The following is a reflection of my time as apprentice to Toshiko Takaezu in honor of what would be her one hundredth birthday.
In late summer of 2006, I started my thirteen month apprenticeship with Toshiko in Quakertown. It was there, in her kitchen, amongst collections of paper napkins which were arranged according to their cleanliness/reusability, at the worn enamel sink next to a dishwasher which was used only to store a set of handmade plates (too wasteful, too easy, too little work of the hands), that I truly learned to wash the dishes. It was not the case that I arrived having not washed dishes before. I was simply unaware of the nuance and the myriad possibilities of methodology wrapped up in the task.
On Saturdays, those copper red plates came out of their dishwasher storage and were set on the long table. The house had more voices and footsteps than during the week with Don having spent the night and John and Bill expected shortly. Scones were expected too as a condition of their arrival of course. The lunch clock started ticking upon wake up. Eggs were boiled and left to cool before my feet percussed the steps down to the studio. By the time a few bowls were trimmed, I could sense the metronome of the day picking up pace and I left my studio crocs at the edge of the concrete and padded back up the stairs, across the living room, glimpsing all the little precious things that were glimpsed a few hundred times each week, past the hanging collection of purple banded straw hats, and into the kitchen. The conductor was warming up her orchestra. Toshiko had scallions chopped and arranged the counter with jars and bags from the fridge. I felt my cue and sliced cheese, never with a knife but rather a proper cheese slicer to conserve the resource.
What knowledge was gleaned from these collaborations? Did I learn the secret perfect egg salad recipe? Did she teach me how to turn clay and glaze into something that moved a person to weeping? She did not. She did however let slip in dashes of soy sauce and brushstrokes of copper that there are two ingredients to artistry which are to be revered equally. There first is a quality of exactness that was clear to anyone in her orbit. When you prepare the clay, you do it according to these principles. There were times when I felt her intent was so severe that it seemed plausible that perhaps the egg salad was being willed from her mind more so than physically assembled. And yet the mastery came in holding that intention so firmly in one hand while the other palm lay open and awaited the gift of intuition, the second crucial ingredient. This was her divinity. To have a vision so clear that it feels inevitable while also riding the crest of that ever renewing moment with a heart open and ready to snatch magic when it stumbles forward.
So there we were, lunch eaten, chores finished, guests settled, she and I shuffling slowly through one of her storage hallways. The shelves were just jammed full of closed forms and bowls, too much beauty to comprehend. Maybe that’s why it was so poorly lit. She glanced along the rows and stopped. “Can you reach me that black and grey one up high, in the back?” I stood above her and stretched to my toes. My hands felt one, two off-round forms, and then there was a dull and dusty one behind. I handed it down to her. “We’ll work on that one tomorrow and try to re fire it. Too weak.” I can’t know if at 86 years, her catalog was that sharp to remember the location of one piece among thousands, or if she simply felt a whiff of something when she stopped. I do know that she was always in touch with both worlds, the grounded intentional and the spirit moment.
And she taught me not to run the sink faucet while washing. You just need a little water. Hot and soapy. Let the sticky stuff soak while you do the glasses. Do it this way because it simply is the best way. Once I showed her a trick that I learned by accident about how to stack the drying plates differently to fit more in the rack. She smiled. She could see that I too was searching for that place between the worlds.