The Japanese Pottery Handbook Signing at District Clay

Last Friday night, District Clay hosted a lecture and book-signing for British potter and author Penny Simpson for the 35th anniversary re-release of her book, The Japanese Pottery Handbook. Introduced by Curator of Ceramics at the Freer Sackler Gallery and a long-time friend Louise Cort, Simpson gave an overview of her time in Japan in the late 70’s and how The Japanese Pottery Handbook came to be.

While she originally traveled to Japan to teach English, Simpson soon took up pottery classes at the Shimpo Tobei Center School and found much of the ceramic vocabulary out of reach of her Japanese-English dictionary. Simpson shared her idea to create a Japanese-English pottery handbook with one of the Shimpo instructors, Kanji Sodeoka, and Lucy Kitto, another foreign student and illustrator, resulting in one-hundred copies of a hand-lettered book which proved very popular with the other students. Armed with a great amount of feedback and with the help of publisher Kodansha, they painstakingly revised and expanded the finished The Japanese Pottery Handbook in 1979.

After being out of print for many years, Simpson noticed that the secondary market for her book was still notably active, and with her grown daughter, a designer, and Kitta, she digitized and updated the book for reprinting. She made special note during her talk of how much the digital age improved the process of sharing drafts and communicating with colleagues from afar.

Simpson shared slides of the traditional potteries and pots she has noticed in her travels to Japan, and lovingly described the attention paid to the relationship between cuisine and ceramics, noting how the use of chopsticks lessen the need for glossy surfaces while eating, how chefs prepare food specifically for certain sizes of dishes, and how esteemed handmade objects continue to be today.

Simpson also played a few short videos depicting different Japanese potters at work, throwing bowls, teapots, and decorating works-in-progress. She briefly contrasted Japanese and English apprenticeship models, noting the considerably longer time commitment necessary in Japan.

With this book’s re-release, Simpson and her compatriots continue to facilitate the decades of interchange between English and Japanese ceramics in the tradition of Hamada, Leach, and countless others.