is a long time to wait before returning to a place that has played such a significant role in one's life. But that's what it took for me to make it happen. Choosing the path of pottery making as a livelihood didn't help to make it happen any sooner. I would have never guessed that I'd actually make it back to Mashiko one day.
So in 2006, on my 50th birthday, I simply decided that it was time. Would anyone even remember me there? Yes, "Arizona David", was remembered. Shimaoka Sensei and his family did indeed remember me, and welcomed me back for a visit.
I spent three weeks in Mashiko that June, exploring the town and trying to remember all the pottery workshops and kilns I had visited as a young man so long ago. My old friend Masayuki Miyajima graciously allowed me to stay with him at his home for a week, and then drove me down south to Gunma Prefecture to drop me off at the home of Toshiki Igarashi, who had just finished firing his noborigama, and had a few days off before the unloading to hang out with this old gaijin (foreigner) for awhile. My timing was perfect, as I got to help unload the kiln and to see what Igarashi San was making those days.
It was good that I was able to go and visit these good people when I did; Shimaoka Sensei died just over a year later, and then Igarashi San in January of 2010. Toshiki Igarashi was my fellow apprentice at the Shimaoka Pottery from 1977 to 1979, and at the time he was a very good friend to me, looking after me somewhat like a little brother.
According to Yoshiko Fudeya (Shimaoka Sensei's oldest daughter), during the firing of the noborigama in October of 2007, Shimaoka Sensei collapsed, and later died in hospital, at the age of 88. He worked until the end of his life, and inspired so many in the field of ceramics.
Yoshiko San said that one of her father's last wishes was to gather all the earlier foreign students together, and along with the later generation of young Japanese apprentices, to make new work and then fire up the large noborigama (climbing kiln) once more. It had not been fired since that October of 2007, and with the lack of the old master and his "shokunin", or craftsmen, it would not happen again without a considerable group effort.
So Yoshiko San put the word out to those of us who had been working and studying at the Shimaoka Pottery in the early days. Not everyone was able to make it. Five of us (from lands outside of Japan) did.
From top left; Andrew Halford, Steve Sullivan, William Plumptre, David McDonald, Taizo Kuroda, Craig Miron. Bottom center; Kei Shimaoka; Yoshiko's son, and Sensei's grandson. Photograph by Tsuyoshi Inui.
Andrew Halford (Australia), Steve Sullivan (Seattle, USA), and Craig Miron (California, USA), were all at the Shimaoka Pottery in the early 1970's era, along with Taizo Kuroda. I was there from 1977 to 1979, and William Plumptre (England) did his apprenticeship there in 1985. None of us could believe that we would ever find ourselves sitting at the wheels in our old workshop again.
Above: Andrew Halford, 1974 & 2009
Above: Steve Sullivan, 2009 & 1973.
Steve's daughter, Perrin Teal-Sullivan, wrote this in her father's journal as he embarked on his journey to Mashiko in May of 2009; "...part of your role in this is to contribute work in this homage to your teacher... if that consists of something other than a clay piece, that is fine, but make sure you have made something and pursued something that is real, whether it be clay, words, video, or photographic documentation. In other words- remember that this project, is not about you or your personal development or a closure of your circle, but is about something bigger: The legacy of your sensei, that is now carried on in you and the others, and that your participation in this project is ultimately about that... about creating evidence of the strains of knowledge that have been passed along to you, and that your work is your offering to your sensei in homage..."
Above: David McDonald, 1977 & 2009
Above: William Plumptre, 2009
Above: Taizo Kuroda 1973 & 2009
Kei Shimaoka's first pot? I took this photo in 1979. Second photo of Kei loading the kiln was taken by Tsuyoshi Inui.
One evening Yoshiko San invited the old shokunin (craftsmen) to join us in the workshop for a dinner party. Fukuyan, Mitsuyan, and Shochan worked as skilled potter/craftsmen at the Shimaoka Pottery for many years, and Fukuyan and Mitsuyan only retired after Sensei had passed away.
Early on in our revisit to Mashiko in May of 2009, Steve Sullivan and I thought it would be a good idea to try and build a timeline of people who came to work and study at the Shimaoka Pottery since Tatsuzo Shimaoka started it in 1953. At some later date I will type it up properly so that it may be seen in detail by all. But for now I will simply show the large paper chart that Steve drew up and posted on the wall during our visit. As folks came and went during that time, the details and facts contained in it became solidified.
What it shows is that over the years since the pottery began there were seven shokunin, or working craftsman potters, 12 Japanese "deshi", or apprentices, and around 19 foreign students who spent enough time there to be able to call their study an "apprenticeship".
Yoshiko Fudeya was about as kind and generous a hostess as a visitor to Japan could ever dream of. Along with her duties of managing the pottery after her father's death, she tended the gardens and fields around the pottery (in the true tradition of her mother), and prepared a fresh and wonderful lunch for us everyday, as well as dinner quite often. William Plumptre even got the extra Royal treatment of a massage when he complained that his old back couldn't take sitting over the potter's wheel like he used too!
The month of May 2009 was filled with our production of pottery for the upcoming firing of the noborigama. There was a break of a month in June so that Kei could catch up with some other obligations, and so that the work we all made could be bisque fired. A second trip to the pottery was made in July, so that the wares could be glazed, and the kiln loaded and fired. Craig Miron, Steve Sullivan and I went back to our respective homes in the USA, while Andrew Halford stayed in Mashiko continuing his work there. William Plumptre returned to England, and then rejoined the rest of us in July. An exciting time was ahead for us all.
Kamataki; Firing the Large Noborigama
David McDonald & Bruno Pifre (who studied at Shimaoka's around 1981). Bruno lives in Japan, and joined us for the firing.
Traditionally a meal is shared at the end of the long days and nights of firing. After three days of long shifts at the kiln, and little sleep, once the firing was over Kei gave his family's thanks to all of us who joined in for this special event.
Kamadashi; the Kiln Unloading
A large vase from the firing, made by Steve Sullivan, and a multi-piece lantern by David McDonald.