Something Zen about it

Yeats Gruin considers mentoring

Stretching out in front of me were lines and lines and piles and piles of huge brown clay urns with shining swollen bellies, small necks and lids tightly wrapped with a piece of square red cloth. As I moved closer, a rich fermented fragrant smell of rice wine was all over every pore and in every vein. This memorable scene occurred when, as a child, I visited the Chinese Municipal Winery factory where my father worked. It was also the first impression of a huge clay pot, functional, humble, powerful and authentically beautiful, which is engraved in my mind to this day. I fell in love then with the huge urns used at home for storing rice, pickling vegetables or smoking meat. This rich Chinese cultural background and, in a somewhat similar way, burdensome traditional baggage, has been carried with me through all my life, even though I left my motherland over thirty years ago to embrace the then described ‘western new world’.



When I started the journey of working with clay at a late stage in life – I call it ‘the second spring’ – after I clapped my hands and waved away most of the chores and responsibilities associated with my career and the raising of children, I wanted to quickly absorb the knowledge and the skills needed in my imagined race against time. Searching for mentorship wasn’t an obvious perception.

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In my earlier career as a teacher in a totally different discipline, I didn’t expect myself as a student to embrace ‘mentorship’. I thought I would naturally apply my own teaching/learning methodology to the new learning experiences. This is probably a rather unfortunate scenario, and quite a wrong approach when venturing into the art of ceramics. To paint the picture even more sombrely, I had grown up in a strict ‘spoon-fed’ education environment where the notion of ‘mastering the master’, by following the master step-by-step without much questioning, was prevalent. I found myself being given opportunities for independent thought and intellectual freedom (even if only occasionally), in a state of conflict and confusion, pondering what to do and which way to go.

One can have many teachers, but possibly few mentors, even none. In retrospect, I consider there to be a profound moment in the long voyage of being an artist where teaching stops and mentorship starts.

In the training program there is instruction in the fundamental elements of clay and the glazes, and there is coaching in techniques and skills for handling the kiln and the chemicals – but being an artist is beyond that which an instructor or a coach can teach, something left for the student to nourish and cultivate by personal pursuit. I regard this part of learning as the most important part of being an artist: developing the philosophical arguments and aesthetic processes, and later the interpretation of the meaning of the work. It is where teaching gradually diminishes and mentoring slowly takes over, maybe without one’s awareness or intention. Developing an artistic attitude is what mentoring is all about, and, if possible, even promoting the spiritual connections.

I am curious about what’s behind the mind of a western non-Buddhist (Rowley Drysdale) who takes a keen interest in reading a book called Zen Baggage: A Pilgrimage to China by Bill Porter. Porter tramped around the countryside in China visiting Zen temples and the graves of poets and seeking out hermits. And here I have found my first mentor in ceramics – Rowley.

As I search for my own (egoistic) style and expression in ceramics, I believe I can follow the ‘Taoist Way of Virtue’. In this regard, I am fortunate to have a mentor leading the way.

Yeats Gruin


To read more articles, buy issue 49/2 The Journal of Australian Ceramics here .


Author: Australian Ceramics

In 1956, The Potters Society of Australia was formed to encourage and foster the development, appreciation and recognition of potters and pottery. It was the first ceramics organisation in Australia. In 2006, our name was changed to The Australian Ceramics Association to more fully reflect the scope of practice of the members. We are a national, not-for-profit organisation representing the interests of practising potters and ceramicists, students of ceramics and all those interested in Australian ceramics. We actively support and promote quality, specialist ceramics education nationally. T: 1300 720 124

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