A Conversation with Dick Lehman

Eric:  You’ve been working in clay for 40 years, yet my perception of you is emerging, or constantly emerging, or, perhaps re-emerging or starting over.  Would you care to speak to this?”

Dick:    I suppose that there is a “near” and a “far” element to this, Eric.  And I’m happy to see that you found this quality in my work.  The “far” back element has to do with the way I was trained, back in the early 1970’s.  I was taking an introductory class in clay.  Most all of us were not art majors.  I think that we were not educated as art majors – rather the idea was to introduce us to the many wonders that make up clay, and then to step aside and see what we students would do with that introduction.

When we asked professor Marvin Bartel…..”So, what do you think would happen if we tried to …..?”  He’d always respond, “Well, why don’t you try it and see what happens.”  I think that we grew into clay with the idea that there were few limitations, that failure was also learning.   We could try/sample/investigate in as many directions as we wanted.

This approach, as you might imagine, led to some wonderful discoveries, but also to some (literally) monumental failures – not the least of which was the brick-making fiasco that Bob Smoker and I ventured into.  Bob and I, with Marvin’s support, decided to make bricks to build a kiln.  Instead of making either hard/high-duty bricks, or soft/insulating fire bricks, with Marvin’s nudging we decided to make a single brick that would be both:  the hot face was made up of a dense mixture and toward the middle, the consistency of the brick material was filled with sawdust and became more insulative in nature.  We prototyped and test-fired with great results.  Then we made the fatal error:  instead of using, for the final brick production, the silica sand that we’d used from the clay lab, we ordered our sand from a local gravel pit.  Several tons of the stuff was unceremoniously dumped outside the back door of the ceramics lab.  We proceeded to make hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these bricks using (as we learned later) an untested material.

The local sand had some calcium in it…..probably little pieces of aquatic shells….not much….but it was there.  After all the bricks were made, we began firing them.  The first load – an ungodly-long firing – cooled and all looked just fine.  But then…..little by little…..as the days passed….little pieces of the bricks began popping off (just like a plaster pop-out on a studio pot).  Before we knew it, the bricks came entirely undone!  They completely disintegrated into dust, right before our eyes, as we watched all our labor and vision and youthful naive energy come crashing down in a pile of dust.  

What had been the norm:  Bob and Dick working away at the studio at every available hour, turned into a complete absence from the studio and we licked our wounds, wondered “what had we been thinking?”, and tried to learn from the experience.   Marvin took pity on us and simply called the college ground keepers who with front-loader and dump truck, hauled away all the contaminated materials, the decomposing fired bricks, and the bricks waiting to be fired.  Hauled them away, along with our invested energy and emerging clarity.

Hard lesson.  But one that was great preparation for a life in clay.  It’s ok to fail.  What did you learn?  That lesson in consistency between prototypes, tests, and small batches and consistency with the final product, production, and large batches, likely saved me far, far more time over the course of my career than it cost me in the brick project.  And there at school, the materials were free, and the haul-away complimentary.  Not the case in ‘real life and work’.

So that early lesson gave me permission to try and fail.  To explore and investigate.  And ultimately, I set aside 15% of my time each year to investigate, start over, explore and develop.  I budgeted my time and production so that if the 15% of time committed to development yielded nothing of value ($$$), my 85% of efficient production time had me covered.  Budgeting for failure led to my most important developments over the years:  side-firing; fast-fossils-saggar-firing, unconventional ultra-long 15-day near-solo wood firings.  And the same could be said for the new triplet-glaze-series to which I’ve already devoted two year’s worth of exploration.  The cups in this exhibition are a result of this process.

The “near” element is tied to my having been diagnosed with a terminal illness some years ago….long periods of being out of the studio for chemotherapy, transplants and recovery;  the loss and sale of my production studio and gallery.  Being left with only a 200 square-foot home studio with little-to-no energy to use it.

During the intervening years, I’ve experienced a quite remarkable recovery and remission.  Initial diagnosis was more than a dozen years ago.  I’m healthier now.  I’m able to work.  After I sold my studio and spent several years out of production, when the time came to start over, I promised myself that I would try to commit to making only what I really wanted to make.  For me this meant trying to cram the “rest of my career” into a “brief and uncertain timeframe”.  And that is what I’ve done.

That commitment has a cost to it:  because I’m naturally curious, my work over the last 5 years has not been single-minded, consistent, predictable;  it does not have these qualities which most galleries require from their suppliers.  It’s meant that my work has been rejected from galleries that had previously courted my work.

But giving myself the freedom to emerge, re-emerge, start over has held wondrous benefits as well.  First of all, it keeps me from competing with anyone but myself.  It helps me focus on MY work.  It scratches MY itch.  And it offers me the opportunity to invite others into this adventure.  To join me in seeing things we’ve never dreamed of…..and in learning to make the things I have no idea how to make.

Eric:  Many from my generation, myself included, are equally curious and cynical about chawans and yunomis being made by protestant white folks from middle America.  I think it’s fair to say that your generation of American potters has been significantly influenced by Asian ceramics….perhaps even overly influenced.  I wonder what sense can we make of Caucasian Midwestern Christian potters chasing the aesthetics and practices of Asian Eastern Buddhist makers.  You’ve been to Japan on multiple occasions and those experiences have shaped you…you’ve written quite a bit about it. Through all of it your work rings sincere. How do you decide what you take with you and what you leave behind?  How do you to make it your own?”

Dick:  My generation of potters – and the one before me –  seemed to inherit an uncritical indebtedness to Japan, in particular.   It can be traced back to the American GI forces returning from the second world war.  The GI bill pumped untold millions into the American higher education system.  Schools flush with money jumped to expand their offerings by which to lure students.  Arts education benefitted from the gusher of dollars.  Clay programs, particularly at community colleges, absolutely flourished.

Add, now/then, the “Gospel proclamation” from Bernard Leach, Shoji Hamada and Soetsu Yanagi, about the truth and wonder and clarity and vision of Japanese ceramics (….how interesting that these clay-crazy GI’s just back from giving Japan a “ come-up-ens” in the War, now kneeled before the altar of Japanese ceramics).  Leach and company began traveling to the US, visiting colleges and universities, proclaiming the vision, “rescuing” a ‘dying-and-almost-dead’ studio pottery movement here in the US, and generally making converts.  Just look at the decades of brown simple pots that reflected their effect and influence.  It was (almost) the duty of every American potter to make that pilgrimage to (Mecca) Japan to drink from the fountain of the masters there.

Enter my generation of clay artists:  we inherited an unquestioning embrace of all things Japanese.  We, too, wanted to make a pilgrimage.  I was no exception.  I did.  And I’m the better for it.  But somewhere about then… let’s say… in the mid-80’s-ish, we American potters began actively wondering if it was time to look more inward….away from the strict, inherited, restrictive, exclusively linear Japanese way….toward the options, innovations, development, rule-breaking, emerging, revolutionary-thinking that had come to characterize America. We wanted our own voice.  And there came a time where contact with the East came to be looked upon with suspicion;  a time when it was better to lay low and just not admit that you’d made the pilgrimage —  so’s not to have to wear the scarlet letter “J”.  And god-forbid if you admitted to making tea bowls…….

And, unfortunately for some of the most conflicted and insecure among us, there still exists the “gotcha” urge:  last autumn while participating in an international collaborative woodfire workshop, several of the (perhaps over-intellectualizing) participants lobbed the ‘loaded softball’:  “Do you make tea bowls?”…….just waiting for someone to take the bait so that they could be strung up, flayed and dried.  Then the question was more pointedly directed at those of us who’d spent time in Japan……  “do you???…make tea bowls?????”  Of course the question eventually came to me (what it’s exactly trying to prove or expose, I’m still not quite sure)….”Dick, do YOU make tea bowls?”  (Perhaps…..”Dick, are you…still…. overly-influenced by Japanese ceramics?…are you an easy target?…are you a Nihon-ophile?”) At that point I imagined the flexed biceps of criticism and the tightly clenched fist of “gotcha” being wound up behind the back of the questioner:  “go ahead….admit it…..I’m gonna pounce on you and beat the Japanese out of you”.

I suppose I may be credited with deflecting, if not diffusing, this one incident.  I said, “I make bowls.  Sometimes people use them to make matcha tea.  So…..yes….I guess that I do make tea bowls, when people choose to use them as tea bowls.”

Do I feel some…..what?….empathy, sympathy…pity… for the conflicted and over-intellectualizing questioner?  I suppose I do.  I can admit to being – at least at one time of my life – an unswerving, captivated and unquestioning ‘Nohon-ophile’.  All things Japanese were unquestionably good.  But that was then.  It’s part of my journey to now.  Anyone who knows me realizes that I don’t try to make “Japanese pots”.  I’m not culturally or artistically naive.  I’m quite happy in my own skin.  I don’t mind acknowledging all of my influences – Japanese included.  And I don’t mind disappointing old Mr. Matsuyama sensei – teacher of one of my teachers – who while visiting my exhibition in Japan, pointedly reminded us when referring to a kake hanairi (wall vase) that was only slightly more than completely understated:   “Always remember,” he said, “always remember that the vase is for the flowers.  The flowers are not for the vase.”  

Ok, I get it.  Let’s not overpower the flowers with the vase. (But remember, “quiet beauty” is only one of the Japanese aesthetics….can you say Kutani ware?)

So:   I cannot – will not – stop making those beautiful, colorful, complex, nuanced, detailed, sophisticated, overstated….yes…even loud shapes and surfaces – even on wall vases –  if it means suppressing my commitment to continually starting over, seeing in new ways, enlarging my visual literacy.

Each of us finds our own way from/through/out of the sphere of influences that have made us.  We stand on them…we stand on their shoulders.  With luck, we surpass them.

Eric:  Your last show with us was almost 2 years ago. Of the 40+ pieces in that show (December 2015) you included 3 cups with boxes.  Those pairings were captivating, and in the conversations leading up to this exhibition, I asked if you’d like to show a large series of them. What can you tell us about the history and importance of these boxes?”

Dick:  Paulownia wood is the wood of choice for Japanese boxes.  It’s a fast-growing softwood.  In Japan the use of Paulownia boxes is not limited to housing clay works.  They are used to store, house, and present a wide variety of important and special objects that could be made from glass, bamboo, lacquer, metal, and fabric.

 

Usually called the Empress Tree, Princess Tree or Foxglove Tree, its soft wood makes sense as the storage material of choice in earthquake-prone Japan.  Many a boxed clay piece has jostled safely off the shelf during an earthquake.  The insulative compression strength of the wood has saved lots of important fragile work. But more, the wood is an insect-deterrent, much like American cedar used in storage chests.  In addition Paulownia is flame retardant. It grows fast; is invasive; and isn’t picky about soil.  (In fact it has been classified as a “persistent exotic invasive” here in the United States.)

My friend, Mr. Kanzaki told me stories of fires that happened in the homes of some of his collectors.  The fire department arrived and watered down the place.  Because of the flame retardant nature of wood, the boxes were slow to burn.  And when wetted, they expanded to further protect the precious goods inside.  $9000 tea bowls:   safe!

In Japan, these boxes are referred to as “kiribako”….the box made of “kiri” wood…from the kiri tree:  the Paulownia tree.  Boxes made of “kiri” have been used to protect items of importance for long years in Japan.

In addition, it’s undeniable that boxing an important piece, elevates the piece’s value and stature.  Not just anything gets boxed.  The most important things get boxed.  It’s a way of calling attention to the piece:  “This is important and valued.”  And the boxes themselves are most-beautifully-made, and tied shut with a silk-woven ribbon/fukurohimo.

For some years I’ve tried to make/find/commission an “American box”…a box that would include the very best traits of the Japanese boxes:  protection, beauty, and elevation, while using/exploiting the very best of American lumber, craftsmanship, joinery and hinging/closing hardware.  To date I have neither found nor developed such a box.  So for now I continue to appropriate boxes from Japan, where there is an entire industry developed around the production of such boxes.

 

Eric:  What additional insights can you give us into this most recent series of cups?

Dick:  This last autumn and winter I again had a long stretch of illness.  I’d not fired the kiln for almost five months.  I’d been away from making and from active use of my glaze-triplets for just as long.  I was, in fact, a little intimidated by the challenge of starting over:  starting over with respect to making, glazing and firing.  So it was such a great excitement to open the kiln and find all these cups.  Certainly, it was one of the most memorable and among the finest overall firings from my career.

This series also highlights my newest efforts at making the cups that are fully and ergonomically hand/mouth-friendly.  It’s quite a challenge – with the wide variety of hand-sizes to make a cup that fits all sizes and that is also ambidextrous.  Pick them up and find the one that fits you best. I hope that the progress I’ve made on this will be noticeable and satisfying the moment you unpack your box and try the piece out for the first time.

-Dick

View Dick Lehman’s solo show  HERE.

 

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