Bernard Leach: An Earnest Presence

When I made my first pot in 1962 I was 24 and a high school English teacher near Swarthmore, Pa. Bernard Leach was 75; /4 Potter's Book (APB) was in its ninth printing, and Leach was visiting New Zealand and Australia, where, in a radio broadcast, he said,

 The potter today has been forced into the same position as the artist. During my lifetime something has happened, bringing about a new set of values-an expanding consciousness of what is true and beautiful in life. The task before us is to discover how to use this new perception.

Only through a class act of the imagination can anyone under the age of, say, 55, understand how esoteric it was to drink from a hand-made cup in 1962, at least in Pennsylvania, where there were 3 production potters I knew of within 100 miles of Philadelphia. Ceramics wasn't taught in any school I had attended, and the only thrown pots I'd ever seen weighed more than 10 pounds apiecesalt- glazed crocks and jugs, artifacts from another era. My naive but compelling interest in this new field fed my natural curiosity; potting somehow fit in with a daily 40-mile commute, teaching, directing The Diary of Anne Frank, sponsoring the chess club and school newspaper, organizing a Sunday-evening book discussion group for my students, and ogling Holly, our 5-month old daughter. In retrospect, it was a way to become personally involved in "an expanding consciousness of what is true and beautiful in life."

My ceramics teacher and colleague, Jim Kietzman, a gifted and gift-giving Quaker who once referred to me as "the best lower-case friend" he had, owned two ceramics books, Rhodes' Clay and Glazes for the Potter, and A Potter's Book, and I often borrowed them both.

Either book could have been intimidating to one caught up in the immediacy of the medium, but each in its own way was an invitation to anyone who wanted to learn more about the vast subject of pottery-making. APB became for me, as it was for so many, "The Potter's Bible," although, unlike orthodox Leachians, I consider it less than divinely inspired. It's just an awfully good book in its own way. Leach could have simply soaked up and used what he had learned about ceramics, but his keen curiosity was matched by his motivation to share it through writing. That in itself was a political, even a radical, act in the late 1930s when he was writing. He was rebelling against the tendency of most potters to protect the deathbed secrets so hardwon, so jealously guarded, so rarely written down, and most certainly never dispensed to strangers. (The simple act of throwing common salt into a high-firing kiln was once protected by patent in England!) His book is still in the first rank of a long and motley parade of volumes challenging the best of us to keep up with our reading. (By my own estimation, well over 95% of everything ever written in English for potters has been published since 1940, when APB first appeared.)

Leach thought carefully and wrote accordingly. He was a master of aphorism; my copies of his books are underlined with sentences, phrases, and paragraphs that meet the test, "What oft was said, but ne'er so well expressed." From APB:

 Pottery has its own language and inherent laws, and words have theirs, and neither can be bound by the other.

 In a broad way the difference between the old potters and the new is one between unconsciousness within a single culture and individual consciousness of all cultures.

 It is the uniformity of perfection that kills.

 To a craftsman it is more important to know what works well than to know in precise detail why it works well. Nevertheless it would be absurd for any craftsman today not to take advantage of the results of modern scientific research.

 Long chimneys increase velocity and cause irregular heating. Short chimneys protract firings.

When Jim Kietzman suddenly died six months after teaching me the fundamentals of throwing, Leach became a kind of mentor in absentia. Though much of what he wrote was beyond my grasp, there were a sufficient number of handholds from one level of understanding to another.

Reflecting on what we teach ourselves through consistent making and firing (attended by careful observation and memory), we realize the catalytic effect of reading. Leach's book provides a functional, jargon-free vocabulary for articulating what we do with our materials, affecting not only what we read about pots but also our receptivity to what the pots may tell us about themselves.

That Leach successfully combined so many aspects of potting makes his book an even greater accomplishment, not only for its historical gleanings, but for the commingling of process and values-with him, "how" and "why" are two sides of the same page. His eye for detail was insatiable, and regardless of whether the reader considers him an authority or authoritarian, Leach arrived at his values through honest intellectual vigor and a passionate love of his subject. Michael Cardew, in the Preface to Pioneer Pottery says, "...A Potter's Book was the real pioneer, breaking new ground so that others could follow without losing confidence."

Leach often wore a tie in the studio, and his forms reflect a certain, sometimes grave, formality; they were made by a "Bernard," not a "Bernie." He was a classicist, a coaxer of clay, not given to goosing the medium. He performed forms rather than composing, imaginatively expanding, or distorting them. I can't recall his ever using the word, "fun" in connection with pottery; with him it was a serious and compelling activity, all of it, though congeniality had its role. As for the rip, the tear, the slash or gouge in service of spontaneity or imaginative expression, he would have likely sided with Queen Victoria's dictum, "We are not amused." He eschewed egotism in the guise of narcissistic "originality:"

Egotism has to be obliterated, then the pot belongs to everybody, and everybody is a creator. This is why we can feel the impersonal beauty of the traditional arts. Then what is the beauty of either a Rembrandt or a Michelangelo-is that impersonal? No, it is highly personal, but beyond egotism. Rhodes trod lightly in Stoneware and Porcelain when assessing Leach's work:

Leach has had an absorbing interest in the pottery of the past, and his greatest contribution, perhaps, has been to make the techniques and the philosophy of Oriental ceramics more available to Western potters. His absorption in this task has perhaps prevented him from developing a truly personal style, or a pottery which seems in keeping with any dynamic or developing Western tradition.

What Rhodes might have said is that Leach, either from personal preference or susceptibility to guidance from a particular group of friends in Japan, concentrated quite exclusively on one or two pedigreed aspects of Japanese ceramics for his inspiration, a fact also noted by Louise Cort in Shigaraki, Potters' Valley:

In the mid-1950s, Yanagi, Hamada, Kawai, and a group of mingei enthusiasts paid a formal call on the valley for the benefit of their visiting comrade Bernard Leach. As a member of the Ceramic Research Institute, [Toshizo] Hiranowas impressed that Leach had eyes only for the sanctioned "folk art" products, ignoring all the early unglazed pieces as well as the namako-glazed hibachi.

Leach continued to give special credence to decorated glazed stonewares and porcelains while neglecting any mention whatever, in any of his books, of the natural-ash glaze connoisseurship of work produced at the kilns in Bizen, Echizen, Iga, Shigaraki, Tamba, and Tokoname. Rhodes' Tamba, The Timeless Art of a Japanese Village (1970), attempted to broaden our understanding of the range of ceramic expression unique to Japan by concentrating on another aspect of the aesthetic spectrum. Rhodes says as much in the book's opening phrase, "Japanese pottery is so various that it defies generalization."" His challenge in presenting another, aesthetically radical aspect of Japanese ceramics was perhaps more daunting than Leach's. While it is a comparatively small jump from appreciating Wedgwood to learning to enjoy Leach standard- ware-if we can tango, we can samba-nothing quite prepares one raised in our culture for the conundrums of, say, the Kamakura-era Tamba jars with their vitrified Grape-Nuts textures and random, fire-born glaze effects that so captivated Rhodes. Interestingly, both Leach and Rhodes observed important parallel attitudes about the potters working in both styles:

In Japan, as in other traditional societies, there has been a lack of emphasis on the individual...The problems of ego and its expression in outward form do not come up. In the crafts, this submergence of individual caprice permitted the ripening of styles over long periods of time during which the unconscious and subtle contributions of countless workers, each perhaps small in itself, were summed up in the matured expression.'

My first encounter with a potter who had worked with Leach came in 1975, when Warren MacKenzie and I taught a workshop in Lindsborg, Kansas. One feature of the session called for us to team-critique the work of participants taking the course for credit. I gained so much from those sessions, in addition to observing Warren's working methods, that I felt I should have paid to be there. He personified and articulated many of Leach's values without dispensing them as medicine. What is more, he seemed to have been thrown by potting, hopelessly blurring the borders dividing work from enjoyment. Particularly, he helped me realize what Leach had meant when he wrote of the "life" in a pot-a concept I had always found challenging because it embodies the difficult proposition attributed to Suzanne Langer, that art can "subjectify the objective, and objectify the subjective." Leach was to quote Hamada on this very point:

Whatever one sees is a reflection of oneself.

Without you there is not the objective world or the subjective-the object never exists without the subject. This is not taught in schools; this is what the cuckoo taught me on the cliffs in Cornwall."'

Leach's Hamada Potter (1975) is a hefty gem. By the time he put it together, the two had been friends for nearly 60 years, and readers are party to their shared musings, discoveries, and reminiscences in the context of photos and sketches of Hamada's work over many years. It is nothing less than a documentation of the early years of what has become a continuum of cross-cultural exchange among ceramists, and the end is nowhere in sight. I have read in this book at least once a year since its publication and find it as rewarding as the first bite of sweet corn each summer.

I met Leach but once, in the spring of 1966 in Bogota, Colombia, where I was teaching English and making pots in a local studio. Just back from a trip to the Amazon, I'd discovered the studio owner had made molds from some of my pieces while I was gone, slip-cast replicas of them, and was offering them for sale at about half what I had been asking for the originals. (The vagaries of culture shock!) I hoped I could discuss such things with Leach, but it was not to be. We met at a formal presidential reception and he, then 79, was obviously tuckered by his recent trip from Caracas and from the altitude. We chatted over tea; he introduced me to Francine del Pierre, with whom he was traveling. (Their exhibition in Caracas was also shown in the Colombian city of Popayan but, because of security reasons, never made it to Bogota). I was probably spared the fate of becoming an irksome American beset with a trivial issue nauseous enough to rival altitude sickness.

Alfred North Whitehead has written that every scientist must have, "...a union of passionate interest in the detailed facts with equal devotion to abstract generalities."14 The same can be said of Leach's lifelong commitment to ceramics, but within these qualities lay others worth noting: his spirituality was vitally alive, especially after his conversion to the Baha'i faith. He paid dues for all of us who have ever sold a cup, by elevating the status of handmade pottery in our culture more than anyone else (there is no runner-up). His many trips to Japan were mutually fruitful-taking the first etching press to that country, and building the first Asiatic wood-burning kiln in the Western hemisphere-especially just before, during, and after WW II, when paranoia about anything Asian was rampant.

"Japan's greatest gift to the world has been beauty. I learned there that opposites, when they are put together in harmony, are a symbol of life itself. Where you always find the opposite of truth, the male and the female, the yin and the yang, you find art. The thing that still lives in Japan is the heartbeat."" Leach helped, almost single-handedly, to revolutionize our field by adding the written word to the means by which information is exchanged among pottery's many practitioners. (Prior to APB, one had to be where information was to be gained, or to learn it, first-hand, from another). Lastly, his personal generosity thrives like a kindly virus, wherever potters gather and meet as peers.

"What is beauty?" he asked. "It makes your heart rejoice."