Having long loved ceramics, it turns out the twenty-first century’s a great time to admire, learn and follow potters doing what they do best, via Internet. A few months ago, a friend tipped me off that potter Michael Kline (who used to live in the Valley and is now in North Carolina) keeps a terrific blog entitled, Sawdust and Dirt. Michael’s a potter’s potter: not only does he make beautiful work, he also teaches, and he champions other potters and the chronicles the community surrounding making pots with such fondness that you want to go hang out with people in their studios. The blog offers a visual feast, with glimpses into the tactile, earthy world of creating work from clay. I like Michael’s blog so much that it’s on my computer’s bookmarks bar, and I visit every few days, to see what he’s making and what he’s looking at, and learn what he’s thinking about.

Recently, for example, he has linked to two interesting sites, and I’ll share them here: Dan Finnegan's blog and Lara O’Keefe's website. Finnegan’s been making pots for decades while O’Keefe is a younger potter; after she spent some years in apprenticeships, she has set out on her own. There’s something so compelling about a practical art form, a fine craft: one that’s broad enough to encompass many styles, to embrace both function and aesthetic, and one, which draws many generations toward it while remaining timeless enough that so much about it, such as techniques and tools, endures. All that, plus we get to see the form stretch its many tendrils.

Wonderful as the virtual trips to pottery studios are, ceramics belong to the tactile and thus you can’t love this work and not want to seek it out in this physical world (and, as I’ve written about before and surely will again, that’s one of pottery’s big draws; you can live with it). One reason I feel lucky to live in Northampton is that it’s a pretty great place to love and practice art. Case in point: Chuck Stern and Patty Arbour of the Artisan Gallery curate new ceramics shows about every other month. What this means is that during the course of any given year, they (and others, of course) ensure that there’s a lot of new work to see. And anyone in and around town should drop in to see the show (opening is Friday the 14th from 5-7, but it’s already up)—Hiroshi Nakayma, Ayumi Horie, Ikuzi Teraki, Naoko Gomi, Akira Satake; Looking Forward – Looking Back: Japanese American Pottery—because simply, wow. The range of these artists stopped this ceramics-loving gazer in her tracks.

Hiroshi Nakayma, who lives in Worthington, does something that may leave your jaw hanging, too; he makes polished pieces that seem as if they are not ceramic at all but possibly stones somehow remade into facsimiles of ceramic pieces. They are about the smoothest, richest pieces I’ve ever seen and they elicit a kind of dumbfounded awe (how did he do that?).

Akira Satake’s work is every bit as coarse as Nakayma’s is smooth, and it’s gorgeous: raw and primal. Its visual heft is achieved because the rough-hewn clay objects are so commanding, and so simple. Ikuzi Teraki makes objects that are surprisingly geometric or cylindrical, and conjure the word, sleek (something that seems an unlikely feat for most potters). Next to the granite-like smoothness and the textured work, a person begins to wonder how clay can become so many different things to different people.

Ayumi Horie places animals on ceramic items, birds you almost hear tweeting with a whimsy and joy that borders (in the best sense) on childlike pleasure in drawing beloved creatures. I found myself imagining that a mug or bowl within my personal collection would quickly become one of must-use, everyday items. Naoko Gomi also employs painting onto ceramics, less figurative work, and also very pleasing.

Many forms of art, when done in Japan (or in the Japanese tradition), from raku to sushi to bonsai focus upon precision. Each time I hear from someone who has apprenticed in Japan, I’m struck by how long someone learning must practice before s/he may embark upon the next step, the next skill. Potter Linda Siska explained that in Japan, an apprentice spends years on one specific skill (early in her career, she did an apprenticeship there, although not for the traditional length of time). Maybe it’s like the bonsai itself; there’s a patience required to tend to something that grows so slowly. It takes a long time to really know how to do something well. This kind of tightness toward discipline, when you think about it, indicates a strong respect for the learning process, and we can all learn from that.

Back to Northampton, this town rich in art… so rich that it provides us with another chance to see contemporary Japanese ceramics in early October, when the Smith College Museum of Art opens its exhibition, Touch Fire: Contemporary Japanese Ceramics by Women Artists. Do I plan to go? That'd be a yes.