Currently living and working in Whanganui, 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.
Having lost everything in the earthquake that destroyed Fukushima, Scythe has taken a while to re-accustom himself to New Zealand. 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 on to 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 that 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.”
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. At home, 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, but my parents were disappointed. They’d wanted me to attend Elam and become an artist.”
Scythe worked full-time as a slip-caster at Halls Industries when he was 15, 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.”
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, taught him wood-firing in exchange for chopping all his wood. “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 both 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.”
“The moment I set foot on Japanese soil, I knew it was home. In New Zealand 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. Then housing approximately 350 registered kilns, and taking into account unregistered kilns, plus students working around registered ones, Mashiko was home to over 600 potters. There, Scythe’s unique work met the approval of Japanese potters, many of whom attended 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. Oribe is a style… a feeling, whether you use terracotta, porcelain, or clear glaze.”
“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.”
“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 New Zealand 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 that doesn’t need translation.”
“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.”
Words: Theresa Sjoquist