Potter Richard Bennett
Great Barrington, Mass. — "The idea is to bring a little piece of Japan to the Massachusetts countryside," explains Orientalist Richard Bennett, sitting at his potter's wheel, spinning out plate after shiny-smooth clay plate in the style of the great Japanese potters.
Though a scholar of Far East affairs and fluent in Japanese, potting is his man "tongue" these days for explaining Eastern ways to the West and Western ways to the East.
Since setting up one of the hemisphere's rare Japanese kilns here in the Berkshire Mountains in 1967, he has been indefatigably pumping out a thousand ceramics a month, training students in Japanese techniques, addressing university audiences, receiving visitors from world affairs councils, and jetting back and forth to Japan, where he keeps another workshop percolating in the countryside northwest of Kyoto.
"It's not exactly a Japanese pottery here in Great Barrington, because I'm not Japanese," he stresses in the quick, confident tones of a man who has thought through who he is and what he is trying to do.
"Neither is the pottery I set up in Japan Japanese, since I'm from America. But I am the potter in both places -- a Westerner-Easterner, you might say."
A tall mound of Georgian red caly whirls before him.
Depressing the top with his thumbs, his fingers pressing inward from beneath, Mr. Bennett squeeze-pulls the soft earth outward to form the edges of a beautifully proportioned plate, then severs it from the mother-mound and sets it aside to dry.
A bushy shock of gray-streaked black hair slides down over his black wire-rims.
Flipping over a dried plate, he deftly carves out the characteristic round "foot" that gives his pieces an elevated Japanese look.
"I think Americans have finally decided that the war [World War II] is totally behind.What interests Americans now are the positive aspects of Japan. Suddenly we're seeing that there is really quite something that the Japanese have to offer."
American interest in Japan is indeed skyrocketing, if you ask Harvard's renowned Japanologist, Edwin O. Reischauer, one of Richard Bennett's former teachers.
Beyond the fascination with films like "Shogun" and "Kagemusha," commented Professor Reischauer recently, universities have been offering new summer programs to educate schoolteachers (Harvard's, for one); interest in the discipline of the martial arts is burgeoning; new Japanese restaurants continue to pop up in major cities; teahouses have been built for children and adults alike to enjoy; and the longtime "cult of the Japanese film" on college campuses is going stronger than ever.
But Richard Bennett's pottery at Great Barrington is an even longer-term educational venture in "things Japanese."
He calls it his "49-Year Plan" (now in its 15th year).
"When I retire at age 82, I want to donate the result to be preserved for posterity."
Just to convert this 200-year old Massachusetts farm into a pottery is impressive enough.
Half of the long stable now houses potters' stalls and row upon row of shelves for the hundreds of "Japanese" pots and plates waiting to be fired.
The other half shelters the Bennett pride: his rare Japanese "climbing hill" wood-burning kiln.
Here the functional turns out to be a creative element of delight and surprise. Reacting with his exotic pigments and imported Japanese rice-ash glazes, the kiln's unique burnt-wood smoke generates unusually beautiful color values in the Bennett wares -- totally different from anything found in Western kilns.
"Look at this plate!" he says, jubilant about a ceramic that recently came out of the kiln. He seems almost flabbergasted over its unanticipated beauty like a museumgoer seeing his first Van Gogh.
"Where did you ever see colors like this purple blush?This blue from the ash of burnt Japanese rice straw? This extraordinary gray which you never see in ceramics?
"This may never happen again! Sometimes my best pieces have colors that don't even exist. A sudden puff of smoke -- minerals are transformed into the totally unexpected."
In another year Japanese landscaping will also transform much of his rolling 10 acres, and bring into being as well his plan for a new Japanese garden and teahouse replete with hostesses demonstrating the ancient Japanese tea ceremony for visitors.
Of course, Bennett's own craftmanship is what ultimately makes this operation tick. Molded by a quarter century of studying and living in Japan, it now embodies some of the East's most exquisite aesthetic traditions.
"China's Sung Dynasty [AD 960 to 1279] and the life and art of 17th century of Japan have always captured my imagination," he says. "These are the inspiration behind the finest in Japanese art, to my way of thinking."
Study the mountain-landscape designs he uses to "sign" his plates, and you get the flavor of the 10th-century Chinese genius that spawned landscape painting.
Or his tea bowls and teahouse plans -- which focus something of the vital importance of the tea ceremony in Japan, a ceremony that took hold popularly during the 17th century and encouraged craftsmen to make their wares as beautiful as they are functional.
Or his determination to avoid the copying of fixed artistic styles -- which reflects that element of spontaneous, uncontrived beauty for which Japan's best pottery is known.
Elements like these, he is sure, suggest antidotes for the excesses of today's frantic consumer society and the cheapening of beauty that can follow in the trail of mass-production economies.
What surprises Richard Bennett most is the fact that someone of his background is really doing all this.
After specializing in Japanese studies at the University of Michigan and some further study at Harvard in the late 1950s, he had taken on a lucrative job in an export firm with vast Japanese markets. AT 26 he was managing accounts of over $100 million.
Yet four years later the money had lost its luster. He decided to take up pottery, joining "a pottery workshop for old ladies" that met on Saturday afternoons in Tokyo.
The seeds of the idea had actually taken root a decade earlier when, as a student living in Japan, he journeyed to Mashiko, the pottery village developed by potter Hamada Shoji, one of Japan's greatest "living cultural treasures." (In Japan, the great artisans are given national status as holders of the nation's "cultural property.")
"Although i did not meet Hamada at that time, I was so impressed with the quality of serenity and beauty at his village that, even at that lonely time, I felt strangely as if I had come home," Bennett says.
Scholarly contacts eventually opened up meetings with many of the "living cultural treasures" of pottery, including Hamada. Bennett went on to study with the renowned Fukuma Toshi. And some months later, in 1967, after having to return to Boston unexpectedly, he began laying plans for a workshop of his own.
The 49-Year plan was born.
Fukuma Toshi came to Massachusetts to supervise construction of this, the first Japanese wood-burning kiln ever built in the Western Hemisphere, the second built outside Japan.
In Japan these kilns are all but venerated. Normally they are built outdoors. But given the subzero temperatures of western Massachusetts winters, Bennett was convinced that an indoor version was the answer.
His Eastern mentor did not agree. "When Fukuma arrived, it was in the dead of winter," Bennett recalls. "The weather was averaging 20 degrees below zero. We argued and argued over where to build the kiln. He said he could never build it in a stable where animals and chickens had been. So we ended up spending days digging dirt out of the barn, and putting down salt and chemicals, and only then did he finally agree to go ahead."
Several months and 7,000 yellow fire bricks later, there emerged the 25 -foot-long kiln. Its three connected chambers "climb" up an incline of land. The result is a natural draft flow that conserves heat rising from lower chambers into the higher -- an energy-saver invented by the Chinese that makes possible much higher kiln temperatures than the single-chamber kilns common to the Western world.
"Of course, just to have one of these kilns does not guarantee that the things you will make are beautiful," he says. "But the interplay of burning wood, oxygen, and humidity produces creative and unpredictable bursts of smoke that turn glaze pigments into ranges of unexpected colors."
The Bennett wares run the gamut from bluish celadon greens; purples, from what he calls "peach blossom," to mauve; ethereal blues produced by glazes from the ash of Japanese rice straw; whites from the wood ash of the kiln; and a range of reds, oranges, and amber derived from Japanese feldspar.
Watching Mr. Bennett's willingness not to demand absolute control over all artistic effects, it becomes clear that the Massachusetts potter is no Michelangelo trying to impose ideas on his medium.
"In the East, inanimate objects are believed to reflect something of the life of the maker," he says. "But I am not really the maker, only part of a larger potting process. I don't want this to sound esoteric. I'm not a spiritual guru and don't want to be seen as one. Rather, I am simply a transmitter of beauty that comes from someplace else."
In terms of art history, Bennett locates his work in the line of the unknown craftspeople of 10th-century China and later in Korea and Japan. These are the peasants who worked in the rice or tea-growing areas and made pottery in the offseason. They never became great names or started family potting traditions. They were not trying to work as artists to create beauty, but worked instinctively with the simple motive to produce.
The work of the unknown potters, Japanese scholar Yanagi Soetsu once said, yielded the most beautiful of all wares. In the period of China's Sung Dynasty, they lived in surroundings of utter beauty and peace. In surroundings like these, Yanagi observed, there wasn't any need to have the word "beauty" in their language. Everything was beautiful, his theory went. And therefore there was simply no need to describe things as beautiful. And the peasant potters instinctively produced beauty that was uncontrived.
Ironically that quality would end up being threatened by the very factor that elevated the status of pottery more than anything else -- the tea ceremony.
"When the tea ceremony started," he explains, "you began to have Korean peasant potters, their techniques and their rice bowls, brought back to Japan by the armies of General Hideyoshi around 1585. Hideyoshi became enamored of the tea ceremony and elevated it to the importance of fencing. On the battlefield before battles, he would set up a tent and perform the tea ceremony. And when he offered his commanders a choice of [large sums of money] or a tea bowl as a reward for victories, many would choose the tea bowl."
"But the development of the tea ceremony -- which involves sitting quietly over a cup of tea in quiet contemplation -- also brought attempts to imitate beauty in the production of tea bowls. In the 17th century and beyond, much pottery took on a contrived quality."
The yearning for a return to the uncontrived beauty of the nameless craftspeople was shared by no less an original spirit than Hamada Shoji himself.
Hamada believed it more important for people to buy pottery for what it looks like, not for the signature on it. The personality of the potter, in his way of thinking, should show up in the form of the piece itself. Thus, he never signed any of his works. Nevertheless, if future generations tried copying his works, Hamada was fond of saying, his originals would be recognized to be the only good "copies."
Nevertheless he, and others of the great originalists, often leave characteristic marks on their wares. Hamada's is the leaf of the Okinawa sugar cane. Richard Bennett's trademark is his mountain-landscape design, reminiscent of the beauties of 10th-century Chinese landscape paintings and the Japanese countryside where he has lived.
In executing his trademark, Bennett draws on the wisdom of the great 17 th-century potter Ogata Kenzan, the so-called "First Kenzan."
"In his diary Kenzan said that a glaze should be an eyeglass through which to look into the clay. Now that is what I'm doing. The mountain-landscape is underneath the glaze. You're looking through and there's a depth to it, like in a very natural way."
Back in his workshop he demonstrates.
He coats the face of an unfired plate with a slightly viscous white porcelain fluid called a "slip." Turning the plate sideways to let fluid collect at the bottom, he quickly swings it around, sending the slip over the face of the plate in wavy layers that come out looking like mountains at different distances.
"That is my contribution to ceramic art," he says. "No other person in the world has done this before."
Still to emerge in the Bennett "49-Year Plan" is the landscaping of a new Japanese garden (along with a French and English garden thrown in for good measure). The new teahouse should be completed by next summer. And he hopes that the recognition of his work will take off in Japan.
In time his pottery in Matsue (Shimane Prefecture) could become an outpost for the Japanese to learn more of the Western aesthetic touch. It is not inconceivable that a Westerner can gain considerable recognition even within Japan's own elite potting circles.
Bernard Leach, the English artist who took the first etching press to Japan in the 1920s and studied potting with the "Sixth Kenzan" in Tokyo, went on to wear the mantle of his teacher as the "Seventh Kenzan."
But alas, as Oriental tradition would have it, a potter needs to be 60 years old before he can be recognized for contribution to the world of pottery.Bennett , now at age 46, has at least been spared some of the wait, since an influential friend in Japan has promised to sponsor a major exhibit when he reaches a mere 50.
Still, as the Japanese themselves adopt more and more Western traditions, bennett begins to realize that he himself could end up being one of the rare preservers of the values of old Japan.
"I worry that the Japanese are giving up their own traditions," he laments. "And the Japanese folk movement made pottery so pervasive that now people are buying it for the wrong reasons -- not because it's beautiful, but because it's popular and mass-produced.
"At this rate, in 30 or 40 years I may be one of the few footholds of Japanese tradition left in my craft. I may be preserving a part of Japan that's not going to be readily available even in Japan itself."
Whatever his future role, Bennett has already succeeded in leaving a certain Japanese impress on Americans streaming out to breathe the Oriental air at the Great Barrington Pottery.
"Some people visited about five years ago, and then came back asking. 'Where's the little Japanese man?' Only later did I realize, well, that's me!"