Where this came from
– Reid Ozaki
Several years ago, I came across the Japanese word shokunin. It’s generally translated as "craftsman" and is a title earned after years of practice and accomplishment; however, craftsman doesn’t quite capture the full meaning.
A nuanced understanding of shokunin is more than just a title or reference to the acquisition of a certain level of skill; it implies a responsibility to present one’s best work in a spirit of social consciousness, to honor the traditions of the craft, and to pass that knowledge on. I found this concept to be very attractive.
One of the things that started me thinking about shokunin in the context of the state of the local clay community was the decision of a friend and potter, Loren Lukens, to relocate to California. In a medium where it’s easy to hunker down in one’s practice, Loren’s studio was often "pottery central."
Any Thursday afternoon, you could always pop in to share lunch, get some information, or just enjoy some good humor. There was no real organization to it; it came about organically and was a gathering place for potters in the Seattle area and one of the focal points for the community.
That kind of casual, always-welcome atmosphere, has one essential ingredient: a fixed space.
Planning a lunch would require forethought and more effort. Someone has to get it on the calendar; people need to be available; we have to pick a place. It’s the opposite of a drop-in culture.
It all comes down to real estate.
There were other hubs, but over time, those locations disappeared. In 2011, the Northwest Craft Center Gallery at the Seattle Center was forced to close, which was a huge blow to the clay community. For almost fifty years, the gallery there hosted over 100 – primarily clay – artists and provided a place for people to exhibit, view, learn, and make connections. The book The Mud Pie Dilemma chronicled Tom Coleman’s preparation for a show at the Craft Center, one of the hundreds of shows at the center.
More recently, Pottery Northwest (which inspired the founding of other non-profit studios like Baltimore Clayworks and the Clay Studio Philadelphia) had to abandon the location they had occupied at the Seattle Center since the end of the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. While they have a new location, the move broke a lot of connections with members and cost them some firing alternatives. In the new space, there are structural and zoning restrictions on what they can do. Nothing lasts forever, but place matters.
Portland, Oregon, lost the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (formerly the Contemporary Crafts Gallery, founded as the Oregon Ceramic Studio) and the Oregon College of Arts and Crafts in 2019. The Pacific Northwest College of Art and Design (formerly the Portland Art Museum School) has been folded into Willamette University and no longer offers a BFA in clay. The Real Mother Goose, a gallery that represented the best of the clay scene in Portland for fifty years, has now closed.
With markets moving from galleries and fairs to the internet, not to mention the effects of COVID, it seems that we've all become more isolated. We rarely have the opportunity to gather at an opening and go out to dinner afterward. Craft fairs no longer seem to be filled with as much clay.
Some fairs, like the Bellevue Arts Museum Arts Fair, in Belleview Washington, would see potters from a much wider region; I met and had annual reconnections with potters for decades. I might only see them and their work once a year, but we witnessed each other’s careers evolve.
Without the opportunities to socialize and get to know each other, young and old, I fear that the intergenerational nature of the clay community is disappearing.
What are We Teaching (and Learning)?
I’m now fifty years into my ceramic career. I taught ceramics at Tacoma Community College for twenty-five of those years while also maintaining my personal work. I’ve begun to think of my practice as more than just making pottery. I am at a point where I can give back to the medium in a way that I did not as a teacher.
In the last ten years, demand for STEM programs has surpassed that for the humanities. Academic clay programs are being lost or diminished. I graduated from the University of Puget Sound’s graduate program in 1975. That master's program closed in 1978, and the undergrad program as a BFA degree is gone as of 2021. Two full-time positions teaching clay have been replaced by one adjunct faculty member. The community college program I taught in has been halved, and its popular continuing education in ceramics has been discontinued.
New clay practitioners are learning the mechanics in a much more consumer-driven way rather than an academically-focused approach.
Whether online or in private studios, if you want to make "this cup," that’s what you will learn to do. You won’t get any of the foundational histories of the art; you won’t learn who made "this cup" before you thought of it; and you won’t see the pots that led to "this cup."
In contrast, a vital ceramics program with institutional support can invite established artists from outside of academia to present to their students. At Tacoma Community College, Jeff Shapiro, Richard Milgrim, and Osamu Inayoshi conducted a tea bowl workshop in conjunction with an international tea bowl exhibition in the school's art gallery. This type of intimate and authentic dive into form is not the kind of thing you see every day and opportunities for specialized workshops like that are fast disappearing.
There’s a role for less formal, less focused interactions with clay, but that can't be the only thing on offer.
There is a need for a collegial, informal space open to interested parties who have a passion for clay to meet each other, exchange information, offer help, and otherwise share hard-won experiences with peers.
New potters should know the traditions and generations of artists that preceded them, their work, and the impact they had on the way ceramic art is viewed. And those of us who have been around a while should get to know the folks who will carry the medium into the future. This is how I see the values of shokunin expressed today.
These were all just ideas swirling around in my head when I had the great and good fortune to run into Kristina Batiste. She is enthusiastic, organized, relentlessly hard-working, and the heart of what we’re doing at the Tacoma Pottery Salon.
– Kristina Batiste
I benefited hugely from that now-defunct continuing education option at Tacoma Community College; it’s where I met all of the potters I know, where I got to see a range of styles and work, and where I got to interact with folks who had been coming to the program for decades. The kind of experience I had is simply no longer available, so of course, we should do something. I was all in.
Reid and I sat down at a local coffee shop and tossed around ideas of what an antidote to the current situation could look like. We settled on the idea of a six-event series, each event consisting of time for socializing, show and tell, a retrospective from a guest potter – and snacks.
A few elements were particularly important to me: I wanted it to be 100% free; I wanted it to be small enough for people to be comfortable but open and welcoming to newcomers; educational but not overly academic; and I wanted a diversity of styles.
I’m an extreme minimalist, but I love seeing work that’s completely different from mine, hearing about what the artist is aiming for, learning new techniques, and getting ideas that I’ll use in my own way. I really wanted these events to show the variety of work out there and get people out of the insular space where everything looks the same (I’m looking at you, Instagram).
As Reid said, having space matters, and my husband and I had some. On those mostly-monthly Saturday afternoons, our living room turns into the salon. The first event was small – just a few of us – but we got an unprecedented look at the long career of Loren Lukens. There were no slides, but boy, were there pots.
In packing up and closing his Seattle studio, Loren unearthed armloads of early work in different styles; there were sale flyers, event posters, postcards, and, best of all, stories from a lifetime of making work in the Pacfic Northwest. We heard about some of the old recurring sales and craft fairs, long since shuttered, the challenges of getting slides made to send out to juries, and the decisions made over the course of decades that defined and refined his approach to the art. Loren talked us through some of his earliest works and failures; he even brought a plate from the first-ever dinnerware set he made. We were riveted.
It was magical to hear him discuss his career with such generosity and humility. Loren had such patience with questions about details and techniques and also offered up incredible financial and business transparency about how he made a living making pots for 40 years.
After meeting Loren, it’s easy to see how his Thursday open studio lunch became such a social hub for the community.
Since Loren, we’ve had an absolutely stunning list of guests: John Benn and Colleen Gallagher, Ken Turner, Dan Barnett, Gina Freuen, Anika Major, Reid Ozaki, Deb Schwartzkopf, Anthony Gaudino, Sam Scott, and Patti Warashina have all been salon presenters. This phenomenal guest list is due entirely to the relationships Reid has built over his career.
The events have varied in size and scale, but each and every session has far exceeded any expectations I could have had. We’ve brought potters together, highlighted the work of Northwest artists, and are doing our part to fill in the educational gap. Salons are not academic classes or lectures; to the contrary, salons are distinct experiences.
One of the introductory events that Reid came up with is a game called "Potle" (after Wordle) as a way of introducing a new "mystery potter" to the group. Three or four progressively more specific works are shown, and the audience can chime in if they know who it is. The fewer slides you need, the better.
We have a few ringers (professors or more veteran potters), but generally, this gives the icons of the craft an introduction to a new audience. Reid has featured Robert Sperry, David Shaner, Jun Kaneko, Toshiko Takaezu, Don Reitz, and local icon Regnor Reinholdtsen, and the audience has had a chance to ask those in the know what elements cued them into the artist’s identity: use of color, shape, texture, a distinguishing technique? It gives us a way to "meet" potters through their work.
Holding the salon up against our original goals of building community, creating educational opportunities, and preserving history, is the salon effective? Absolutely, yes.
Social media is fantastic for connecting with potters around the world; the salon connects folks with the potter around the corner.
I’m an introvert, and the salons take a lot out of me, but even I can see how bringing people together to talk about pottery has opened our community, and I’m not alone:
"I am predominantly a self-taught potter. Going to the salons has been such an opportunity to hear lifelong potters trained in a community discuss their craft. It's a window into a clay vocabulary, etiquette, and sensibility that I wouldn't have discovered by myself." – Shannon Eakins
"What has this salon meant to me? I have a brief comparison to share. I recently was invited to a potter's group that left me feeling "less than." In contrast, visiting the salon at Kristina's home was inviting, intriguing, vibrant, and immediately engaging. I felt "more than," and it was a lovely feeling. This is a generous, encouraging group that has a good grip on art, the ongoing process and it is alive!" – Sara Barry
“I like how it’s casual and personal. I’ve also enjoyed getting to see more of the local pottery community and building connections. I even got a studio space out of it! Previously, I was only around college students, and the extent of my interactions with professional potters was handling pieces in galleries or occasionally at fairs.” – Adam Duell
We are now in our second year of the salon, the invite list has grown, and we’ve got a full roster of potters lined up to speak in the coming months. We’re going to have to find creative ways to keep that small, intimate feel we originally envisioned while serving what is clearly a huge demand for this kind of experience. It’s a good problem to have.
I’ve started thinking of the salon itself as a work of art; each event is an ephemeral performance piece with changing players and specifics but clearly part of the series. Although it is a slightly unconventional way to think of it, and with the intent to support the overhead, I applied for a grant from the Tacoma Arts Commission, and they agreed – the Tacoma Pottery Salon is a work of art and one of the 2023-2024 grant recipients.
Overall, I’m delighted that this series has resonated so genuinely in the Tacoma pottery community. We’re moving closer and closer to that craftsman ideal but as a collective rather than as individuals. As a group, we are presenting our best in the spirit of social consciousness. We are honoring the traditions of the craft. We are passing knowledge on.
Can shokunin apply to a collective?
There is craft not only in the creation of pottery but also in the creation of community.
We’re striving for both.