Aaron Scythe was born in Auckland in 1971, the year of the wild boar according to Japanese astrology. His wife, Saori, says he is exactly like a boar, running full steam ahead without looking around.
Dad is a horse-racing journalist and his mother was a fashion designer who owned boutiques, and the Hadney 5 label. “At home we used white Crown Lynn. Mum explained that since she threw them at Dad, cheaper ones were best.”
On the days Scythe ran away from school, it was to a small pottery shop in Parnell. “They sold a lot of mugs. I also had a friend whose mother was a potter who later started Masterworks Gallery. The Binneys lived next door. Don was great; took me to see the Asterix and Obelix play at the university. At 14 I realised I wanted to make pots. My parents were disappointed; they’d wanted me to attend Elam and become an artist. ”
At 15 Scythe worked full-time as a slip-caster at Halls Industries for a year, and in 1988, began the Craft course at Unitec. It included pottery, jewellery, glass, fibre, design and drawing. He studied bone-carving and photography at night courses, and continued slip-casting on weekends to pay for his studies. “Every slip-casting task had a window of only a few minutes. It taught me to watch the clock and work fast, and I became obsessive about time.”
Childhood wasn’t fun with parents who fought, a school he hated, and an eventual nervous breakdown. In rebellion he changed his name to Scythe. “I thought it sounded nice…especially in Japanese, Saisu.”
When the family moved to Sydney, Scythe attended an East Sydney Tech pottery course but left after three months. Peter Thompson, a potter at East Sydney on a post-graduate course, offered to teach Scythe wood-firing if he chopped all his wood. “I eagerly agreed and helped fire the kiln a few times. My previous madness for wood kilns began then, a sickness really. Thompson encouraged me to look at old Japanese and Korean pots to see what sort of work suited wood kilns. When I found 16th century Momoyama Oribe shino pots in a book, their quiet vibrance aroused my artistic spirit, just as Crown Lynn tableware dampened it.”
The Momoyama period encompasses rustic and high fine art. “Momoyama pots are artefacts from a cultural explosion of war and art, a redefining period in Japan, both politically and artistically. They express a wonderfully spontaneous use and freedom of clay, and glaze. For me Momoyama is like my obsession and love for Saori: each was love at first sight, and I am certain I can’t live without either.”
Scythe rented studio space at Sturt (Australian Design and Contemporary Art School), refined basic throwing skills he already had, and learned the rest from books and passionate perseverance. While there he built and fired an anagama kiln. Later he accepted the opportunity to work with a Japanese potter who had a wood kiln in Dubbo “He helped me get to Japan.”
“The moment I set foot on Japanese soil, I knew it was home. In NZ I’d lived with a culture whose sensitivities were totally different to mine; English lacked the nuances to express my feelings. Japanese cultural sensitivity is towards art and beauty, and the language enabled me finally to accurately articulate my sensibilities. I fitted.”
Scythe moved to the pottery village of Mashiko in 1996. Mashiko housed approximately 350 registered kilns. Taking into account unregistered kilns, plus students working around registered ones, the village was home to over 600 potters.
“Mashiko didn’t espouse traditions like Mino, Bizen, or Shigaraki. It produced lunch-boxes and clay pipes before Shoji Hamada made it famous. Because of the Hamada-Bernard Leach connection, gaijin (foreigners) were welcome. Later I began to become well-known, profiled in magazines, interviewed on television, but that took 15 years of 12-14 hour studio-days.
Scythe’s work is unique and Japanese potters approved of it, with many attending his exhibitions. “Philosophically my approach is Oribe, although Saori says it’s also Aaron style.”
“Oribe is a free-flowing way of making, and it’s a philosophy around non-pretentiousness. Leaving emotion in the clay and not hiding the soul through technique. It’s almost an anti-technique and takes a certain type of person to make this work, the suiken, drunken master kung fu style of pottery. The word, oribe, comes from the Samurai, Futura Oribe, who developed the style, and today refers to Japanese style ash glaze. Master potter, Koie Ryoji, makes Oribe. It’s a style… a feeling, and doesn’t matter whether you use terracotta, porcelain, or clear glaze.
“I’m fortunate that my aesthetics around clay are accepted in this era. People often remark that my work seems happy. I think that’s a function of my oribe style. You cannot hide the soul. If you are unhappy, it comes out in the work.”
Having lost everything in the earthquake which destroyed Fukushima, Scythe has taken a while to re-accustom himself to NZ. He says, “We aren’t glowing. We know our children have the chance to grow up without a huge risk of cancer, or damaged DNA to pass onto their children. Life is a struggle, yes, but a struggle towards enlightenment, and that’s not possible without barriers. If Fukushima hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be making the work I make now.”
In re-settling with Saori, and their children, Tsubaki (12), and Maori (8), Scythe’s work has changed to express a blend of Japanese and Maori cultures. “One of my hurdles was finding a new language which held interest and meaning for me, and made sense to New Zealanders. As a Morehu I connect best with the Maori prophets. Since the prophets have largely been forgotten, I use their words to start a new conversation as a bridge to my pottery.
“My decorative patterns are extracted from old Japanese and Chinese designs: the sea, or lotus stalks in a pond with birds flying over, or persimmons drying in the sun. Unless buyers understand what the designs are, and where they come from, my decoration is lost on them, especially patterns from 16th century pots applied to the surface of skyscrapers with birds flying overhead. Japanese pottery buyers generally understand the designs I use and distort because they’re imbued in the culture.
“I’ve had to reinvent what I learned there with materials available here, amongst a clientele with a different cultural understanding of pots. My work has more originality now.”
Despite NZ’s vastly different culture, population base, and wealth levels, Saori and Aaron have been surprised by how well his work has been received. Saori manages the business although she doesn’t yet have sufficient English skills for paperwork. She prices, names pieces, and chooses work for galleries. “When I have creative problems I ask her advice. I won’t necessarily agree, but somehow she makes me move aesthetically in the way I should.
“Art should bring inspiration and beauty into life. Pottery does both. It has to be made accessible for the public but you can drink your coffee from it. It’s all about beauty and the communication of beauty. In NZ there’s a tendency to believe artists need a great notion, a philosophy, a statement to make, otherwise it’s not good art. Beauty should stand simply as beauty, without a PhD on what beauty is. It’s an international language which doesn’t need translation.”
Scythe is inspired by driving his children to school or netball games, or going shopping. He says, “There’s nothing mundane about life; the beautiful faces of my children, sunshine, rain, river, mountains. I learned by watching the genius, Koie Ryoji, that I could create in the way I wanted but had been taught not to; the freedom to behave as a genius. He showed me how to breathe again. Although I haven’t met Suzuki Goro, his pots are magic.
“I love the actual doing of pottery, and I do like looking at a board of nicely decorated pots. It gives me hope that something good will come out, but as soon as they’re out of the kiln I lose interest in them. It’s time to make more and do them better.”
Scythe enjoys making tea bowls most, accompanied by TV or Youtube in his studio – Ancient Aliens, or Japanese rapcore music, and pottery mixed. “The tea bowl is the simplest form, about 11cm by 9cm, straight-sided, nothing special, but it contains all you can express about clay and life, your personality, your quirks. It is the easiest, yet the hardest to make. The challenge is to identifiably express yourself while maintaining the set characteristics of a non-changeable form; thinking outside the box whilst remaining inside its’ confines.”
He is fast on the wheel, but spends roughly equal time between decorating/glazing, and packing the kiln. Hikidashi is a favourite pottery trick and he says his hikidashi glaze is better than he had in Japan.
“In Japan There’s a clay for each kiln and type of pot. You can buy Japanese clay raw, with sticks and stones in it. I like that; warts, pimples and all. Some of the expensive clays are difficult to use with so many non-clay particles – the making is interesting and a challenge, and the end product is interesting and unique. It’s likely to break easily or leak, however this is accepted in the service, and severity, of beauty. In NZ, failing a natural source so far, I mostly use terracotta purchased in plastic bags.”
Currently using an electric kiln Scythe started with a gas kiln he considered substandard compared to Japanese kilns made from heavy steel casing and bricks. They fired well in reduction or oxidation, and held their heat, but they had to be craned into a studio. NZ kilns can be moved on a trailer.
“I used a gas kiln in Japan for oribe work but I built an anagama kiln with a friend which we fired once a year. The wood came from Fukushima (the concentration of radiation in wood kilns is a big problem now). I also built a gas wood kiln specifically for shino, which disappeared in a cloud of dust in the earthquake in less than a second. I fuelled it with pine off-cuts from a mill but had only fired it once before it fell down. I’d like to work with wood kilns again.”
Scythe runs occasional workshops but admits to feeling more comfortable when he has clay between his audience and himself. Workshops are often around hikidashi, and what comes from his hands on the day. He says, “It’s the same in my studio. No matter how many pictures I draw or how much planning I do, as soon as I touch clay I change my mind. It’s what I really like about clay – your feelings go into it, and feelings change daily.”
Regularly exhibiting he often has five solo shows a year. One show is slated for Japan in 2015, plus three in NZ. His works are held in many private collections, and are available from Trad Meister, and Ichinokura Sakazuki Art Museum in Japan, and at Masterworks, and The Poi Room – Auckland, Form Gallery – Christchurch, Avid Gallery – Wellington, and through a group of smaller shops and galleries in both Japan and NZ.
Aaron Scythe currently lives and works in Whanganui, New Zealand.