Gone to pot
Aaron Scythe escaped the nuclear nightmare of Fukushima for the relative serenity of Te Aroha, where he's creating ceramics that combine aspects of both Maori and Japanese culture. He tells Tracey Cooper about his long journey home.
Te Aroha means a lot of things to a lot of people. The majestic 952-metre bush-covered mountain on the eastern flank of the Waikato is the highest point in the Kaimai Range, a landmark of the region, clearly visible from pretty much anywhere when the weather's good. It's a mildly challenging climb, a mountain often considered - given its name - a place of love and, crucially for Aaron Scythe and his family, it's "a big mountain between the sea and us".
That's important, because until last year, Scythe, his wife, Saori, and their two children lived in Mashiko, a picturesque Japanese town of about 25,000 people.
It's not on the coast, but the town, renowned for its pottery, is only 130 kilometres from Fukushima, a name now synonymous with the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan in March last year.
While Mashiko was badly damaged by the earthquake - about 2500 homes were destroyed and most of the town's more than 300 pottery kilns ruined - it was the proximity of Fukushima and the potential threat of radiation that prompted Scythe to move back to New Zealand.
"It was scary, in the distance, wondering what was coming, being scared of nature, the rain and the wind. It was an awful thing," the 41-year-old ceramic artist says.
Scythe went to Mashiko about 16 years ago to learn about using wood-fired kilns. The town is renowned for its pottery and kilns: Japanese master ceramicist Shoji Hamada had set up a kiln in the town and one of his students, Tatsuzo Shimaoka - who was named as a Living National Treasure in Japan - worked there.
Scythe had always known ceramics was what he wanted to do, even as a child growing up in Auckland, where he attended Selwyn College.
"For some reason, I wanted to make pots."
He got a job as a slip caster (making identical pieces by pouring slip - thinned clay - into moulds) when he left school, then headed to Sydney, where he attended pottery school.
"I left that and taught myself from there."
Japan appealed as a place to continue his education because "it's the ceramic place".
"The whole tradition is embedded in the culture of Japan. Half the town [Mashiko] are potters."
He says there's "a subtleness" about Japanese ceramics that appeals and he learned about using ash to create different coloured glazes for his creations.
"There are 30 to 50 different ash glazes there."
In New Zealand, there is no culture of using ash glazes and while Scythe would like to experiment, it would take years and require the burning of hundreds of trees.
The use of ash as a glaze dates to about 1000 BC in China.
Trees are burnt and the ash - which
amounts to about 1 per cent of the tree - is mixed with water and used to glaze ceramics before they are fired.
Scythe says there's such a long history of ash glaze in Japan that a huge array of colours are able to be created.
That history doesn't exist in New Zealand and "all the clays in Japan are completely different" to what he's found here as well.
"My pottery is like Japanese pottery and what I made in Japan I couldn't make here. Everything is so different."
Leaving Japan was not part of Scythe's plan.
He never taught his two children to speak English "because there was no need. We weren't coming back."
But it turned into an easy decision to make when the reality of living close to a ruined nuclear power plant became clear.
Official statements said it was safe to stay and food being produced was safe to eat, but Scythe was sceptical.
"There were reports every day saying everything was OK, but there are still thousands of people in Japan in shelters. We left our house and became refugees. We packed the car, the dog, the kids and some food and left."
Not knowing whether food was safe to eat was a great concern, he says.
"You can't eat anything without living in denial, so you live in denial or you run away."
Te Aroha appealed not just for the mountain range between it and the ocean.
"Since we lost everything and money was an issue, we wanted somewhere cheap to live and a small town for the kids. We wanted a small country town and a small country school and we've got that."
Not everything was so simple, though.
"It was really difficult coming back. I hadn't been back here since I was 18 and I'm 41 now, so everything that I learned as an adult was in Japan. I was not used to how everything is done, right down to how to buy things."
It also turned out to be extremely expensive living in New Zealand.
"If we had known how expensive it is to live here, we might not have come back. You can live cheaper in Japan being poor than you can in New Zealand. That was a big shock."
It's also taken a while to get used to the diet and they miss Japanese food.
"People say import it from Japan, but what would be the point?"
Since settling in Te Aroha, Scythe has set up a studio in a shed next to his home. It's filled with shelves stacked with pottery pieces in all shapes, sizes and stages of creation.
He works on a table surrounded by Japanese themed curtains, which helps keep the heat in during cold weather, and he's got a couple of kilns - one gas and a cheaper-to-run electric one - filled with his creations.
His first major exhibition since returning to New Zealand is on at Tamahere's Inspirit Gallery from tomorrow until December 11.
It's fair to say Scythe prefers to let his ceramics speak for themselves.
When he's working, he likes to be shut away from the world so he can concentrate on what he's doing. It's for that reason he doesn't hang a sign out inviting people in to see his studio or buy his works.
The pressure of meeting people, he finds, affects his work.
"Someone would come in and talk to me for half an hour or more.
"If I try to talk to someone, then go back to work, I just can't do it. If I try to do it, the next day I look at what I've done and think it's crap. I don't want to make what I don't like.
"I am happiest in my studio surrounded by family. I'll be hidden in my shed for three months making something, then go to a gallery opening and talk to customers there. I'm either making things to exhibit or having an exhibition."
"It's a really solo thing, pottery.
"I'm so immersed in work, but I love having my wife and family around me."
It's also no good working when he isn't in the mood.
"You can tell if something has been made when someone's in a bad mood."
He's currently inspired by the Maori prophets and that's coming through in his work, which has evolved since his return from Japan.
And he's keen to see his creations get used, rather than bought for a collection and put on a shelf, as often happens in Japan.
"Traditional Japanese customers collect things but don't use them. I want people to use and understand them and think of it as beautiful. A lot of people buy work and don't use it. I don't like that. Use the thing. It's meant to be used."
Ultimately, "a pot is a utensil".
While Scythe had established a solid reputation in Japan, it will take time to do the same here.
"I'm lucky I'm still selling pots in Japan."
And still exhibiting:his Tamahere exhibition will coincide with one at the Ichinokura Sakazuki Art Museum in Japan.
"I had started to get well known in the prefecture I was in, so I'm not a beginner, but I'm not well known in New Zealand."
It seems a matter of time before that changes, but it may be under another name that he becomes more well known.
Given the choice, Scythe would prefer to be known as God-Inc, which is not some God complex issue he's dealing with, rather a reference to German philosopher Nietzsche and another way of maintaining his anonymity.
"Nietzsche said that god is dead. So since god is dead, we invent ourselves as god, or words to that effect.
"You are in your own little world and it's a play on words: I'm god in that little world."
Nowadays, Scythe's little world is in Te Aroha, not Japan, and he says there's no chance he'd change his mind and head back. "Even if I won Lotto. The kids love it here and I couldn't live a normal life there any more. That's incredibly sad. But eventually I will look on it as a really interesting period in my life."