An artist is a solitary

The Japanese draughtsman, Hokusai, admitted to a mania for drawing the forms of things, from the age of six. He could not get anything right until the age of twenty, however. By age fifty he had produced a great deal of work which other people liked. Writing at the age of seventy-three, he believed that he was finally learning a little about the actual structure of trees, birds, fishes, and insects, for the depiction of which he was famous. He begged Heaven to give him him five more years, or ten if possible, for he thought that he could still become a real artist. In fact Heaven, which is always more generous than we deserve, and sometimes even more generous than we ask, gave him fifteen more years. But he did not think he had yet mastered his craft, for he still could not penetrate “the mystery of things.” If he could live to one hundred and ten, he estimated, he would be able to paint a dot or a line that was truly alive. He is now two hundred and fifty-five, by our earthly reckoning. Unfortunately his works of the last one hundred and sixty-seven years are invisible to us.

I have the information above from a catalogue of the porcelain works of Brother Thomas Bezanson, who is now eighty-seven years, but has been dead for the last nine. The catalogue, from Boston, in 1987, presents him in the prime of life. I often wish that I could insert pictures into these little essays, but either I can’t or I won’t. If gentle reader will simply search “images” with the name of this Benedictine, he will get a general idea.

The man had an extraordinary gift, not only for the production of difficult, traditional clay shapes, which require an athletic balance, but for glazes. What makes them extraordinary is not their composition, but their setting and firing in the kiln. This requires an almost inhuman patience and skill. He uses the basic copper and iron materials, in standard, rather ancient, Oriental formulations (tenmoku, “peacocks,” “chrysanthemums,” sang de boeuf, celadon, kaki, “black olives”). But with these he produces effects that are … unprecedented, extraordinary. There, I have used the word extraordinary four times.

Brother Thomas was what we slobs call a “perfectionist.” Four in five of his pots were discarded. Yet from his notes one discerns that many he kept were happy accidents. These included several “miracles” — defined as an emergent colour that the known laws of chemistry will not permit.

He was a solitary. His relations were chiefly with his materials. In one of his notes he expresses a gushing boyish love for a tessah iron glaze, because it is made of the clay, hematite, and magnetic ores of his own native province, Nova Scotia. He seems to indulge self-flattery in his description of its “seed” (little reticulations). But to understand him, we must realize that he believes the pots are making him, as much as he is making the pots:

“The human soul is shaped and fed in the experience of the beautiful.”

Elsewhere he writes, “Art speaks ultimately of an inner vision of the transcendental value: beauty. It is glimpsed, not grasped. Once glimpsed, it brings an inner imperative to concretize it. This can never finally be done, but it cannot be left untried.”

He speaks of freedom as the highest creative value; a freedom that is contemplative, and rooted in theology:

“I want my work to be prayer, and my place of work to be a place of prayer. Noisy, meaningless intrusions, chatter, unannounced visitors all obscure or even block the creative spirit.”

His work is intuitive: “Prayer engages this power. … Prayer, meditation, solitude, and silence, are the keys to it.”

Like Hokusai, he notes that all artists are beginners.