Growing up with severe asthma, Australian Euan Craig was acutely aware of the fragility of life from an early age.
His older sister inexplicably collapsed and was diagnosed with brain damage at the age of 12.
“I was only 8 when she first got sick,” explains Craig, now 49. “I stayed home until 21 and helped my mother look after my sister while she was in and out of hospital.”
He recalls visiting his sister in the children’s ward, where he would see other kids dying one after another from brain diseases. The doctor told the family his sister was unlikely to live past the age of 20.
His sister beat the odds and now lives in a permanent care home, but he says as a result of this experience, “From a very young age, I was asking myself, ‘What is the meaning of life, why am I alive, what do I do with my life?’ ”
Aged 14, Craig wrote up a list of everything he hoped for from a career, and another list of all the careers he could think of, and compared the two.
Craig wanted a job where he could exercise his brain as well as his body — something that touched on his diverse range of interests, from science to art and philosophy, yet would be physical enough to build up his strength, weakened by the asthma — “something that would keep me dexterous and skilled, and that would add something beautiful to human society.”
Then, he crossed out all the jobs that didn’t fit the conditions, and “pottery was the only thing left.”
As a child, Craig would visit his relatives’ farm in the countryside, go walking in the bush and feel the beauty of nature.
“I thought, the reason why we’re here is because we’re part of nature. We’re the part that looks at nature and says it’s beautiful. We’re nature looking at itself and giving it meaning,” he says.
“And so I wanted to live a life where I could be at peace with the people around me, where I could create beauty, where I could grow and develop as a human being.”
Having settled on pottery as a career, he immediately took up a part-time position at a pottery in the city of Bendigo, northwest of Melbourne, a job he kept through his teens and throughout his years studying ceramic design at university.
After graduating, he bought a small pottery in Swan Hill, a town in northwest Victoria state, which he ran for four years. Then, in 1990, he moved to Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture — “a holy place for pottery,” explains Craig — at the invitation of a friend.
“I knew nothing about Japan. I didn’t actually come to Japan — I came to Mashiko. Mashiko just happened to be in Japan,” he says with a chuckle.
From 1990 to 1993, Craig apprenticed under national living treasure Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007), a disciple of Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), another renowned national living treasure, and the figure responsible for turning the town into a world-famous center for pottery.
While he was still in Australia, he was intrigued by the mingei folk art movement, which flourished in 1920s and ’30s Japan. He was also attracted to the Japanese way of viewing and appreciating art and beauty in everyday crafts.
During his apprenticeship, Craig attained not only his knowledge and skill in pottery, but also fluency in Japanese.
“Mashiko is in the country, and not many people speak English,” he explains. “Of course, you can understand what your teacher is doing and how he is doing it by watching, but to understand why, that was words — language.
“So right from the start, I started studying very hard,” he says. “I didn’t read any English books for the first three years. I love reading books, but if you read in English, you think in English. I taught myself to talk to myself in Japanese. By doing that, I taught myself to think in Japanese.”
He said that learning to pun in Japanese was useful in learning the language.
“Oyaji gyagu (old man’s jokes) are very important,” he says, laughing. “You join unconnected words together, which have similar sounds but different meaning, so it helps you to think in a more three-dimensional way,” he says. A pun in English doesn’t translate into a pun in Japanese, so “you’ve got to think within that language framework.”
He says that now, he is completely bilingual and can switch comfortably back and forth between the languages.
“When I speak in Japanese, I think in Japanese. When I speak in English, I think in English.”
In 1994, Craig established his own pottery, equipped with a wood-fired kiln, in Mashiko. In 2000, he moved the kiln and studio to Ichikai, also in Tochigi.
However, the kiln and house were badly damaged in the Great East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, meaning Craig and his family had to find a new place to live and work. In the end, they bought a traditional old farmhouse in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, from Craig’s wife’s relatives after the previous occupant, his uncle-in-law, passed away.
Craig set about building a wood kiln with quake-resistant modifications — far from an easy task, he stresses.
The 3/11 earthquake also led him to make more drastic changes in his lifestyle, he says. “It was the catalyst which reinforced for me the importance of living with nature, in a natural cycle, and creating beautiful things in collaboration with the forces of nature, with very little impact on nature.”
With that ethos in mind, Craig now lives an eco-friendly existence — using almost no electricity — with his wife, Mikako, and four children, aged between 8 and 16.
“It’s not that I’m refusing all modern amenity,” he explains. “It’s just that I believe we must retrieve the safe environment that we once had.”
The Craigs cook their meals on a wood-fired stove and heat the bath using firewood. Craig’s studio doesn’t even have electric lighting, and not a watt of energy from the grid is used in the pottery-making process.
“I always wanted a dirt floor in my studio, but I was always renting space, so I never had a kick wheel, a dirt floor or a well until we found this house,” says Craig, who does most of his work by sunlight.
The search for a traditional kick wheel took Craig full circle, back to his beloved Mashiko.
“I wanted a traditional Mashiko kick wheel, so I went there searching for a second-hand one.”
He spoke to various friends, who then spread the word, until he came across potter Tomoo Hamada, Shoji Hamada’s grandson, who happened to have an old kick wheel they hadn’t used in the Hamada studio for a long time.
” ‘Happy birthday,’ Hamada said, and gave me the old kick wheel,” he remembers with a smile.
“It was because of Shoji Hamada that I came to Mashiko. I studied under his student. And it was a great honor to receive that wheel, and to be accepted as part of the Hamada school. I’m doing my very best to live up to those expectations,” he says.
Craig holds both solo and group exhibitions several times a year in Tokyo, Tochigi Prefecture and other locations outside Japan, such as in Australia and Britain. He also conducts workshops on how to build wood-fired kilns nationwide.
Craig says he hopes his pottery brings happiness to the people who end up using his creations in their everyday lives.
“I want to share good food, good conversation and good times with the people around me — especially my family. I hope that my work brings some of that joy of living into the homes and lives of the people who use it.”
The Australian believes that living in the renovated old farmhouse without all the mod cons, and having to light fires to heat baths and cook their own food, is a good thing for their children.
“I think it’s very important for the children to know where things come from, and to understand their place in the environment,” he says. “The future of people depends on us living in harmony with nature, making things last for a hundred years, for a thousand years — making things that enrich people’s lives in a humanistic way.”
Rather than “shallow objects of poor craftsmanship that seem very bright and attractive when you buy them and soon become useless and have to be thrown away,” Craig says he wants to make vessels that give people joy every day for the rest of their lives.
Craig plans to keep working at the wheel for as long as he can, retire when he turns 90 and continue with pottery “as a hobby” for the rest of his life.
“I want to live every day the best I can, to be the best person I can be. It doesn’t mean I’m better or worse than anybody else,” he says. “It just means that I can sleep in peace.
“Who knows when we’re gonna pass away. I might pass away tomorrow and this might be my last chance, my last day. I would like very much in my last day to be able to say, ‘I did my best. That’s good enough.’ ”
Euan Craig will be exhibiting his work alongside that of Cengiz Dikdogmus at Gallery Utsuwazaka in Sakado, Saitama Prefecture, from March 19 to April 7. For more information on his pottery, visit euancraig.blogspot.jp. Comments and ideas: firstname.lastname@example.org