Old school potter goes native in the wilds of southeast Okinawa

New Zealander Paul Lorimer embodies the elemental in his drive for authenticity


Special To The Japan Times

It took a devil of a time before finally managing to locate the home of potter Paul Lorimer, the building tucked into a rural lane on the fringes of the Sashiki community on Okinawa Island’s southeast coast.

This is wild country, the fertile, well-watered flatlands coming to an abrupt halt against steep cliffs, limestone caves and mountain escarpments few people dare to explore. The lushness of the farms and kitchen gardens, bulging with banana fronds, trellises of dragon fruit and Okinawan herbs used in cooking and for medicinal purposes, belie the dangers of these fields, infested with the poisonous habu, a viper so venomous it is said that invading wartime U.S. Marines were more afraid of the snake than Japanese soldiers.

Lorimer’s home sits in the middle of a grassy plot with hibiscus flowers and a single plumeria tree. Upon meeting him, Lorimer, a plain-spoken New Zealander, offered no comforting reassurances about reptiles, stretching out his arms to indicate the length of the kind of snakes inhabiting the overgrown field at the rear of his home.

As it turned out, there were several snakes in the house itself, the living room to be precise. Lorimer slid back the doors of a large built-in cupboard, where several glass jars were lined up. These contained samples of awamori, the signature liquor of Okinawa. Some of the darker fluids hosted the decomposing corpses of serpents. They may have shrugged off their mortal coils in the service of maturation, but their faces, paralyzed in vicious death throes, were still alarming.

Lorimer explained how awamori, made from long-grained Indica rice from Thailand, could also be used as a cleansing agent, or, when mixed with black sumi ink, as a waterproofing solution. The walls of the living room were lined with large, dark brown jars he had fashioned himself. The same brand of awamori was being used in each container to test the effect of different clays, minerals and the metallic irons that can radically alter the taste. Each jar was high fired to prevent leakage. A distilled liquor, awamori improves with time. In the Okinawan language, kusu refers to aged awamori, a quality bottle rising in value. A specialist in the making of awamori jars, Lorimer is critical of the increasing use of mass-produced imported containers from China, which he condemns for eroding the craft of utility ceramics in Okinawa.

His home, which he shares with his Japanese wife, is as seasoned and subtly detailed as his work. Its beauty lies in its faithfulness to an Okinawan model that includes well-worn timber walls and pillars, an entrance stoop made from coral rock, polished wooden floors and fine, discerning touches, such as the filigreelike ramie wood-carved panels above room-dividing doors.

Lorimer’s roots are in the land. Raised on a farm in Auckland, he studied oceanography in college but soon dropped out in favor of traveling by yacht to Indonesia, Australia and a myriad of other Pacific islands, before returning to New Zealand and taking up employment as a carpenter. Working on the construction of a home and workshop for the master potter Barry Brickell, Lorimer was exposed to wood firing and salt glazing techniques, a European method in which vaporizing salt attaches itself to the surface of the clay, producing pleasing tones and textures.

Lorimer moved to Bizen in Okayama Prefecture in 1977, studying there for three years before moving to the warmer climes of Ishigaki, a relatively large island in the Okinawan Yaeyama chain, where he lived for 16 years. The opportunity to exhibit more and reach a larger customer base brought him to Okinawa’s main island some years ago. He has now spent the greater part of his working life in Okinawa and feels more like a native son of the islands than an outsider.

A believer in self-sufficiency and a reliance on the abundance of nature, he refuses as a matter of principle to pay for raw materials like the wood he collects for his kilns. Making sure there are no traces of paint or creosote on the timber, he approaches sawmills whose owners are happy to part with strips of wood made imperfect by the twisting and warping caused by typhoons.

He builds his own kilns on a slope 1 km or so from his home, a task that can take an entire month to accomplish. Lorimer’s muscular physique and coarse hands are, like those of sculptors, a testament to this field of work. The bricks for the type of kiln he prefers — the through-draft anagama, or “hole kiln” — are obtained from waste dumps. Arriving at his firing site, Lorimer pointed out a woodshed where his fuel is stored, and his two most recent kilns, one a traditional form with a deep, cylindrical body, the other a circular oven that could be mistaken for a well. This is used to fire the type of kitchenware used in the preparation of Southeast Asian cuisine. A measure of Lorimer’s commitment to his craft is evident in the fact that a kiln can take days to fire up, a process requiring a degree of patience, stamina and attention to detail many less traditional potters lack. Robust, slightly weighty pieces do better in the intense heat generated inside these kilns.

Lorimer is highly critical of contemporary ceramic methods, insisting that traditional approaches result in superior quality and warmth. A cursory glance at the pottery displays in many of the souvenir and trinket shops in the Okinawan capital of Naha reveal ceramic items that have a brittle, replicated look. Even for the uninitiated, the weight, balance and textural radiance of his pieces, when touched and tapped in the manner of fine glassware, are unmistakable indicators of the quality and originality that are the fruits of his creative labor.

A traditionalist of the old school, Lorimer prefers a potter’s wheel to the electrically operated type favored by many contemporary ceramicists. Fastidious about the clay types he uses, he travels all over the prefecture in search of raw materials. Examining bedrock and strata, he has developed a keen geologist’s sense when it comes to identifying likely sites that might yield the heavy, iron-rich clay, often containing difficult-to-fire particles of coral that is typical of Okinawa.

Adamant that a potter should be able to access resources from the natural environment, he never purchases clay. In some instances, he simply locates a likely spot and sets about extracting the material himself with the help of a hydraulic construction digger on loan from a friend. The method is not without its risks. Lorimer relates how, on one occasion, while digging a little too close to a U.S. military installation, a helicopter suddenly appeared and tried to drive him away. “I was out of there like greased lightning!” he recalls with a chuckle.

A small showroom on the grounds of Lorimer’s home offers a representative sampling of his work. Its shelves contain sake cups and flasks, culinary dishes and plates, vases, tea bowls, incense burners and his trademark awamori jars, some of which find their way to mainland Japan. He also creates kara kara, the stylish serving vessels for awamori, which are unique to Okinawa. Many of these objects are the result of the yaki-shime, an unfired stoneware technique that he learned in his Bizen days.

A large jar placed on the floor of Lorimer’s showroom contained a sealed door motif on its surface that looked familiar. This turned out to be a burial urn that would contain the skull of the deceased. Okinawan funeral rites and customs, as anyone who has visited graveyards here will know, are closer to ancient Chinese practices than Japanese ones.

Like many Okinawan potters, Lorimer makes his fair share of shisa, the lion-dog decorations placed on rooftops. Bodies of concentrated energy, these fierce, resolute sentinels guard the fortunes of the household. Unlike the shisa typical of souvenir shops, all of Lorimer’s lion-dogs have different features. “I need to rest between bouts of making shisa,” he says, “or the faces will show my fatigue.”

Lorimer’s showroom and workshop reveal tastes, techniques and influences that extend beyond Okinawan or Japanese design methods. These include modern tableware items, earthenware lamp shades, wine coolers and figurative vases that would not look out of place in a fashionable London gallery or designer home in the south of France.

In a different age, Lorimer would have been described as an expatriate who “went native.” The term, coined by class-fixated British colonials to stigmatize those among their ranks who “betrayed their own kind” by adopting local customs and striking up friendships with indigenes, has a more benign ring to it these days, hinting at respectful immersion in a host culture. A fluent Japanese speaker, he claims to have virtually no contact with the foreign community, preferring the company of his Okinawan and Japanese friends.

A most singular craftsman, Lorimer embodies the elemental and urbane. A man who extracts his own clay, builds kilns by hand, firing them up in the high summer of a subtropical island, he is also a researcher, devoting part of his time to establishing the provenance of specific clay types. In this role, he may be instrumental one day in helping to reconfigure the conventional understanding of Okinawan ceramic history.

Paul Lorimer has regular exhibitions. To find out more about his work and upcoming events, see his website at www.paul-lorimer.com .

  • wanderingpippin

    Very interesting article. As Mr. Lorimer refuses to pay for the clay for his wares, the bricks to build his kilns, and the wood to fire them, may I assume that he will have no objections if I visit his gallery and seect items to take home without paying for them?