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Jeff Shapiro:  Poetic writings

Jeff Shapiro speaks from a book of memoirs he is currently writing about his relationship with a patron of the arts and his experiences living in Japan for nine years. This excerpt is about a visit to a National Living Treasure's home.

This is my first trip to Australia and so far it has been a memorable one. Trying to understand the intricacies and differences between capuccinos, tall blacks, flat whites and double short blacks has been somewhat daunting, but worth the effort. The only real difficulty I have is in understanding how you consider vegemite to fit anywhere along the recognized food chain?

Seriously speaking, the trip so far has been wonderful, beginning with a stay at Owen Rye's home outside of Melbourne, I saw my first Wallaby and ferns that grow like trees. Then it was on to Tanja and the wood fire conference near Tathra in the bush. Now I don't know if you all get to spend a lot of time in the bush, but for me it was a fantastic experience. Next, I was whisked from Tanja to Canberra and have been here at ANU.

What has impressed me most since arriving in Australia is the generosity of the people. Maybe it is the art community in particular, but I have been treated so well and feel that I have made so many friends here that it is a bit overwhelming (in a good sense). I just want to extend those feelings of gratitude to Janet De Boos , Greg Daly, Anita McIntyre, Jo and the art department for inviting me here and for making it such a pleasant experience.

I have been spending time with students from ANU, some I met at the woodfire conference and others for the first time here. We have had informal discussions about their work along with my perceptions and thoughts. AS far as I am concerned, this time was meant not as much for finding answers, as it was to foster burning questions. I strongly believe that the responsibility of a learning institution such as this is to impart information, but more so it is the responsibility to foster and engage in discussion and discourse. In that we need to be challenging ourselves to generate growth, so do we need to be challenging each other. We learn by questioning, experimenting, through discovery, assimilation, and extrapolation. Personally, I want to challenge and be challenged, inspire and be inspired, to move when I feel moved, to feel the passion to create as a response to what I see, hear, touch, smell, and taste.

wood-fired work by Jeff Shapiro

I would now like to begin this presentation with an excerpt from a book of memoirs I am presently writing about my relationship with a patron of the arts and my experiences living in Japan for nine years. This excerpt is about a visit to a National Living Treasure's home.

This episode took place while visiting a fellow potter who was studying in the Mino Valley. He was working at the studio of Toyoba san, the former apprentice of Arakawa Toyozo san, a National Living Treasure.Toyoba san is a great potter and a very strict teacher. While I was visiting, Toyoba san said that we could rise early the next morning and walk to the venerated old man's kiln site. We should feel the presence of the old style studio and wood kiln, to see the water wheel, and then get back for work by 8.30 a.m. sharp. In no uncertain terms, Toyoba san told us , whatever we do, "Not to bother the old man - he needs his rest and privacy!" Spoken with the wrath of God upon his lips.

This would be a wonderful opportunity. Arakawa was quite old by this time and stayed to himself. He was not working in the studio anymore. So, the following morning we got up early. I was excited at the prospect of visiting the compound that I had seen on Channel 13, a series on National Living Treasures. It was a beautiful morning in summer. We walked down the long driveway and then I caught sight of the thatched roof farm house. Right in the middle of the forest, as though it had sprang up out of the ground. It looked as though the surrounding trees and the house had grown there along side each other. It was not an intrusion on Nature, but rather an integral part of it.

We made our way over to the old Anagama tunnel kiln, and saw the studio where Arakawa san made his famous tea bowls. We saw the waterwheel. Satisfied, having breathed the forest air and spiritually satiated with images and inspiration, we started on our way back along the dirt road. As we paused at the thatched roof farm house, Arakawa san's daughter came to the front door wearing a country kimono. She beckoned to us, Don't go. Why don't you wait a few moments and my father will have tea with you. We looked at each other, both of us hearing the words of Toyoba san ringing in our ears, Whatever You do don't bother the old man. It was like having a devil and an angel sitting on your shoulder. Ahh, go ahead what have you got to loose. No, don't do it. It isn't correct. Thank you,.. but we really must get back. The words were hard to push out from our mouths, half biting our tongues as the burning desire to accept kept the words from rolling out.You won't be bothering him. Why don't you stay for tea, came the daughter's reply.

Now, there in a custom in Japan, that an offer is not accepted immediately. Sometimes only at the third or fourth offering, and even then very humbly accepted. With my hands behind my back, I realized that I was unconsciously counting. We declined the second time. Once again came the offer, and once again we declined. I think it was at this point that both of us, without conferring, hoped there would be one more offer, and there was.

Before the daughter could utter the full sentence Why don't you... we politely accepted and moved towards the rear of the house. It was like walking on to the set of some Japanese folk tale. We were told to leave our shoes and come up on to the tatami mat, rice straw floor. It was a large room with nothing in it except one low lacquer table, nothing else. The sliding wooden shutters, had been removed and from our vantage point, sitting on our knees looking out Into the depths of the forest, it was like looking at a stage set, a perfectly framed rectangular space waiting for the actors to begin their performance.

Just then, from stage left a figure appeared. He had long yellow-white hair and high cheek bones, giving the appearance of a Native American Indian. Wearing hand dyed indigo farmer's pants and top, he took careful steps, leaning forward on his walking stick. With each step he took, his dog, who seemed as loyal as his most dedicated disciple, kept pace and took a step as well. Certainly, they must have rehearsed this I said to myself.

We watched in silence as Arakawa san entered the frame of the forest and made his way three or four meters towards the center where there was a stone with a flat top, perhaps high. He maneuvered himself in front of the stone and, leaning on his stick for support, looking a little like Charlie Chaplin, he lowered himself down to sit on the stone. So now, he sat facing away from us, looking out into the distance, hands resting on his walking stick. And his dog sat facing out into the distance, and we sat, looking out into the distance, and it was the right thing to do. It was meditation. It was the moment of serenity that I so badly needed to find.

After what seemed like an hour, but in actuality was probably more like a couple of minutes, Arakawa san sighed. Not a sigh of remorse or overwork, but rather a sigh of appreciation. Perhaps for being alive, or maybe be was just thinking to himself. At any rate he sighed and without turning to us said, JYA. WELL. We were taken by surprise. Well ...what? Well, what shall we talk about today? came his reply.Oh, anything you would care to discuss would be fine. We answered.

At this , Arakawa san came up into the room. We were still aware of Toyoba san's admonishment, but the inner voice was getting smaller and smaller. We were actually sitting with a National Living Treasure, having discussions and tea in his own home. We continued conversations about which side of the mountain the trees for wood firing should be cut from, and spoke about clay - Arakawa san mostly spoke, we mostly listened. At some point we realised we were definitely very late, and that there was going to be hell to pay for this - we had better be getting back.

We excused ourselves and were in the middle of thanking Arahawa san when suddenly two men in suits came around the corner. Coincidentally, I knew one of them. He was a publisher. We were trying so hard to be polite but to make our way out of the room so we could hurry back as quickly as humanly possible, when the one fellow said,Wow. You guys are so lucky. My curiosity peaked, I asked why? Well, we are producing the definitive book on Arakawa san's life. He isn't throwing on the wheel anymore, but for the book, we have asked him to come back into the studio and make tea bowls. And since you are here, you are both welcome to come with us.

It was like a bolt of lightning running from my forehead through my skull, split as to the choices. There was the devil and angel again pulling and prodding. This was an opportunity that certainly will never happen again. We looked at each other and agreed. This could not be turned down. So, off we went to the studio.

The experience was just what I would have imagined. The dirt floor and the potter's hand wheel; a large wooden wheel with four angled holes-north-south-east-west. A stick was used to catch in one of the holes and to spin the wheel until there was enough momentum to keep it going at a good clip. Arakawa san was quite old and perhaps a little senile, but he sure had the touch. First of all he had magnificent clay. It was a light, creamy, pink color, fat, but light in weight. When it was trimmed with a metal tool on the wheel, the resulting surface looked like slightly softened strawberry ice cream after a scoop had been run through it. Or like the soft ripples on a pink sand beach after a wave had retreated. I had been looking at Arakawa san's tea bowls since I arrived in Japan. They were gorgeous.

Tea bowls are an enigma, simple forms that are very complex in their ?????? . Generally speaking, they must feel expansive on the inside, like the ocean without actually being too large. They should feel good in your hands. There needs to be a small depression in the center of the bowl for the froth or foam to collect. I will explain later in more detail with another anecdote about The Elusive and Perfect Bowl of Tea.

Arakawa san's apprentice wedged the clay into a small hump and placed it on the wheel head. Arakawa san walked over and took his place at the wheel. As he put the stick in the hole and begin to spin, it was obvious that this wheel in particular, had been used for many years. It was lopsided, undulating up and down as it turned. As the wheel slowed down, so did the undulation. Arakawa san had been doing this for so long that he was in perfect synch with the undulation, and his head moved up and down in harmony with the wheel and the clay. I could feel my own head start to move as I watched. It was very exciting to be only a few feet from this National Living Treasure as he was about to make one of those magnificent tea bowls. I felt a little like a voyeur.

I was determined to learn the steps in making a truly great tea bowl. I figured there must be at least ten steps. Well, he patted the lump of clay down on the wheel, wet his hands, centered the clay, and as he stuck his fingers in the middle of the mound to begin the forming process, I was ready to take note -step one, step two etc. He stuck in his thumbs and made some gesture with his hands and stopped the wheel. Voila. It was a tea bowl. Wait a minute, I thought to myself, I must have blinked or been distracted.

I was all the more determined to catch the different steps in the making of the next bowl. But to my astonishment the same thing happened. He went right from step one... to step ten with no steps in between. It became self evident that making a truly great tea bowl was not a technical exercise, but rather an exercise in harmony.