How far?

How far should we go when it comes to following in a tradition? There are many sides to this discussion, from people who are and aren’t working in any particular tradition.

Working in a tradition has its advantages: more than likely you’ll be able to find a teacher, someone who has a great deal of knowledge, plus the knowledge of everyone in the tradition’s lineage. That to me is the biggest advantage, one doesn’t really need to ‘re-invent the wheel’ every few decades, because the body of knowledge exists, and hopefully continues to be transmitted through various educational processes.

Okugorai Chawan

Working in a tradition can also be perceived as having a big disadvantage, namely the constraint placed on the craftsman/artist to produce work within a specific ‘accepted range’. But how far do we accept these constraints regarding our work? Is it really a disadvantage? It is really just the other side of the ‘re-inventing the wheel’ coin I mentioned above, isn’t it? So it’s a good thing? No? Maybe? I don’t know.

But, it does occur to me that how far we accept the advantages and disadvantages of our chosen traditions is simply our choice. And tradition can only take us so far. One thing that I think is very important, which people sometimes tend to forget is that tradition is not static, or at least shouldn’t be.

In the realm of Japanese ceramics, there is great import placed on Momoyama Period wares, particularly Shino, Oribe, and Karatsu among others. This time period was the sort of golden era for these and other traditions. In fact, ideal examples of all the aforementioned developed in this time, which was quite short, a mere 40 or 50 years.

Tataki Chosen Karatsu Hitoeguchi Mizusashi

MANY Japanese and non Japanese potters today hold these ideal wares up as lessons in themselves, and well they should. Ignoring work like that would be foolish when it has so much to tell us. And, many have spent their entire lives working to reproduce it. And their peers have supported this. This is important. That culture has recognized the value of something and supported it is the ultimate validation.

This happened during the pottery boom of the early 20th century in Japan. Traditions, many long dead or on life support, were revived by very enterprising researchers and potters. A great deal of effort went in to figuring out how the potters of old had produced their work. This was a very necessary step in kick starting traditions and building momentum.

But, that all happened years ago for the most part. Granted, we are still making discoveries about the technology and materials of the 1500 and 1600s even today, and will continue to do so if we work hard and are lucky. But reproducing pots from a bygone era has its pitfalls, in my opinion. The biggest being that it is simply impossible. No way. Not going to happen. Because pots are the sum of the environment in which they exist. Even if we could replicate the materials exactly, the cultural, social, political, economic, technological, perhaps even psychological environment has simply changed too much.

E Karatsu Matsu Ume Chidori Mon Tsubo

So where does that leave us? Previously I stated that tradition should not be static. Well, we’ve unearthed a lot of pots and shards and done a lot of reproducing work and striving toward an ideal. But do we really want people down the line looking back at our work and saying it was just a copy of better work even farther back in history? How do we start adding to this tradition, producing work that represents the best of our period/culture/environment?

The tradition of Karatsu pottery, of which I count myself part of (though some others do not) is a tradition with roots back in Korea, and encompasses a HUGE swath of styles. Still as in all things, everyone’s definition of what true Karatsu is varies a great deal, from the purists who accept only wares from the earliest kilns of Kishidake to others who go to the other extreme. I think it is possible to strike a balance, to be inspired by the ideal, and make pots for today, maybe even produce something never before seen this tradition.  Validation, though, is what makes or breaks us. Whatever, however, or whenever we live, we have to make pots relevant to the times, or we may not remain potters for very long. Independently wealthy potters excepted, of course.

Kawakujira Shiranami Karatsu Guinomi

A lot of things just thrown out here, undeveloped thoughts, etc… Lots of unanswered questions, but every once in a while I need to get something down in writing, just to get organized and so I don’t get lost in my head again and again. Being a youngster among potters here, in years and experience, I often just hold my tongue when these types of discussions happen, mostly to avoid coming off as contentious or just a little too big for my britches.  Well, as useful as it is for some to sit around and argue some fine nuance of a 400 year old pot, it is of equal use for others to get out there and keep things rolling into the future. Preferably with a very good foundation in the past.

Madara Karatsu Chawan

3 thoughts on “How far?”

  1. History is apart of us. I love shards, I love old things. They tickle my imagination! We all stand on that which came before. But what you say is very important. To keep traditions alive they must evolve and adapt to the present to continue to be relevant. Making old pots new is a terribly exciting and difficult venture…Thanks for your thoughts

  2. Hello Ian,
    Me too! Old shards and tools are favorites of mine to collect. Making old pots new is a good way to put it.

  3. (Mike, I found this post of yours while looking for Korean wheel examples to share with folks.)
    Related to following tradition. I like Mark Hewitt's comment that in a living tradition, the maker needs to make something that is relevant to his community today. Hamada said that you must totally digest a tradition and then make something new come out of the tips of your finger tips. I believe the immersion stage is important and apprenticeships are invaluable in this regard. But as modern studio potters, we can't just take. We need to give something back.
    We need some people making copies of old work, but most folks do not need to make souvenirs of the old work, like you find near the train stations of any of the kiln towns in Japan and around the world, be it Mashiko, Karatsu, Redwing, Seagrove or Jingzhe.
    I think designating kilns as national treasures, instead of individuals is unfortunate. Examining this practice, it is apparent that genius does not necessarily follow genetically.

Comments are closed.