I have recently had the chance to attend a masterclass by the Japanese potter Rizu Takahashi at Lisa Hammond’s studio in Devon, England. Rizu has had kilns in both Bizen and Mino areas of Japan and was known there for his distinctive work in both styles. He moved to the South of France in 2004 where he has build an anagama style kiln. He now is making a name for himself in Europe as a potter as well as a tea master. And Lisa is well known for her beautiful Japanese style soda fired shino pots. But she also makes soda fired functional wares in traditional English style which are her bread and butter pots, she sells them at pottery markets and galleries. Lisa trains apprentices who help with the production of these pots. I had met Lisa several times in Korea at the Mungyeong Tea Bowl Festival and really like her work. So when the chance presented itself to visit her studio and at the same time to take part in the workshop with Rizu I did not hesitate.
For many years Lisa had her studio right in central London but last year she decided to move to Kigbeare Manor in the very beautiful countryside of Devon in the southwest of England not too far from St Ives and near Dartmoor with it’s wonderfully bleak landscape. Kigbeare Manor is an old farmhouse that has been lovingly restored by Maddy Carragher
and her husband Phil. They have converted the farm buildings and stables into workshops some of which are occupied by Lisa. The others are used by a jeweler, a painter and a wood worker. There is also a small gallery with regular exhibitions.
I arrived after what felt like an endless day of travel, it seem to take more time to get from Cologne to Devon than from New Zealand to Europe! After flying to London I took the train to Exeter, picked up a rental car there and then drove 45 minutes to Oakhampton. And finding Kigbeare Manor was no easy feat. I nearly gave up after a seemingly endless drive down Dry Lane, a bumpy, narrow road that got narrower and bumpier the further I got and was anything but dry, even in the middle of summer!
Having one free day before the class started I decided to drive to St. Ives to visit the Leach Pottery and many of the small galleries that are scattered all over town. St Ives is a beautiful little old seaside town that used to be popular with artists and craft-people but in the summer it is now totally overrun by tourists. It was hard to move in the streets for all the people and this was on a wet and rainy day! The Leach Pottery on the other hand was blissfully quiet. It is more a museum then a working pottery now, although there were some potters working there but their studio spaces were not open to the public. There is also a nice gallery showing the works of local potters.
The workshop started in the morning with Rizu showing us one of his techniques for making a tea bowl. He took a lump of clay and shaped the outside first by cutting it with a wire or a knife. When he was happy with the outside shape he left it to firm up and then started to hollow out the centre of the pot. He then shaped the foot of the bowl, left it to dry a bit more and then finished hollowing out the rest of the clay until the wall of the bowl are quite thin. This seemed a very labour and time consuming way of making a tea bowl, but it does give a lot of freedom in regards to the shape of the pot. The cut surfaces are very sharp and precise, every mark is highly visible. Rizu leaves these kind of pots unglazed and fires them in an anagama kiln so that the crisp surface will be as visible as possible.
Rizu also makes water jars, vases and incense containers using this technique.
After the demonstration we all had a go at trying to replicate what he did. Of course it is never as easy as it looks and our efforts were clumsy at best. Cutting the clay so that it looks right, loose but balanced is hard to do and requires lots of practice. And hollowing the pots out once leather hard is time consuming and tedious work. It did however give us plenty of chance to talk and get to know each other. The eight participants were mainly from the London area except for one lady from Wales, a potter from Ireland and myself of course.
The next afternoon was the opening of the ‘Potters Tea Party’ exhibition at Kigbeare Gallery featuring tea wares of 11 international potters including Ken Matsusaki, Yo Thom, Phil Rogers, Svend Bayer, Nic Collins and of course Rizu and Lisa. It was a beautiful exhibition. In the evening Rizu performed a tea ceremony and then gave a slide show presentaion about his work and his kilns which was very interesting.
In the following days Rizu showed us how to throw a water jar, a vase, plates and platters, a shino tea bowl and an oribe tea bowl which is quite different in shape. He also explained the correct size and weight of a tea bowl, the importance of the inside shape and the well in the bottom of the bowl. He pointed out the importance of the face of the bowl, which determines the areas that are used for drinking. He also showed us the correct way of trimming the tea bowls, this is quite different for a shino bowl compared to other tea bowl because of the type of clay that is used for shino wares. For example a shino tea bowl is always trimmed by hand with a wooden tool, never a metal one and never on the wheel!
The thing that impressed me the most was the way that Rizu worked. He looked at his pot from all sides and very carefully contemplated every move he made, every cut, every mark. But when he had made his decision the mark he made was very fast and direct, there was no hesitation. Then he would look at what he had done and ask himself in his beautiful Japanese/French accent: interesting? Yes! Or, not interesting! And then he would look at the pot again to plan his next move. He never fussed with his work. Once a mark was made that was it.
Lisa also demonstrated some of her techniques. She showed us her way of making and trimming her style of shino tea bowls and cups, and she also showed us how she makes her distinctive square bottles. It is quite a complicated process.
On my last day a few of us explored Dartmoor. It is such a desolate windswept area. It seems to be predominately inhabited by wild ponies and oddly coloured sheep. The local farmers had a problem with stolen animals so they now spray-paint all the sheep in bright colours who looks great dotted all over the moor! Then we visited Nic Collins who lives in the middle of the moor, he has a beautiful studio that he build out of mud and straw. He was just firing his anagama kiln. His huge vases, dripping in ash, are really beautiful.
Then it was time to head back to London for a day and then to Germany. I had a fantastic time with Lisa and Rizu. There is so much to learn and so much to discover, so many ways of making beautiful pots! And then of course there is also the small matter of learning to master all these new techniques we have been taught. That might take some time!