Saturday, October 11, 2014

Broc Allen: East Meets West (October Tweevenings at the Tweed)

Tuesday evening I attended the October Tweevenings lecture at the Tweed Museum of Art. With the current Resurfaced and Reformed: Evolution in Studio Ceramics exhibition currently on display, it was only natural to have Broc Allen return to talk about some of the pieces here in this show in a lecture titled East Meets West.

Allen's talk was more challenging than most of the lectures I've attended, in part because of the lack of familiarity I have with the names and characters he talked about. Inasmuch as I try to take notes, I found myself sometimes scribbling Japanese names with phonetically imprecise markings. My guess is that this challenged some of the other listeners as well.

Nevertheless, I found it exceedingly interesting how some of the themes here echoed previous speakers' talks, most specifically Ann Klefstad's "Double Vision" lecture about masterfully artistic things that also had utility.

Broc Allen's talk began with how Japanese ceramic artist Soetsu Yanagi met Shoji Hamada. Yanagi's ideas resulted in a book called The Unknown Craftsman, a book that "challenges the conventional ideas of art and beauty. What is the value of things made by an anonymous craftsman working in a set tradition for a lifetime? What is the value of handwork?"

According to the book's description, "Mr. Yanagi sees folk art as a manifestation of the essential world from which art, philosophy, and religion arise and in which the barriers between them disappear. The implications of the author's ideas are both far-reaching and practical."

According to Allen, Soetsu Yanagi is often mentioned in books on Japanese art, but this is the first translation in any Western language of a selection of his major writings. The late Bernard Leach, renowned British potter and friend of Mr. Yanagi for fifty years, has clearly transmitted the insights of one of Japan's most important thinkers. The seventy-six plates illustrate objects that underscore the universality of his concepts. The author's profound view of the creative process and his plea for a new artistic freedom within tradition are especially timely now when the importance of craft and the handmade object is being rediscovered.

Allen talked about the artists who made objects for everyday use. Minji (or Minggi??) artists do not sign their work. Their aim is perfection, without trying to be famous. High level of art. It made me think about the superficiality of our American quest for celebrity and fame.

Yanagi created Tokyo Folk Art Museum. And at a certain point in time met Bernard Leach, the father of British studio pottery. Leach was a detail-oriented person who took great pains to document glaze recipes. (Glaze is the final coating on a piece of pottery that is fused to the piece through firing. Glazes are the decorative skin of the cup or bowl or vase, but also serve to waterproof the piece.)

Allen talked briefly about Shoji Hamada's path and then noted how Yanagi was into William Blake and Walt Whitman. In fact the Japanese master was so into Blake that he wrote a 700 page book on Blake.

Some of the details in the talk were probably a bit esoteric for the average person, and because of my own lack of familiarity with a lot of the lingo I was lost for parts of the talk. But there were some takeaways.

1. Everyone has a history. These men were individually influenced by people and places. They went on to other places and influenced many people.

2. Leach, Hamada and Yanagi went on a world tour that included a pass across the U.S. Their ideas were disseminated like apple seeds by means of lectures and demonstrations.

3. One story Broc Allen told was very interesting regarding one master's high standards when training new students of the high art of fine bowl making. The first day the student would try to make fifty perfect bowls. The master would keep one and scrap the rest. The second day he kept three. The third day he kept five. After that he never had to check again.

Warren McKenzie was the 1st Americans to appreciate what Bernard Leach was doing, another point in which the migration of ideas from East to West took place.

The next Tweevenings talk will be November 4.

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