An American potter in Nara
I laugh when I hear people talk about how
they cant get in their studio, says potter Dave Pike,
whose home and studio, tucked in the back pocket of a Nara farming
village, are a stones throw apart.
Its 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, hes
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 wasnt 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 Masters
It was the worst year Ive ever lived.
I was about to jump in front of a train, he says, but
Id 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 Yamabuchis studio in Kyoto prefecture, working morning
to evening without earning a yen. The apprenticeship ended after
two years, not because of the money, but Pikes dislike of
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 didnt 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, its
not only the materials 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 dont
you make American ceramics
[But] I really dislike the
ceramics I had seen in the States. They do nothing for me
have nothing to do with the materials. The stuff here Im 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 arent 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 cant sell
to that level, Im 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 dont buy a
Then he laughs. Probably, knowing my personality,
once I can really start selling a lot to them, Ill significantly
lose interest and want to do something else.
And whatever he chooses to do will surely come easy.