About Genku’s Stoneware Pottery

Buy pots from the Sales Gallery—proceeds benefit Yokoji Zen Mountain Center.

Xuefeng was tenzo when he studied with Dongshan. One day, while the rice was being cleaned, Dongshan asked, “Do you sift out the sand from the rice or do you sift out the rice from the sand?” Xuefeng said, “I throw out the sand and rice at the same time.” Dongshan said, “Then what will the community eat?” Xuefeng overturned the bowl. Dongshan said, “Later you will meet somebody else.” In such a manner, lofty ancients of the Way have carefully practiced this job with their own hands.

—From “Instructions for the Tenzo (the cook).” Compiled by Monk Dogen at Kannon Dori Kosho Horin Zenji Temple Translated by Taigen Daniel Leighton and Shohaku Okumura

 

About these pots. I use a clear base glaze with no oxide on the inside of my functional pots, except for brush decoration in blue, red, or black oxides. Outside glazes are contain small quantities of oxides like Iron (for celadon green and brown-red tenmoku), Cobalt (the blue found on most of the ancient—and new—Chinese porcelains), and Rutile, the most common natural form of Titanium Dioxide. These oxides impart a variety of colors to glazes and slips.

It is best to avoid craft pottery with fully colored insides because even carefully formulated glazes can leach small amounts of chemical when in the repeated presence of acidic foods. I use no problematic ingredients, no Lead, Lithium, Barium, nor Chromium oxides on functional ware. These pots are high-temperature fired in my kiln so they can withstand your dishwasher or your oven. (It is best to avoid sudden changes in temperature, though.) Be careful with pots in the microwave: they may quickly become too hot for safe handling.

Process notes: For me, pottery is a kind of shikantaza, a meditation practice of just sitting, without putting thought upon thought.

I begin by lighting a stick of incense and saying a Gatha or verse. Then, if it is time to throw, consult the notebook to remember how much clay I need for whatever vessel I’m making. Next, weigh a big chunk of clay, enough to make what I want to throw that day. I kneed it, putting my weight onto the big lump 100 times, spiral-wedging, it’s called. Then I break off and weigh some lumps, spank them into rough balls,  slap one on the treadle wheel and kick the wheel into action.

I cut finished pots (not finished, really, but freshly-thrown pots) off the wheel with a tool I made from fishing line stretched between a couple of pieces of oak dowel (a Simon Leach trick), then gently place it on the wareboard. The pots are then dried to leather hard and may be carved, glazed, stamped with my mark or something else, and sometimes painted with a design in red or blue oxide. I generally tidy up as I go along but sometimes I don’t do that, especially if it is hot and the pots need attention as they may dry too fast to stamp and glaze properly.

I don’t pre-fire, or bisque these pots. I single fire the old-school way. Saves gas, and makes the work flow better. This makes glazing and decorating interesting in a precarious way. Un-fired pots are fragile and finicky. Unfired pots may take to a glaze readily, or they may bloat or crack or get too wet when they find the glaze doesn’t suit them. Potters have to pay close attention to how a pot looks and feels, how it sounds when you tap on it, even how it smells when it is wet (or dry).

Some days I reclaim old clay, buckets of trimmings or failed pots that collapsed at the wheel. This can happen when my throwing was interrupted by thinking or by an unskillful move of hand, arm, or throwing-stick. Sometimes, the clay is just in a bad mood. Clay often has ideas of its own.  On reclaim days, the sun helps dry out old wet clay, which is cleaned and wedged (and wedged and wedged—sweaty work). Then it is stored away in bags to make new pots. (One day I’ll make a monster jar to keep clay in, the way ancestral potters used to do but for now, I hold my nose and use a plastic trash bag, which feels wrong though it does keep the clay from drying out).

Or maybe it is firing day, when wareboards laden with pots move to the kiln on my shoulder, to be inspected, dusted off, and stacked in the kiln to dry out for a while over a low fire in my little updraft kiln. Then, over 10 or 11 hours, pots are fired slowly to ∆10—about 2377ºF, first in an oxygen rich fire, then as it gets hotter, cutting back the air so that the glaze gets hungry for Oxygen, a reduction fire.

This reduction firing business started in China, likely about 200CE.  In reduction, the hungry fire begins to steal O2 from the clay body and glaze, transforming the oxides (and doing other mysterious things), thus imparting color.

It would be not right to say that the potter fires the kiln. The fire fires the kiln. The potter tends the fire with ears, nose, eyes, and hands but the fire does the work, moving along its own peculiar pathways through the kiln. No fancy gauge to monitor the gas—but ears can tell if the gas has indeed been turned up or down. The nose can detect the carbon burn-out that happens between 500º and 800F, or the slightly sweet smell of the melt at reduction temperatures. Eyes (shaded with dark glasses) peek at the pyrometric cones through the spy-hole, or check the pyrometer (a fancy tool and a potter’s friend).

The last stages of firing are exciting—gas and air have to be tweaked according to how the kiln was loaded and how the fire and air move around among the white-hot pots. Gas burners can be finicky at high temperature—there is much to attend to and much to learn with each firing. The results are sometimes surprising (or disappointing); a reminder that untold millions of hands and countless ages went into the clay, the fire, the air, the water, and the skin-bag we call a potter when these arise together to make a pot. That a potter has any say at all in this process is quite miraculous.

I like to use a slip made from my throwing clay, and add Cobalt or Yellow Iron Oxide, and carve through the slip (scrafitto) to reveal the lighter colored clay body beneath. This venerable technique was a favorite of Vietnamese potters (and a fave of one of my teachers, Patrick Siler). The Vietnamese potters often carved dragons and clouds on their storage jugs. Sometimes I use Chinese or Korean “sumi” ink brushes for brushwork on glazed pots. I may slice and deform my pots, or roll a circular clay stamp, one that I’ve crafted and fired, across the surface for a repeated design. If you see me inspecting an odd piece of metal in a junkyard or a flea market, I’m likely thinking about what it will do when impressed onto a piece of clay.

There are plenty of potters in my little town in South Carolina. We share tricks and ideas, fire kilns together, and learn from one another. You might say there is a clay Sangha around here, as we share our practice.

Genku’s pottery bio: I started throwing pots back in the 1980s working with Lynn Munns in Casper, Wyoming, a master potter schooled in the tradition of Soji Hamada and Bernard Leach. Potters of this ilk create forms that are functional and beautiful.  I also studied with Patrick Siler, a student of Peter Voulkos—a clay artist who founded the ceramics programs at the LA County Art Institute and UC Berkeley. Pat  saw clay as a medium for carving and drawing, which he did on robust, simple forms like plates or cylinders. A few years back I took some classes from Virginia Scotchie, a professor at the University of South Carolina where I’m also employed. Virginia is known for colorful sculptural forms and skillful glaze formulation—I think she is a glaze magician (that’s what happens when you study at Alfred University as she did—Alfred is a magnet for clay art and technology).

More recently I’ve  learned a great deal from Simon Leach, visiting his studio in Central Pennsylvania and in workshops online and in person, here and there. Simon is a grandson of Bernard Leach, and I consider Simon to be among the best teachers when it comes to beautiful, functional ware. Simon is not deluded by perfection, nor prone to overthink his work. His skill is born of generations of claywork, and many years at the wheel, the glazing table, and the kiln. (Hover over the images below to see who made what).

Though I occasionally hand-build small altar pieces or boxes, I generally work at the wheel.  “Center the clay and center yourself,” as Simon says. Centering the self opens the potter to the four primordial elements that, for me, allow thinking to drop away and form to flow, like water poured into an empty bowl.

Artist statement: I see that potters, these days, write Artist Statements. I’d rather make pots, and use them. I suppose I could say what I am trying to communicate with pots. That’s easy: Nothing in particular, since I make empty pots, not full ones.

It is up to you to find a use for a hand-made pot.  Please don’t just put them on a shelf. I hope your pot holds your cereal or coffee or salt or potato salad, that your pitcher doesn’t drip too much and that the lid fits the jar pretty well. Your tea bowl should feel warm and solid in your hand, a comfort from earth and water and fire and air and innumerable labors, the least of which were the work of the potter who, unwisely, might claim to have “made” a pot.

May you wash your bowl with attention so it won’t break too soon.  When it breaks, as all pots worth their clay will do, I hope you put the shards in the bottom of a flowerpot, or maybe put them in a fish tank, so they may still be of some use to some plant, or some goldfish, for the time-being!

 

-June 2020