Old-Fashioned Education of a Young Potter

Cover By My HandsOrdinarily, one writes a memoir after reaching middle or old age, but Florian Gadsby, the author of By My Hands: A Potter’s Apprenticeship  is young. Almost 900,000 fans follow his daily posts on Instagram. He has 1.45 million subscribers on YouTube. He  is widely renowned for his crisp, thinly potted tableware. That is enough to get a publisher’s attention, but it is not what makes the book interesting or sets it apart. What By My Hands does, is give us a deep look at a potter’s – Gadsby’s – education.

Gadsby’s serious ceramics education began at the Waldorf Steiner school in Kings Langley. He makes it clear that he is not a disciple of Rudolf Steiner or adherent of anthroposophy, but says he likely would not have become a potter had it not been for the school.  M.C. Richards, the influential potter/philosopher,  was interested in  Steiner’s thinking, especially his thoughts on agriculture. Guy Wolff attended High Mowing, a  Waldorf secondary school based on Steiner’s thinking. where he too became a potter. There is a thread here.

Gadsby shares with us what he is learning,  his questions and observations, his various mishaps. He is writing for his customers as much or more than for other potters, so he explains processes as he goes.

Next, he attends The Design and Crafts Council of Ireland’s Ceramic Skills and Design Training Course, in the Irish village of Thomastown. This is a rigorous two-year program. “The course was focused entirely on teaching practical skills,” he writes, “and taught potters to a very high level, providing them with kilns galore, a glaze laboratory and as much throwing tuition as you could dream of.” There is no room for slacking, and in fact, students who cannot keep up are sent home.  He learns to throw multiple identical  pots to specified shapes, to make glazes, and, ultimately, to fire kilns.

Afterwards he apprentices with Lisa Hammond at Maze Hill in London. In this section of the book, we get an intimate look at this great potter and the inner workings of her studio. We see her soda kilns and how she fires them. She is an exacting task master with high expectations of her apprentices, yet she is also generous with her knowledge and support. Her gift to Gadsby after his three years with her, is a six-month apprenticeship with Ken Matsuzaki in Japan.

Gadsby spends most of his time in Moshiko with Doi, Matsuzaki’s apprentice who was seven years into a ten-year apprenticeship. They begin their days raking leaves in the cold morning hours. Gadsby learns to use a kick wheel, grinds pots, wedges clay, and observes. The days are long. At the end of his apprenticeship, he, happily using an electric wheel,  makes and fires two kiln loads of work for an exhibition. One is filled with Oribe glaze, the other shino. And then, exhausted but elated,  he returns to London to begin work on pots of his own in a studio of his own.

If Gadsby’s goal in writing this book was to impress his customers with how much goes into the education of a potter, how hard he worked to acquire his skills, it succeeds. I think it also succeeds as a deeply personal look at the potter’s craft. And, best of all, it offers wonderful and intimate portraits of two very different – and legendary – potters, Lisa Hammond and Ken Matsuzaki.


By My Hands: A Potter’s Apprenticeship, Ten Speed Press 978-1-9848-6358-4

Ken Matsuzaki on Film and Paper

I was not going to write about another of the books from the Goldmark Gallery in England for a few weeks, but the three catalogs and two DVD’s on Ken Matsuzaki are irresistible. Elemental, the DVD produced in 2009 is one of the best ceramic DVD’s I have seen. It includes the title video, nearly three quarters of an hour long, two shorter videos, Best in Show and Wooden Boxes, plus two slide shows one of pots from 2007, the other 2009.

Elemental opens with the sound of Matsuzaki and friends on traditional drums while we see fiery images of his anagama kiln (which was later destroyed in the March 2011 earthquake). Phil Rogers, one of the few potters Matsuzaki will allow to participate in a firing, comments on the process from beginning to end. We see Matsuzaki, his head wrapped in wet white towels, a welder’s mask across his face, and silvery fireproof arm guards as he shovels charcoal into the firemouth. When the shovel becomes red hot  he plunges it into a bucket of water to cool. Flames shoot out of the blowholes. The pots glow inside. The firing takes seven days, and consumes thousands of bundles of pine and chestnut wood, plus thirty to fifty bags of charcoal.

After a week’s wait, the kiln is opened and we see Matsuzaki as he unloads one astonishing pot after another. He is pleased. As is Rogers, who exclaims more than once over the fact that every pot has come through the rigors of the fire. There are no cracks or fissures. Rogers holds up various pieces, turns them over, and tells us how the kiln has affected each of them. Elemental closes with the well-attended opening at the Goldmark Gallery.

Goldmark has produced three beautiful monographs, Ken Matsuzaki with an essay by David Whiting in 2007, Ken Matsuzaki with an essay by Sebastian Blackie in 2009 which the Elemental DVD accompanies, and the most recent from 2011 with an essay by Phil Rogers. Miraculously, the pots for the last exhibit and book were already out of Japan when the earthquake struck and destroyed everything. Each of the monographs is well illustrated with high quality photos. A second DVD, which accompanies the third monograph, has a video of Matsuzaki throwing teabowls plus a slide show.

Matsuzaki glazes his pots with shinos, Oribe greens, and the natural ash glazes that cover his pots during the long firing process. His pots are meant both to behold — he places beauty above all other considerations — and if you choose, to use.

The good news is that Matsuzaki has rebuilt his kiln. This past spring, the Pucker Gallery in Boston showed his new work in an exhibit, Rising from the Ashes. I see too from his blog, Euan the Potter, that Euan Craig whose kiln was also destroyed in the earthquake is back in business. So ever so slowly, potters in Japan are recovering.