What follows is a transcript of a talk I delivered last year while artist in residence at Hishio; a small cultural exhibition centre in the beautiful town of Katsuyama, Okayama, Japan.
I was born in June, 1963, in Munster, West Germany. My father, Brian, was a soldier in the British Army on the Rhine and my mother, Erica, had been a dancer, both ballet and contemporary, up until my birth. The first few years of my life were spent, like so many children of military personnel, shuttling between various postings in Europe. When I was four years old, my family (I’d been joined by another brother by then, Clive) immigrated to South Africa.
As a boy growing up in the Cape Province of South Africa I was always making small things, or trying to improve the appearance of the occasional toy that had been bought. Later, like many teenage boys, I graduated to building plastic model kits, something I evidently had a flair for. In my final year of high school, with the expectation that I would go to university to study law, my interest was piqued by a poster advertising evening classes in jewellery making. As it transpired, the gentleman offering these classes had just returned from London where he himself had trained. This new world of creating in metal seemed to me so exciting and multifaceted that I abandoned my father’s plans for me to become a lawyer and threw myself into my new interest.
After graduating high school I worked part-time as a barman and completed a foundation year at The Ruth Prowse art school in Cape Town. Although I was practising jewellery making and design there, I felt that the technical training I so desperately craved to be very much lacking. To remedy this I began a classical apprenticeship under a German master goldsmith, Uwe Kotter, the following year. Five years later I passed my trade test to become a fully qualified goldsmith.
It was in fact while at art school that my attention was drawn to the techniques used in the decoration of Japanese sword fittings. I still have the few pages of photocopied diagrams and instructions which one of my art tutors had copied for me from an old book on jewellery making. As it turned out these descriptions of Japanese metalwork technique were horribly inadequate, and inaccurate. Never the less, the promise of these exciting, and ancient, techniques completely captivated my imagination and so started my love affair with this unique tradition.
While still an apprentice I had made a start at trying to create tsuba but soon realized that I would need to travel to Japan to find the real craft. At that time however, it was virtually impossible to get to Japan directly from South Africa, not to mention a complete lack of any prospective introductions without which traditional Japan often remains a closed society. I imagined that London would perhaps offer some inroads. In March 1988 my youngest brother Guy and I arrived there with rucksacks on our backs and my hand tools which I carried in a small satchel.
Our second day in London was spent walking and exploring. As luck would have it we passed an interesting looking shop near the British Museum, called Nihon Token ( Japanese Sword ). Naturally, we went inside and met for the first time Mr Michael Dean. Mike recognized my interest and enthusiasm and was generous enough to invite me back. Over the next few years I made repeated visits to Mike’s shop where we spent many interesting hours studying fine metalwork and it was from Mike that I first began to learn about the more subtle aspects of Japanese craftsmanship and design.
Around this time I started to consider the possibility that I might be able to devote myself to this tradition on a full time basis. So it was in 1989 that I moved to a small farmhouse between Penzance and St Ives in Cornwall. Here, in the solitude of the countryside, I made my first chisels and began to teach myself how to carve steel. I was further encouraged in my efforts by Mr Graham Gemmell, a specialist dealer in tsuba and other fittings. I think we’d been living in Cornwall for about a year when Graham suggested that I apply for a Winston Churchill travelling fellowship.
These fellowships are quite remarkable in that they offer individuals the opportunity to travel to anywhere in the world and to study any number of subjects. The only real criteria being that the applicant have the enthusiasm and determination to succeed in their chosen project. Apparently the committee that interviewed me thought that my proposed study visit to Japan would be worth supporting. I was awarded a two month project.
The spring of that year, 1993, was quite an emotional one for me.
My first son, Kyle, was born in January, ( 7 years, to the day, after my father had died ) and there I was, suddenly a father myself, being offered the chance to pursue my dream…but having to face the prospect of being apart from my baby boy.
Once I realized that I would actually be going to Japan I began to wonder how I might get some much needed introductions to people who might be able to teach me the techniques I was so hungry for.
When I discussed this project with Mike, on the telephone, he immediately suggested that his wife, Hiroko, might know someone in Japan who might be able to help me. I think Hiroko took a small chance, but she agreed to ask her long-time friend Izumi Koshiro Sensei if he knew of anyone who might be able to help me in my attempt to study this tradition in Japan.
Izumi Sensei’s response was absolutely characteristic of the man who has so generously given me a life as an artist craftsman that I never imagined possible. He offered to teach me himself and wherever he felt any of his colleagues might be able to add to my instruction, he told me he would arrange for me to study with them in their own studios. All he asked of me was that I learn as much Japanese as possible before I came as he didn’t speak much English. The next three months, prior to my trip, were spent trying to get to grips with Japanese grammar and making lists of words relating to metalwork and art.
And so, it was autumn 1993 when I finally arrived in Japan for the first time. My visit flew by and by the end of my stay both Izumi Sensei and I had come to the decision that I would simply have to return if I was to make any significant inroads into the world of this ancient tradition.
With the support of Kashima Ikokku, a national living treasure, Izumi Sensei applied for, and received, a grant from the Japanese, Agency for Cultural Affairs on my behalf. I went back to Cornwall for Christmas and six weeks later I was back in Tokyo ready to learn more.
During my second stay in Japan I began to get a sense of the way Japanese craftsmen approach their work. This, almost gentle and intuitive application of technique and respect of material seemed to me to be very familiar, I felt as though I was coming home.
On every occasion that I stayed in Japan I was, and continue to be, very moved by the kindness and consideration that has been afforded me. Particularly, the openness and generosity that so many artists and craftspeople have shown me. My desire to learn and experience as much as possible has always been met with a remarkable degree of support.
Towards the end of this second trip it was decided that I wasn’t quite yet immersed enough in the Japanese metalworking tradition so I was offered a further two month stay later that year.
After these three very intense and condensed study periods, I moved from Cornwall to Chippenham, a town in Wiltshire. Here, I was only about an hour by car, or train, from London. Shortly after my return from Tokyo I had been contacted by a major specialist in Japanese antique metalwork, Mr Malcolm Fairley, who was keen to utilize authentic and traditional processes in the restoration of Meiji period metalwork.
Not being too sure as to how I was actually going to make a living at this point, I rather naively agreed to try and apply my newfound skills and techniques.
My first year as a restorer was terrible frustrating and painful. While I had learnt the basics of making new items, the procedures for restoring damaged, older pieces hadn’t actually been developed at all. Through a process of repeated failures and the occasional breakthrough which satisfied my rather demanding and particular client, I slowly gained a thorough understanding of the work of this remarkable tradition.
This experience was probably unique. No-one with my particular training had previously had the opportunity to handle so many varied items like these, and actually get to work on them. I was able to make the most profitable use of it all, as a consequence of my studies with Izumi Sensei.
One particularly interesting aspect of the work of the Meiji period masters is the way in which they attempted to make the transition from the kinds of product they had previously made for the home market and Japanese connoisseurs, to producing art objects intended primarily for a foreign market. The transition to a vital contemporary expression is, I believe, ongoing.
For about the next ten years or more, I worked almost exclusively on these truly remarkable works of art.
Two years ago my wife, Jo, and I were invited by Miss Barbara Warren, to Boston, to attend the opening of the new Japanese metalwork galleries in the Boston Museum of Fine Art. After we had walked into the main galleries with the tsuba and sword fittings directly ahead of us, we turned to look at the display behind us. We both had to suppress our amusement because a significant number of the 20 major works of metal art, which had been loaned to the museum for the exhibition, had at some time, to quote my wife “been on our kitchen table!”
Although the demands on my time made by my clients during this period never eased up, I was still able to explore my own aesthetic response to these processes and have slowly been working towards finding my own expression.
I had long promised myself that eventually I would reduce the amount of restoration work and devote more time to my own pieces, but there never seemed to be a quiet time for me in the antique trade. Finally, my wife and I decided that we simply had to escape… by leaving the country.
At the beginning of 2006 we moved to Cape Town and despite many obstacles and difficulties, we are now reasonably settled and I feel as though I am at long last able to be true to myself and hope to be able to produce some work that will justify the faith so many people have placed in me, particularly my teacher, Izumi Sensei.
My journey to Japan and into her long tradition of metalworking began sometime in 1981 in the Cultural History Museum in Cape Town, South Africa. Looking back on my first exposure to Japanese metalwork arts, it seems to me that initially, there were two distinct aspects that attracted me. The more obvious was the remarkable level of technical precision and skill that many examples displayed as well as the wondrous array of unimagined decorative processes.
The other aspect of these artworks that continues to affect me profoundly, was the understated elegance of design, and in some cases, a very subtle aesthetic expression, which for me verged on the spiritual.
I can well remember the sadness I felt when I learned that most authorities in the West considered these, seemingly magical, techniques lost to modern workers and were only to be seen in museums and similar antique collections. As a young man though, the exciting possibility of rediscovering these "lost treasures" was too great a challenge to resist. More than 25 years later I'm very pleased that I decide to "go and look for myself".
I have tried to enter into the spirit of my adopted tradition with a feeling of genuine reverence and I believe that this attitude has served me well.
The Japanese metalworking tradition, which has been extant for more than a thousand years, is potentially the richest source of technique and inspiration available to contemporary art-workers in metal.
It is my contention that only when a craftsperson is sufficiently grounded in the technology of their medium, will they do full justice both to themselves and their material, in relation to their creative endeavours.
One particular aspect of this tradition which I feel is a valuable example; is the relentless pursuit of technical perfection. It is probably exactly this aspect of Japanese metalwork (and most other tradition based crafts of Japan) which represents the greatest challenge, or barrier, to Western craftspeople, schooled in the belief that skill, is at best, merely a means to an end.
While it would be perhaps naïve to rely solely on technique, I believe that the effort required in the process of acquiring these skills, results in a deeper and more sophisticated appreciation, of both the medium and one’s own creative response.
I believe that for Classical Japanese metalwork to survive into the 21st century, it needs to continue to evolve, just as it has done for hundreds of years. To remain true to the guiding spirit of this craft however, we must be firmly rooted in the past while extending our vision and efforts towards a more contemporary and vital expression of the arts of metal.
Katsuyama, Japan / Cape Town, South Africa