David McDonald

David McDonald

Apprentice to Tsuneji Ueda, Kyoto, Japan, 1979
Apprentice to Tatsuzo Shimaoka, Mashiko, Japan, 1977-1979

"In just taking the apple from the tree and eating the whole thing, there are no mistakes to be made." Shoji Hamada

It may have been tenacity, maybe blind luck, but I am fortunate to have discovered my avocation early in life. For the last 23 years, pottery has been the fruit of my creative imaginings. To this day, I am mesmerized by the gentle strength needed to work the potter's wheel, and to expand clay into form.

My apprenticeships in Japan were the most influential period of my student years. In 1977, I began a formal, two-year apprenticeship with Tatsuzo Shimaoka of Mashiko, followed by a season with Tsuneji Ueda of Kyoto. Shimaoka was an apprentice to the late Shoji Hamada, and has recently been honored by the government of Japan as an "Intangible Cultural Property" or "Living National Treasure". Not only did I earn an in-depth training in pottery making, but perhaps more importantly, I was initiated into a traditional lineage of pottery as a way of life.

There are hundreds of kilns in the small town of Mashilo, and thousands of potters working with clay dug from the surrounding hills. Wood smoke from kiln firings dots the landscape on any given day. During my time at Shimaoka's, I began every morning by sweeping the studio grounds and gardens. Occasionally, ancient pot shards emerged out of the soil.

I was steeped in the lineage of this craft tradition, involved in every aspect of the studio work. I threw teacups and bowls on a wooden kickwheel using traditional tools I made according to the master's originals. I helped to fire the climbing kiln and then to unload the pottery just in time for the pageant of gallery owners and collectors who arrived to compete for their purchase. I lived in a bonsai garden beside the studio, stacked firewood for the kilns, wedged clay with bare feet, worked the fields in season, and even learned from the carpenters who, without using nails or power tools, notched together Mr. Shimaoka's house from rough cut timbers and hand-planed wood. . . I learned to eat from the whole apple of life there. (It became the core of my life's work!)

In 1980, inspired by my studies in Japan, I established Limberlost Pottery in Arizona and began to build, in my own culture, a life that reflects the grace of simple form and simple beauty as I find it in the natural world. I made functional pottery for the first half of my time here; focusing primarily on craft shows in Arizona and neighboring states. Since then, I have focused exclusively on ceramic art, functional in the broader sense, for living spaces and for the dialogue of our deeper questions about life.

Eight years ago, I began to experiment with what I call my Shield Mandalas. As always, I look to the natural world for inspiration. The shape of the shields is inherently organic, their contour made in a cloth sling, a natural arch. They remind me of a sand dollar, a mushroom cap, a tortoise shell, a shield.

Each piece is decorated as a mandala: a circle telling a story. I frequently incorporate archetypal images in their design -- ladders, pools of water, earthly and extraterrestrial landscapes, glimpses through microscopes and telescopes, and the four directions -- themes found in cultural arts from around the world.

I pour as many as 7 glazes over one another, using hot wax brushwork to resist between the layers (like batik). Fired in a natural gas kiln in a reduction atmosphere to 2400 degrees Fahrenheit, the glazes boil and bubble in beautiful, often unpredictable ways.

I have always appreciated the organic mystery of nature's hand at work on the land, and search for ways to take my work toward that kind of living artistry. So many times, this craft has reminded me of a man-made geological process, where I take all kinds of earth materials, mix them together with water and fire and air, and then wait as something alchemical takes place in the kiln. When I'm lucky, I feel as though I've collaborated with nature in making clay come alive. From inception to fruition, to be involved in such a vital medium is my great fortune. (1998)

I was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1956, and, except for the two and a quarter years I lived in Japan, have spent all of my life in the Southwest.

I discovered clay in high school. Pottery opened up a whole new exciting world for me, and I loved it. Nothing before or since has held my attention and fascination so much. The potter's wheel especially pulled me in.

I started college in 1974 as an art major with a focus in ceramics. My ceramics instructor had returned from a lengthy sabbatical in Japan just as I began classes. His experiences inspired me to want to go there myself. After writing to many of his contacts, I finally found someone who would take me on as a student. In the summer of 1977 I went to Japan and began my two year apprenticeship with Tatsuzo Shimaoka of Mashiko. Shimaoka himself was apprentice to the late Shoji Hamada, one of the most well-known potters of modern times.. . .

Each day at Shimaoka's studio in Mashiko, my morning began as I swept the grounds and gardens. Occasionally, a piece of Jomon pottery would emerge from the earth - perhaps 2,000 years old - testament to how long pottery has been produced there!

My pottery is based in the tradition of the Mingei, or Folk Art Movement of Japan, which preserves ancient craft in a modern culture, thus giving us a spiritual link to the natural world.

In 1980, I opened a studio in Arizona and began to find a way to make Mingei pottery in my time and country. I have acted as mentor to local college students studying clay, and have just finished two years with a student who did an apprenticeship with me. Many of the tools I used and techniques I learned while in Japan have become an integral part of my studio. My focus during those first years was on the design and production of functional pottery for everyday use and enjoyment. At that time my desire was for my work to make frequent contact with people's hands.

In 1988, I began to explore a deeper personal and spiritual aesthetic, which led me to develop what I call my Shield Mandalas. These forms and surfaces have drawn me into the timeless world of art, as I aspire to use clay to connect with people in the true sense of Mingei.

I developed this work by pouring liquid plaster into a stretched cloth sling, resulting in a natural arch or curve which is completely created by weight and gravity . . . Onto this form I roll a slab of clay, and then place it on the potter's wheel, where I center it and add a foot.