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 ones 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 pots
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. Its only marking, a sticker which read
"Kai-un" (good fortune), obviously referring to the occasion
of the gifting.
Something about the pots 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 have something that I would like you to sell for me.... Will
you do it?"
"Well, why dont 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 dont understand,"
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 husbands sudden heart attack, and death,
just weeks after the divorce papers were filed.
"I dont 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 dont you let me give it to you. And in exchange,
why dont 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 didnt 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
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 shed 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 Petersons and Bernard Leachs
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
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 Hamadas museum
in 1990. Wouldnt 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 wasnt
Hamadas 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 dont 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
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
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
I will get the platter back. The gift will be returning to me. I can
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