Articles & Reviews
Review by Steven Goldate
Dear Mr Leach... Some Thoughts on Ceramics
by Sebastian Blackie
Initially I was intrigued by the title of Sebastian Blackie's book and by the introductory text on the book's cover: 'Many years ago, as a budding teenage potter, Sebastian Blackie wrote a letter to the grand old man of studio ceramics Bernard Leach. Now, more than 30 years later, Sebastian has picked up his correspondence with Bernard'.
For some reason, when I got hold of the book (a medium format paperback featuring a photo of a pensive, elder, statesman-like Leach on the cover), I grew somewhat apprehensive as to what might be inside. This was reinforced by the imagined email address 'email@example.com'. However, after reading a couple of chapters, my scepticism dissipated and I was taken in by Blackie's disarming musings in the form of short essays on foreign cultures, ceramics, new technologies, the environment and life.
Blackie could have written a technical book on his method of firing pottery with paper kilns or his experimental subversions of everyday household goods to the ceramic cause, e.g. how to make a glaze from toothpaste. I'm glad he didn't.
The book comes in the form of a series of 'emails' to Bernard Leach, quasi an extension of a letter exchange a young Blackie had with Leach in 1966. While perhaps not absolutely necessary to write this book, the format is a novel idea. It offers the opportunity to introduce discourses on the validity today of some of Leach's ideas and ideals. The author touches upon his own ambivalent relationship as a contemporary ceramist to Leach's philosophy. His few criticisms - if they can be labelled such - are thought provoking, but respectful. ('We miss out if we cannot get beyond your particular ideology'.) No Leach adherents should be incensed by what they read here. But it must also be said that this is not a book about Leach. While his presence weaves its way in and out of the narrative, many topics are touched upon that have little to do with the old master.
One of the first essays is about the author's experiences in Japan. In fact his isolation there, due to the language barrier, prompted a series of letters, which led to the writing of this book. Japan is a topic that resurfaces several times - obviously the country made an impact on the author, as did his newly formed friendship with eminent Japanese potter Ryoji Koie. Other countries, which left lasting impressions on the author, not all positive, include Australia, Korea, India and Denmark. A lot of this book is about understanding - foreign cultures, technical processes, the self. It reminds me a bit of a road trip - a potential Zen and the Art of Firing Paper Kilns.1
On technical issues, Blackie writes about his experimental paper kilns. Why would you want to build a kiln from paper, you might ask. Blackie himself admits that he has a perfectly working gas kiln in his studio. For him, paper kilns are as much about the challenges and processes involved in creating them - weaving, experimenting, collaborating and sharing with others, having fun - as the end results, which are not always satisfactory. Another intriguing innovation mentioned is using toothpaste as a glaze. Unfortunately this method was only briefly touched upon and after arousing the reader's curiosity, could have been fleshed out a bit more.
Blackie's musings skip from his travels to potters Michael Cardew, Lucie Rie and Siddig El Nigoumi to the British collector Bill Ismay, to the rituals of death (burial, cremation) and back to technical issues, e.g. that of paper-slip saggars. A bit surprising to me was the recurring theme of the great human tragedies of World War II - the Holocaust and Hiroshima. I was pleased to read of Blackie's concerns with the environment and sustainability, issues that appear to be gaining more importance amongst ceramists.
These essays do not form a narrative, strictly speaking. While they are just that - a collection of essays or 'letters' - they do seem to merge together to form a cohesive whole. If you are looking for a central message, it may be that being a ceramist/potter/artist can be an exciting journey to the self. Again, it's not just the end result that matters, but how you get there. In one chapter titled 'No-thing', Blackie states, 'A friend likes my messages to you [Leach], but does not know where they are going. I think he may be right'. In a way, this sentence sums up the book - it doesn't exactly go anywhere, but in a Zen sense of the word, 'nowhere' is a good place to go and it's a great journey.At 120 pages (including images) the book left me with the feeling that I'd like to read more. The essays or letters are quite short. In some cases I had the impression that they ended abruptly. A couple of topics are briefly discussed, but not worked through, e.g. Blackie's discourse on pots' weight. He closes that essay with 'There is so much more I could write, but perhaps it is enough to suggest a discourse. I must wait and see'. (Why wait? Where will this discourse take place? Mr Blackie, how about setting up an online discussion group where these issues can be discussed?) I for one would have liked to read more on that subject and others. Sound bites, appetisers for the attention challenged (youth?) of the 21st century, a bit like the 30 second TV advertisement. These thoughts aside, I thoroughly enjoyed Dear Mr Leach , despite my initial misgivings. It's witty, critical and thought provoking. Not too heavy, not too light. A good read, that will get you thinking.
1 Robert M. Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is also a journey to the self.
|Book Reviews Issue 6|