Tending the Tigress: An Apprenticeship in Clay

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by Jody Hojin Kimmel, Osho

Recently, somebody asked me how I was turned into a vessel before my eyes. found Buddhism. I found it through a crooked tea bowl. At the time, I had been studying with a teacher who was very formal. Everything had to have these exact proportions, and everything had to be straight. He would actually come around with a ruler to measure—is the foot in proportion to the body? Is the lip in proportion? It was very trying for me to make a pot this way. I thought, “What ever happened to feeling it? Can’t I just feel this vessel as it takes shape beneath my hands, as the wheel turns fast and slow?” But I figured, “Okay, I’m here to learn.” And so I’d get my ruler out. Then somebody invited me over and showed me a bowl by Rengetsu, a 19th–century Buddhist nun renowned for her poetry and her pottery. This bowl was cracked, repaired and asymmetrical. Yet it was deeply, deeply centered. The first words out of my mouth were, “Who accepted this? Who let this happen?” I wanted to know whose hands and mind put that bowl together. It felt so alive.

How do the teachings of a lifetime come to us? We can meet them anywhere: in a tea bowl, in a poem, but most especially in a teacher. If we have the good fortune to encounter a true teacher, one who them- selves has studied with a master, then we enter a stream of wisdom stretching back in time. Although we come to it fresh and new, we touch something very ancient, very human, a spark that has been handed down across the generations. For me, before I found Zen training and practice, I was taught in a lineage of clay.

I Was Eight Years Old When I realized I would spend my life working with clay. I was watching a potter, mesmerized as a spinning lump was turned into a vessel before my eyes. I remember a visceral feeling, an electric opening from the bottom of my spine to the crown of my head. Later I said to myself, This is what I will do with my life.

I told this to my mother. Luckily she recognized that this was something beyond a momentary enthusiasm. She enrolled me in a clay class at the local art center and drove me there every weekend. My passion continued through high school and our home began to fill with vessels and experimental sculptures. For my eighteenth birthday I received my very own potter’s wheel, which I still have here at the Monastery. I put this in a shed out back and I would disappear there for hours to spin bowls. I didn’t keep any of them; I just practiced throwing over and over again. There was something about the slowly turning wheel that eased my heart and quieted my mind.

Toward the end of high school, one of my clay teachers showed us images of Maria Martinez, a female master potter from Mexico, and explained that she began a lineage in her style by training and working closely with apprentices. This struck a deep chord in me. I knew that was what I wanted: to be an apprentice.

At college I began to study the history of object-making; it was filled with sublime beauty and the human need to create and express. With full dedication, I entered the realm of art history and my own studio work, painting, drawing and spinning the potter’s wheel. It became my religion. And in the quiet of working alone, I grappled with the materials and creation itself. It brought up the fundamental questions of my life: What is all of this anyway? What are things? What is a still life? Who am I?

As college came to a close, the idea of an apprenticeship kept arising. I thought maybe I would go to Japan or Korea to study, when a teacher and friend invited me to accompany her on a visit to Toshiko Takaezu’s home in New Jersey. Toshiko, she told me, was look- ing for a new apprentice. I greatly admired Toshiko’s work. She was a pioneer, one of the few female potters in the United States who had made a name for herself in a field dominated by men. I didn’t hesitate to accept the invitation.

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Toshiko Was The Eldest Of ten children, born in Pepeeko, Hawaii in 1922 to Japanese immigrants. Her interest in creative expression bloomed early in her life; she worked on weaving rugs and tapestries, painting and began touching clay. When she was older, she enrolled in Cranbrook Academy of Art studying under the potter Maija Grotell, “the mother of American ceramics.” Toshiko loved the gentle guidance of Maija and became skilled not only on the wheel, but in the fine science of glaze-making. She was able to replicate the brilliant colors of her Hawaiian upbringing on her vessels, along with the bold brush strokes of black ink calligraphy she learned in childhood. She began to use the simple vessels as a large canvas and was part of the emerging abstract expressionist movement in clay.

Over time, Toshiko’s work evolved into what would become her signature pieces: round, closed forms—some small and stationary, some giant and suspended in hammocks, floating in space like the moon and planets. She began by making open pots, of course—who would think to close them? But as she worked, the openings of her pots started to get smaller and smaller. Toshiko trusted completely what was emerging and one day, the pot closed completely. She made a small pinhole in it and expanded it further by blowing her warm breath into the clay. On another day a small bit of clay broke off and fell into the pot before she closed it, and after firing it she noticed that this pot made a sound. She began to make what she called “offerings” or “prayers” by rolling small beads of clay and dropping them in before she closed the vessel. Her vessels began to sing. She never tired of making these forms, or of making the simple tea bowls she had come to love from her training and practice in Chado, the tea ceremony.

On That First Visit To Her house with my friend, the place was bustling with activity: a meal was being prepared, there was house cleaning going on, and a large kiln was being loaded for bisque firing. After being introduced, Toshiko immediately put me to work, asking if I could help her carry one of her large, round pieces into the kiln. We did that, then she said, “Now come with me to the garden.” It was a very sunny day. Toshiko almost always wore a colorful Japanese cotton printed smock with loose pants beneath, and a large brimmed sun hat when working outdoors. She had long hair with black and silver stands always gathered into a broad elegant twist in the back. Long, loose strands would fall by her beautiful moon–shaped face. She carried herself like a dancer, upright and rather softly. Her movements were graceful, direct, uncomplicated as she flowed from touching her wet pots, to loading the kiln, to preparing a few vegetable for lunch, to giving instruction, to tending the garden. “Follow me,” she said that day, “we are going to pick onions. You carry the basket as I pull.”

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Toshiko knelt down and with full attention pulled onions one by one, shaking the dirt off and placing them in the basket I lowered towards her. We worked almost the whole row in silence until she stopped and looked into my eyes and asked, “Why do you want to work with me?” I was startled at this question. I stammered and don’t remember what I blurted out, but it was enough to send her back to the onions in silence. She picked a few more. Then she looked up and asked with a smile, “When can you start?”

Within a week, I had packed up and headed to live with her full time in Quakertown, New Jersey. I would study not only touching clay with this teacher, but really the art of living and working with others, of being a fully expressive human being. In all my fantasies of apprenticeship I had imagined myself in some remote village overseas, and now here I was about forty miles from where I was born.

“So you want to be a potter,” Toshiko said with a strange laugh. She then assigned me to clean the studio, wedge large lumps of clay for her work that day, and throw one hundred bowls of my own off the hump. And all this was to be done before she called me to breakfast at 7:00 am! Each morning, rising early, I faithfully performed my appointed tasks. And each morning after breakfast, we would come down to the studio together and look at my pots on the board. She would carry an umbrella, or sometimes a stick. As she looked at my pots, she would smash them, one by one. This ritual continued each morning for several weeks. It felt like an eternity to me. And as she leveled each pot to the ground, she would give an eerie chuckle and repeat, “So you want to be a potter.”

Then, one day, she spared a vessel. The earth shook. My heart leapt. One was spared! What was it about this one? My mind moved fast: What did I do with this one? Where was my mind? Why is this one special? As I stood absorbed in contemplating my success, I was brought back by her roaring laughter. She was doubled over, tears rolling down her cheeks, laughing at my foolishness. I was completely humiliated. Although my self- righteousness was quick to arise, I recognized something true in her laughter. Taking it all in, after a short while I was able to let go and laugh as I saw my own devices and strategies so plainly at work. For me, it was a profound teaching and marked a first real shift in my character.

I remember another time when she told me that my bowls were “so noisy.” What did she hear? “You don’t know what you want. What do you want with the lip? Open, closed? What kind of foot? Or the body, do you want fingermarks or not? Make up your mind, be deliberate and quiet it down.” Was she looking at my pots? What vessel did she see, really?

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Most of the time we were in each other’s presence all day long, and we often worked in silence. Whether we were cooking eggs or pulling slugs off a cabbage, she studied my every move and used her body to teach me what needed to happen. Toshiko was gentle, and also a tiger. She was compassionate and yet unafraid to wield the sword that could tear my ego to shreads. I trusted her. She was a powerful female role model for me, embodying the strength and courage I was so hungry for. Sometimes I mustered the courage to ask her about the intimacies of her life: Did she ever want to marry or have children? Did she ever feel it was difficult to be a woman in a predominately male field of art? How did she hold her own? She never balked at the questions. She would answer thoughtfully, with depth and sincerity, taking her time before she started to respond.

Sometimes collectors would come to the studio to purchase her work or view it for an exhibition. It was my job to take them to the showroom alone, where Toshiko would join us a few minutes later. She would listen attentively to the conversations we were having. If they happened to pick up a pot with a few of her small clay balls inside, she would listen to how they shook her pots to get a sense of their temperament. Then she would make her appearance and see what they wanted.

I recall a trip I took with Toshiko down to North Carolina, where she was giving a presentation at a local college. On an impulse, we stopped to check out a craft fair along the way, and Toshiko recognized one of her former students sitting outside his pottery booth. He popped off his chair at the sight of us and looked extremely surprised, nervously greeting Toshiko. After introductions and some small talk, Toshiko tried to enter the tent and view his work, but the young man seemed to block the entryway. He kept bringing up new topics of conversation, talking faster and faster. Undeterred, Toshiko persisted and finally we entered the tent. I looked around at the pots and vessels. My stomach tightened. I cast a sidelong glance at Toshiko, who was taking it all in like a hawk. She was quiet and still: his work was a near carbon copy of hers.

After a few minutes, Toshiko turned gently on her heels and met the young man at the door. His face was as red as a tomato; I was afraid of what would follow. Toshiko could be fierce and I was sure she would chew this young man out. But before he could open his mouth, Toshiko started to apologize, “I am so sorry,” she began. She was calm and completely sincere. “I am so sorry that you feel you had to do this. You are so much more. I didn’t teach you well. Please, find yourself and trust yourself. There is no need to copy anyone. Just give your work your honest life. Then it will happen for you. You are so much more.” I was dumbfounded. Instead of being furious, she had lovingly opened the gate to his potential.

I apprenticed with Toshiko until I departed for graduate school, and when I completed my MFA, I returned again to work with her. Toshiko wanted me to stay longer, but at this time I began to feel the strong need to break away and find my own expression, as well as tend to other aspects of my life. It was time to part from my teacher. Over the years we kept in touch, wrote letters, and visited on a few occasions. Once, during sesshin, I was sitting on the Monastery’s front stoop when a short, stout figure wearing a wide–brimmed hat and long smock headed toward me. It was unmistakably Toshiko. “Just passing by,” she said.

The Last Time I Saw Toshiko was in January, 2010. It was soon after Daido Roshi died, and four months before Toshiko herself would pass away. She had had a stroke and I was yearning to be near her. There was an exhibition of her apprentices’ work in New Jersey, so I grabbed my dharma brother and we drove to see her. When we arrived, she was sitting upright in a brightly lit alcove, wearing a colorful kimono-smock, her now all–grey hair pinned neatly back and up in a twist, a bit of lipstick and eyeliner. Silent, still, we took each other in. Keeping her eyes locked on mine, she followed my body as I knelt down beside her. We held hands. Then she spoke, “It’s about time. Where have you been?”

Toshiko lives so deeply in my heart and mind. I feel her great patience and care for people and things in every action of my being. Her presence is with me every time I handle a vegetable, sweep the kitchen, or relate with someone. And every time I touch clay, I feel her admonition to always breathe my full life into everything. “Then,” as she told me, “what you do can’t help but be alive.”


Jody Hojin Kimmel Osho is a priest and teacher in the Mountains and Rivers Order. Before entering monastic training, Hojin Osho taught painting and fine arts as well as exhibiting and maintaining a working studio.

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