Watching the hands of Shijo Hamada and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

One more comment from potter Karen Karnes (my last post) that I found instructive.

 Watching Hamada work was the most important ceramic instruction I, as a young potter could have. He had a quiet presence—he didn’t say anything as he worked….

Despite the fact that I have met and even know several potters, I’m dismally ignorant about pottery and its history. Hamada’s name meant nothing to me, except that it was clear that he was an important potter in Karen Karens’ life. But what fascinated me is that she learned by watching him. A couple of months ago I was talking to another potter, Asa Pritchett, in California. He told me about his favorite teacher, someone who spoke little, someone he’d learned from by watching.

Photo by two stout monks on flickr. Creative Commons license.

Having thought and perhaps overthought the process of education, I’m one of the those people whose firm conviction has always been that we learn by doing. And of course it’s true. I don’t know that we can truly learn unless we do. But now I wonder, what about watching?

Clearly, there are some arts that can’t be watched. No one could have learned to write by watching Hemingway or Faulkner do it. But playing an instrument, for example, may be another proposition altogether. In an 1891 essay by someone named Philip Hale at the front of my Schirmer’s book of Mozart piano sonatas is the following:

As a teacher of the piano forte he [Mozart] was not methodical in his instruction, and he taught rather by playing to his pupils than by listening and correcting. His most celebrated pupil was Hummel, who lived in his house two years and learned there the pure touch, the rounding of the phrase, the finish and the elegance, the facility of improvising that distinguished the performance of his master.
After reading the story about Karnes, I looked up Shoji Hamada who, as it turns out, was one of the most important potters of the 20th century. Hamada lived and worked in rural Japan in a traditional environment. He used a wooden wheel and hand-wedged clay pickaxed from the side of a nearby mountain, made his own glazes, decorated by hand-painting or by pouring glazes, and welcomed visitors.

 Hamada felt that the traditional way of potting made a bond between past and present and gave meaning to his work. His chief inspiration were the anonymous folk craftsmen of past and present who produced things of beauty without being conscious of doing so.

In a five-year-old post on a blog that’s nearly as old, Nathaniel Pearlman, remembering his aunt who was a potter without pretensions, and having read Susan Peterson’s book about Shoji Hamada (Shoji Hamada: A Potter’s Way and Work) writes:

His goal was to work without self-consciousness and without false pride. 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.”
 Our extraordinary technology makes it possible for anyone to watch Shoji Hamada at his potting wheel on Youtube, and the looking is astounding. The idea that we can watch this master potter at work when he died in 1978 leaves me breathless.


Watching, it turns out, is learning.

Author: latefruit

I am forever writing the great American novel, practicing the piano (in hopes of joining an amateur string quartet someday), gardening, and now, since I've gotten old when I wasn't looking, trying to figure out what that means.

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