Shoji Hamada: A Potter's Way and Work
Monday, April 25, 2005 at 11:38PM
Political Mammal in Personal, Values

I just read about a craftsman who worked appealingly outside of time and technology in Shoji Hamada: A Potter’s Way and Work, by Susan Peterson. Hamada was the most famous ceramic artist in Japan, and, according to Peterson, one of the most important ceramists of the 20th century. I saw a different book, Hamada, Potter (which I have not yet read), on the bookshelf of my aunt Phyllis, who I wrote about in this previous post.

Peterson describes Hamada’s way of life in detail. She visited his extensive compound in the village of Mashiko, in a valley between mountains north of Tokyo. The book has many pictures which aided my imagination: of the land, the compound, the potter, his household, and the pots. Everything about the compound is evidence of incredible dedication and Peterson is not restrained in her admiration. She writes, “I realise that, more than most people are ever able to, this man Hamada pursues the goals he truly believes are right.” She paraphrases Hamada as saying that to be a good potter, you should be undefeatable at pottery, but quite defeatable in every other aspect of your life, never let yourself be beaten at the pottery but be quite willing to give yourself up to every other situation.

Hamada’s compound had some things in common with the less famous pottery in which I spent my childhood summers. Like my aunt, Hamada lived and worked in the country in a traditional environment that he adapted to life as a potter. He used a wooden wheel and hand-wedged clay, made his own glazes, decorated by hand-painting or by pouring glazes, and encouraged visitors.

Hamada felt that the traditional way made a bond between past and present and gave meaning to the work. Hamada was old-fashioned. For one, he used local clay pickaxed from the side of a mountain which was mounded up into a giant pile in his workshop for a season of throwing. This also allowed the clay to age as he worked through it. I have watched a kick-wheel in use for untold hours, but, to my surprise, Hamada powered his wheel in a way of which I had not heard. He placed a curved push stick in one of four brass-lined holes at the top of the wheel and then, through “violent motions of his arm,” rotated the wheel quickly.

Hamada also employed wood-fired kilns with multiple chambers, rather than modern propane or electric kilns that can precisely follow a series of pre-programmed temperatures. In order to fire this way, Hamada supervised the acquisition and storage of huge amounts of wood. And then, when firing, the kilns required 24-hour attention as his staff continually heaved sticks into the wood fire to keep it stoked to the right temperature.

I was interested to learn that Hamada employed the European technique of salt-glazing in one of his kilns. This means that during the peak of the firing, his workers threw, one by one, thirty bundles (200 pounds) of rock salt wrapped in newspapers into the fire. When the salt hit the fire it would explode, and the union of soda in the salt and silica in the clay forms a glaze. There is a balance of control and randomness in salt-glazing, and the excitement that surrounded that technique added to its romance.

I paid attention to Peterson’s account of Hamada’s philosophy and noted clear similarities with the traditions that I know. Both Hamada and Marguerite Wildenhain prominently mention their disregard for the currently fashionable. Hamada believed in submersing the self, trying to work without self-consciousness and without false pride. Hamada said that he revered anonymous folk craftsmen who produced things of beauty without being conscious of doing so. He believed that most artists want to express themselves too quickly. Students should submit themselves and work their way up through the hierarchy of tasks over time. Hamada was also opposed to bragging. According to Peterson, one of the reasons he had never written or talked much is that he felt that his work spoke for him. “You must have done a very great deal before you are worthy to speak about it.”

I was also struck by the fact that Hamada focused on the importance of quality in daily output, rather than on a rare masterpiece. Hamada said that only a tenth of his work was worthy of exhibition and that his goal was to that raise that to a third. “I would like the work to be 100% worthy before I die, and then I could sleep naked in front of everyone.” Anyone, he said, can select only the best and throw everything else away. “Usually when people put on a show they put their heads on exhibit and hide their tails.” What distinguishes good work is its consistency.

Hamada’s focus on consistency makes me want to apply that insight more broadly. It reminds me, for example, of how we judge our greatest athletes. The very best, the Michael Jordans or Cal Ripkens of the world, play at a high level day in and day out. They do not just hit the occasional great jumpshot, or make a rare acrobatic catch. They exhibit a consistency in effort and accomplishment that is a worthy goal for any of us in any of our most important pursuits. I see that, as I think Hamada did, as a much harder goal and far higher aspiration than hitting it out of the park once in a while. And, as I write this, the thought makes me resolve to come closer to bringing that kind of consistency to my own work and family.

Article originally appeared on Political Mammal (
See website for complete article licensing information.