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May 2004
Issue 048

KS Classifieds

Classifieds now combined with Kansai Scene.

Dave Pike

An American potter in Nara

“I laugh when I hear people talk about how they can’t get in their studio,” says potter Dave Pike, whose home and studio, tucked in the back pocket of a Nara farming village, are a stone’s throw apart.

“It’s actually quite an easy problem to remedy if really wanted to.”
Well, easy for Pike, who has a habit of downplaying his DIY achievements. When I remark upon the studio and kiln he made with his own hands, he jokes “Yeah, I often marvel at it myself”. When I ask where he got the know-how to help build his home, he replies “Your guess is as good as mine”. Basically, any questions about his accomplishments (when not teaching at his own English school, he’s in the studio he built on the land he owns, firing the pottery he made in a kiln he constructed, that burns the wood he chopped) are met with shrugs and modesties like “I guess if you want to do it, you will”.

And he did.

Pike, originally from California, arrived in Japan ten years ago with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and interest in Butoh. He hoped to launch guerrilla theatre on the residents of Kansai, but nothing surfaced.
“The stuff that really gripped me wasn’t happening,” he says of the Kansai scene, “so I just quit. And I felt that if I gave up performance, I gave up art altogether.”

Pike spent the next year teaching English, researching business possibilities, sussing out colleges to do a Master’s – basically floundering.

“It was the worst year I’ve ever lived. I was about to jump in front of a train,” he says, “but I’d started doing ceramics that year, and it was exciting – more exciting than performance.”
He bought a kiln and focussed on pottery. After a year on his own, ceramics master Naoki Kawabuchi offered him a three-year apprenticeship.

Pike drove over two hours, three times a week, to Yamabuchi’s studio in Kyoto prefecture, working morning to evening without earning a yen. The apprenticeship ended after two years, not because of the money, but Pike’s dislike of authority.
“If you are willing to put yourself in a lower level, you will do fine,” he says of apprenticeships, “but it was obvious to him [Yamabuchi] that it didn’t sit well with me. Even though he is an unusual Japanese, really, he is a Japanese sensei, in the sense that he wants respect…After two years, it was either quit or ruin the relationship, so I quit.”

Pike now does ceramics five days a week, frustration and disappointment being a regular part of the craft. Only 50% of what leaves the kiln is sellable – sometimes less. A mound of “un-gallery worthy” cups and platters lay in the grass behind his studio. They look good enough to eat from, but Pike says tiny, often naturally-occurring, flaws render them worthless.

And as a Westerner making Eastern ceramics, it’s not only the material’s fickleness he must deal with.

“I went to one of the top galleries in Osaka recently,” he recalls, “and the guy there gave the most annoying reaction which was “As an American, why don’t you make American ceramics”…[But] I really dislike the ceramics I had seen in the States. They do nothing for me…They have nothing to do with the materials. The stuff here I’m interesting in is 95% about the materials…In the States, one makes the materials do what one wants them to do. With Japanese ceramics, the materials are the centre.”

“In this kind of ceramics, you are doing the same thing literally hundreds of times, and you get into an amazing level of subtleties,” he says, picking up a teacup to illustrate his point. ”You see how this part is kind of thin, and this black smudge here? Those aren’t accidents.”

Currently selling to ten galleries, Pike hopes to increase both his sales and skill in the future.
“I would like to sell at this level,” he says raising his hand, palm downward, to eye level. “If I can’t sell to that level, I’m really not interested in doing ceramics. And truthfully, my ceramics are not up to that level. The kind of galleries I want to sell to do buy it, but they don’t buy a lot.”

Then he laughs. “Probably, knowing my personality, once I can really start selling a lot to them, I’ll significantly lose interest and want to do something else.”
And whatever he chooses to do will surely come easy.

Text & photos: Rori Caffrey


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Dave Pike
An American potter in Nara.