Apprentices (Deshi)



Craftsmen (Shokunin)

Kilns and Firings (Kamataki)


A Lifetime Apprenticeship in Mashiko

             It was late in the day, and getting dark as I arrived at Tatsuzo Shimaoka’s home and studio in Mashiko on August 21st, 1977. There was a large group assembled there in the old house. It was Shimaoka, his family, shokunin, or craftsmen, and apprentices, all in the middle of the meal they shared together every five weeks or so, when the large noborigama was loaded, and the fire started. It had taken me a year and a half to get to this place and point in time, and I was pretty excited and tense with anticipation. Mr. Shimaoka asked me how long I planned to stay. Nervously, I replied; “as long as possible”, to which he then said, “well, how about twenty years?”! Someone translated to the rest of the folks who were still eating, and a big roll of laughter went around the dim room.

            It’s now over twenty years since I returned from my 27 months in Japan, and I’ve pondered with considerable amazement how accurately Mr. Shimaoka guessed I might be there. Hardly a day goes by that I don’t think about my time in Mashiko, so long ago, and so far away. It was an experience which profoundly shaped my life, and my work.

            Those first few nights in Mashiko were surreal. The five chambered noborigama, or hill climbing kiln, consumed cord after cord of firewood. Flames quietly licked out of every possible opening in the kiln. The kiln breathed in between stokes. Oxidation, reduction, oxidation, reduction. The smell of wood smoke permeated everything. There was a subdued, gentle feeling to the experience. The workers and apprentices knew what to do with so few words needed. For three days and nights the fire and temperature steadily grew. Shifts were changed, and people slept. Sensei would look into the kiln from time to time. And I saw that intent look on his face, which only appears on a person when their whole world has stopped for a single event. There was a sort of metamorphosis happening there, a giving of birth, a creative passage through a fiery world. The work these people are doing, I thought, is being taken very seriously.

            Short nights of sleep for me. Transfixed, I did not want to miss anything. I stayed in the small house next to the woodshed, in the bonsai grower’s garden right next-door. A lone dog barked in the distance, a sad sound. And I was very far from home.

            My work at this studio soon became apparent to me. Learn Japanese, no tolerance of the inability to communicate. Throw small teacups. I thought “I can do that; after all, I’ve had three years of college ceramics. What is this soft, soft clay? It’s too soft! What is with this kick wheel which has no weighted flywheel to keep it turning after I kick? You mean I have to keep kicking while I’m throwing?! Oh my God I can’t do this!” Two weeks later, my first teacups were accepted. Slowly I found myself learning a new way, an old new way. The steady pace of the workshop became familiar after awhile, and I felt like I’d been there for a long time.

            The workshop was a very old wooden farmhouse structure. Floor was dirt, packed hard, and moist. The roof was straw, two feet thick (as was the roof over the kiln!). The humidity was very high, and a new experience for me, compared to the dry Arizona desert air I’d always known. Mosquitoes were everywhere.

            Next to my rokuroba or wheel area, sat Hiroshi Kamiya, a man in his sixties, whose expertise was in the press molding work done at Shimaoka pottery. Square vases, plates, and covered boxes.

            On Hiroshi’s other side was Fukuyan Kamiya, the foreman of the pottery. Fukuyan came to establish this studio with Shimaoka from Hamada’s place, when Shimaoka first got started in the early fifties. Fukuyan had such a deep sense of understanding of the glaze materials, clays, firings, and the entire workings of that substantial pottery operation. He also made a variety of the press-molded pots produced there. Fukuyan’s sense of humor and vigor were contagious.

            Across the doorway from where I sat, were the other three rokurobas. Shoichi Kamiya, Hiroshi’s son of about thirty, who came to work for Mr. Shimaoka when he was only about 15 years old, used the first. An excellent thrower, he was a very sensitive and quiet man.

            Next to Shoichi sat Mitsuyan Ohbuka, who was maybe forty, and had been there for about 25 years already. Also an expert thrower, he made the larger pieces, including the osara, or large platters.

            Seated near the door were Yoshisan and Tamisan. Their jobs were to carefully scrape the surface of the slip, revealing the inlay patterns beneath. Tamisan was Fukuyan’s wife, and Yoshisan was the wife of Sabuyan, the woodcutter at Shimaoka’s.

            Mr. Shimaoka’s studio was separate from the main workshop, on the same property. Toshiki Igarashi was his personal apprentice at the time.

            So that was the little family of master, apprentices, and workers who were there at that time. I got to know them all well, and we worked very closely together.

            The two years I spent at Shimaoka’s in Mashiko were a rich and magical experience for me. The setting and environment were right out of the past, fairytale like.

            Shimaoka’s work was quite diverse in form, function and surface. I truly don’t believe I could have found a better place on earth to study the kind of pottery I loved so much.  These were master craftsmen devoting their lives to making powerful pots.

            After I finished my two-year apprenticeship with Shimaoka Sensei in Mashiko, I spent four months at the home and studio of Tsuneji Ueda in Kyoto. I had wanted to see what it might be like for a potter from the folk craft traditions of the time, who lived in a more urban setting, in contrast to the countryside/agricultural feeling of Mashiko. Although I found a very modern city at the first sight of Kyoto, deep in its midst and surroundings are the oldest of what remains of ancient Japan.  Mr. Ueda was a former student of Kanjiro Kawai, another of Hamada's and Leach's contemporaries of the Mingei movement. During my stay in Kyoto, I took the opportunity to visit many of the well-known potteries in this part of Japan. Shigaraki, Tamba, Bizen, Hagi, Karatsu, Onda, were some of the better known villages and towns I visited in my travels. Wherever I went, I saw the same kind of incredible devotion to the craft of clay.

            In 1980, I returned to my home in Arizona, where I put together my own studio, and set about the difficult work of integrating my experiences into a very different culture: my own. For the first ten years after Japan, I worked primarily on the functional pottery I’d always loved so much, keeping to the strong influences I had been so exposed to in Mashiko. For the past fifteen years, I’ve been focused on large slab built and wheel thrown platters, which are primarily used as wall pieces. Incorporating my studies of strong pottery traditions from throughout the world, with the essence of my teachers' highly sophisticated work has been my elusive goal. So much of my own clay work's origins can be traced back to the rich and diverse influences of my time at Tatsuzo Shimaoka’s in Mashiko, and Tsuneji Ueda's in Kyoto.


            David McDonald     


With unflinching steadiness march on your path,
realizing that behind you is the infinite creative power.

  Paramahansa Yogananda


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This Page Was Last Updated on December 02, 2016