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John Dix
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A potter's journey

 Special to The Japan Times, July 15, 2001

The late potter Michiaki Kaneshige said that even though he grew up in an ancient potting family, he never fully understood the value of Japanese culture until he left these shores.

Indeed, you have to step outside of your own identifying boundaries, self-imposed or otherwise, to really understand the truth of who you are, to see the forest for the trees. Otherwise, that "truth" is indoctrination more than anything else. Kaneshige was "set free" through his travels. This is the case for some people when they come in contact with a different culture, and especially  for those who come to Japan to learn an art or expand on what they already know. A Japanese art or way, whether painting, Zen or tea, is most often something foreigners have never seen in their own cultures. Immersing themselves in it often radically changes their own perception of themselves and their paths in life. Some, after a while, find no need for boundaries at all.

Bizen piece by John Dix

Source of Inspiration
That's how American potter John Dix feels about how his world has been spinning since he came to Japan in 1989 to continue his pottery studies.

When Dix is in a groove, he feels "there is no governor inside me saying, 'Wait a minute, you're in Japan.' " He has gone beyond boundaries and is creating a timeless and borderless art in his pottery.

"In the West," he says, "there's great respect for a person who travels off the beaten path, loses him or herself in the woods for a while, then finds a new way. But most Japanese learn and develop by mastering established methods, carrying on tradition. "I value tradition," Dix says, "and theirs is a never-ending source of  inspiration for me. That's why I came here, to draw energy from Bizen and Shigaraki, the apex of world pottery."

Bizen and Shigaraki are yakishime ceramic styles: high-fired, unglazed stoneware. Recently there has been a yakishime boom in the West due to the spread of the wood-fired anagama (tunnel kiln). Jack Troy's book Wood-Fired Stoneware and Porcelain has been a major influence, as have those who came here to learn and took the anagama blueprints and firing skills back to the West. A very few stayed on to establish a kiln, and themselves, in Japan. Whether they stay or go home, they have left their initial roost, like Kaneshige, and are on a path of discovery; hopefully, one that is challenging and fun.

Challenging and fun -- what else could you ask for in a job? OK, a good salary, but although that doesn't come easily for a wood-firer, they do experience the wonder of pulling a piece of magic out of the kiln. Dix describes the act of creation as "challenging and fun," and this can be seen in the way his works have improved year after year. He now, in fact, has an annual exhibition at one of Japan's premier department-store galleries, Hankyu in Osaka. It's not easy to get a foot through that door; kudos to Dix for that.

Dix also wants to add to the Japanese ceramic tradition by introducing salt into his kiln. Salt-firing has a long history in the West, but not in Japan. The great 20th-century potter Hamada Shoji was the first to use it, but it has never really caught on here. Dix would like to change that.

I'll do it my way
"I like the idea of introducing a little-understood style to the Japanese," he says. "Salt is a traditional method of firing in the West, and it carries with it that element of chance that is really at the heart of wood-firing in the East. But salt is also a perfect match for my Western functional forms, and it allows me the freedom to experiment and develop a unique style with my own personal  signature.

"I am still an American, after all, and the need to 'do it my way' is strong. When someone tells me 'Japanese don't have such-and-such a shape,' I say, 'Well, you do now.' " In his "my way" stance, Dix is broadening the views of his Japanese clients who might never have had the chance to see salt-fired pots.

"I think people appreciate that I reveal the whole process and don't try to mystify it," he explains. "I initiate them into a rite this country is usually unattainable." Dix's work is approachable and user-friendly; quite attainable. His pitchers are mingei-ish, with a humble stance a la Bernard Leach. Small, twisted sake cups would also make fine whiskey tumblers, while his teapots could pour the liquor, sit alone as an objets d'art or be, well, teapots. His vases stand silently proud. Dix has learned from Japan, and Japan has learned from him. Indeed, Dix is walking on a path only the kiln gods know whither, yet with this "I cannot control what emerges from my hands and heart -- nor do I want to" attitude, what does emerge from his hands will surely touch the heart.

John Dix is based in Sasayama, Hyogo Prefecture. From July 19-24 he will be staging "2D Photos & Platters," an exhibition of his recent work, with a reception July 20 and a workshop July 21. For more information, see his Web site at  

The Japan Times: July 15, 2001
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