Embrace An Odd Paradox

by Dick Lehman

My first glimpse of the amazing platter occurred one afternoon when my friend, "Vera", came into the studio with her new Japanese husband. Having years ago lost her first husband, and having conscientiously raised her two children alone, Vera had now found the love of her life and was very happy. Vera was in the habit of coming into the studio often and, knowing my love of Japanese ceramics, brought in a most remarkable platter — their wedding gift — for me to see.

The platter was nearly sixteen inches in diameter. Its base glaze, a transparent copper blue-green, was more complex than I can describe. The pyroplastic flow of hues had a transparency and depth and intensity that I had seen only one other time in my life:  the unforgettably complex range of colors that I had witnessed while snorkeling over the top edge of a thousand-foot-deep underwater ravine in the crystal clear waters off the coast of Haiti was its only rival. The chasm of colors convinced me that I was falling into the watery blue abyss...even though I was floating. So too this complex mix of glass and mystery had a depth that could have been a galaxy...could have been miles deep.

Across the range of this depth floated six bold creamy-white lines of poured glaze, transporting one’s eye from the fluid depths, back to the surface of the platter. The cross-hatch pattern created four roughly equal squares within the circumference of the platter.

And from these fat white shimmering lines fell cascading flows of crystals...golden crystals which seemed to sink and disappear into the depths of the pot’s blues and greens and teals and aquamarines.

Neither Vera nor her husband knew anything about the origination of the platter; they did not know who was the maker of the piece. They knew from whom the piece had been given, but nothing of its provenance. The piece was unsigned.  It’s only marking, a sticker which read "Kai-un" (good fortune), obviously referring to the occasion of the gifting. 

Something about the pot’s attitude suggested to me "Mashiko". But a quick page-through some of my texts revealed nothing conclusive, and we set the texts aside and just admired the piece.

I offered to photograph the platter for Vera and her husband to provide for them some record of their treasure for insurance purposes. But I also secretly hoped that I could do so in order to surround myself  with an image of this wondrous work. However they seemed uninterested in my offer and unconcerned.

Several years passed, and I saw less and less of Vera. Her visits were shorter, and more infrequent, nearly stopping altogether.

Then one day, after a lengthy absence, Vera appeared in the studio carrying a large package under her arm. She seemed to have aged 20 years since I had seen her last. She looked more tired, almost haggard, and very intense. "Tell me please, do you sell pots on consignment?", she asked insistently.

"I have never done that before.... But what do you have in mind?," I inquired.

"I have something that I would like you to sell for me.... Will you do it?"

"Well, why don’t you show me the piece," I offered.

To my amazement, out of the package came the same platter we together had admired some years earlier. "I don’t understand," I said.

Then slowly came the sad story...of a marriage that had gone awry, of spousal abuse, of attempts by her husband to sink her years of savings (set aside for her children's college educations) into an already failing and misguided business deal...of her decision to file for divorce...and the ultimate shock of her husband’s sudden heart attack, and death, just weeks after the divorce papers were filed.

"I don’t think that I can live with this piece around the house," she said. "It holds too many bad memories for me. Will you sell it for me?"

Almost before I knew what I was doing, I heard myself telling Vera just how much I had admired the pot when I first saw it — how the memories of the piece had sustained and nurtured me in some wonderful way, over the years. I heard myself asking her if she would consider selling it to me.

"Oh no, I could never sell it to you", she paused, and my heart fell. "Instead," she said slowly and with a thoughtful nod,  "why don’t you let me give it to you.  And in exchange, why don’t you let me take some of your works in trade. This way, I can part with some of these difficult memories, and can build some new happier memories around the works of yours which I select."

The platter has been an almost constant companion to me ever since, sitting on the mantle over the fireplace, or on the Hoosier cupboard, occasionally hosting large salads or a swelling mound of pasta for a table full of friends. Almost always it has been within sight.

And over the years its mystery has continued to intrigue me. It has prompted a series of explorations as I responded to its inspiration:  platters and glazes and decorative patterns of my own — none of them copying the mastery of this inspiration — but investigations which attempted to set free the ideas which my ongoing contact with this piece seemed to birth.

Then the unthinkable happened: some visitors to our home broke the platter. It was an innocent accident. And they were well-meaning, even offering to pay for the piece. But how can one set a price on such a treasure? What was it worth? I didn’t really  know what I had, where it came from, or who made it.

I spun my tail of woe and misfortune to a friend of mine. He is an expert on ceramics from all over the world.  He cautioned me to take the time to find out what it was that I had been caretaker for during all these years: "I never told you before, but as I have looked at that platter over the years, I have been thinking that you may have a ‘very important’ piece there. You need to find out more about it."

With help, I secured the names of two experts on Japanese ceramics: one from the East coast, one from the West coast. I sent photos and measurements, and descriptions to each. The West coast contact was the first to respond. She told me that she’d had her intuitions, and had tested those intuitions with another group of authorities (all of whom echoed her assessment). But as a precaution before responding to me, she took the documentation on the piece to yet another expert:  this time to a specialist on Mashiko ware.

This specialist was direct and to the point. His note, which my West coast contact forwarded to me, said essentially this: "This piece was made in Mashiko. It was made by Mr. Shoji Hamada." 

My mind began to spin. Immediately I began to think about what its value to me had been over the years, how it had inspired me, and how it represented a connecting thread in my life as a potter.

I began to recall some the reading that I had done back in 1979 and 1980, years during which I contemplated whether or not I would have the courage to "take the plunge" and become a full-time potter. I remember reading and rereading Susan Peterson’s and Bernard Leach’s accounts of Mr. Shoji Hamada, his life, his work, his philosophy. I recognized how what I had read and understood seemed to be just what I had needed to hear in those moments And I can remember clearly, even now, the sense of confident knowing which overtook me one afternoon, while reading about Hamada: not only could I become a potter, I must become a potter!

I mused, with more than a little embarrassment as I remembered the several occasions when I had been with potter-friends — friends who have Hamada cups in their collections. I remembered my self-pitying, and no-doubt jealous-sounding whining: how I wished that I could surround myself with work of such stature. But I knew that I would never be able to do so.

And I laughed aloud as I recalled some of the comments attributed to Hamada: how his unsigned work was meant to be recognized because of its spirit and quality, and not because of his signature; how it was meant to inspire based on what it was, not based upon his stature or reputation. I reflected upon how my not knowing who made the platter had perhaps allowed me to be more affected, more inspired, and more freed by it than I would have been, had I known (and perhaps had felt, as a result, some awkward need to accord it too large a level of  ‘reverence’).

I imagined Hamada laughing with me from his grave, smiling at me, knowing that perhaps only now I understood first-hand the value and importance of his not having signed his work.

For three days I rode the crest of this amazing news. I was ecstatic. I was in awe. I could hardly believe that I had lived with his work all this time and not known it. I  remembered how casually I had treated this piece (pastas and salads notwithstanding) and grinned, wondering whether (had I known) I would have been able to use the piece with such abandon. I laughed at myself for not knowing during  all those years. How could I not have known?

However, in alternating moments over those three days I heard, from my heart,  a parade of doubts  regarding the correctness of the assessment and the accuracy of the authorities: I still had not seen a piece quite  like this in all the texts, or even in my visit to Hamada’s museum in 1990. Wouldn’t I have seen something more like it by now?  The glaze seemed more transparent than the Mashiko copper green....and those crystals? And what about the clay body, I wondered. Is the Mashiko clay this gritty gray body, or is it a bit more coarse?  And wasn’t Hamada’s trimming a little less refined?  I vacillated between the misery of doubt, and the exhilaration of the good news.

On the fourth day my mail brought me the East coast response: "Thank you for your letter of 15 September. Your Japanese dish is certainly a product of Mashiko and the Hamada tradition. The copper-green glaze is a Mashiko standard, but its use as the ground glaze, with the pattern executed in white glaze, seems a fresh variation by another (not Mashiko-based [or Mashiko-trained]) potter — I don’t associate this color combination with Hamada. (No way of telling from the photograph whether the clay is the typical gritty gray Mashiko body.)... I hope this information is helpful."

Now what to do? Two opposite-leaning opinions, both by experts — but neither absolutely clear-cut and without doubt. The West coast valuation played into my fondest hopes: longings which I had never allowed myself to express or believe. Yet the East coast opinion echoed some of my basic nagging doubts about the link to Hamada: the glaze, the clay, the apparent uniqueness of the piece.  

I suspect that it would be possible, with proper research, to know with little doubt whether or not this platter was made by Hamada. But is this the certainty I seek? What, I asked myself, do I really want? 

More than anything else I found myself wishing to have the platter back...wishing again for the revelation, the enthrallment, and the mystery that had accompanied those years of being its caretaker. The "gift" of the platter had been its invitation to encounter within myself a mysterious illumination, and a freeing sense of inspiration.

The emotional roller coaster surrounding these days, and the focus on "who" (who had made it and who was right about it) and not "what", had unfortunately transformed this once-wonderful platter from "gift" to "commodity"...and with it, some of the illumination, and the joy, and the pleasure had vanished.

I have made my decision. I have decided not to find out for sure, not to know, not to pursue certainty. I have determined to give equal weight to the contradictory opinions of experts and to place myself in the middle of ‘not-knowing’:  to embrace an odd paradox, and to accept the nurture which attends this unresolved puzzle. 

I know that making this choice will not return me to an uncomplicated earlier time. But I can decide to suspend the search, at least for now.

I have located, in New York, a fellow who is an expert at restoration. (It is said of him that he can put the ‘ring’ back into a broken Ming dynasty bowl, and that it is nearly impossible to tell that it had ever been broken.) Restoration is due to be completed within a couple of weeks.

I will get the platter back. The gift will be returning to me. I can hardly wait.

Dick Lehman is a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly Magazine, and maintains a full-time studio and gallery in Goshen, Indiana.

This article is reprinted with expressed permission from the April, 1999 issue of Ceramics Monthly Magazine, PO Box 6102, Westerville OH 43086-6102, USA; www.ceramicsmonthly.org

© Dick Lehman, 1999. All rights reserved