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Publication Date: Wednesday, October 30, 2002

Local ceramist takes his art to Japan for international festival Local ceramist takes his art to Japan for international festival (October 30, 2002)

By Jane Roberts

Special to the Almanac

Lee Middleman of Portola Valley recently served as an American ambassador in Japan, but he didn't have to join the employment ranks of the United States government to do so.

A guest of the Japanese government, Mr. Middleman represented his country at the inaugural Aomori International Wood-Fire Festival in Japan.

Organized by Japanese ceramic artist Tsugaru Kanayama, the festival was held in August in the city of Goshogawara on the Honshu Island of Japan -- a land whose pottery-making tradition goes back more than 5,000 years.

Bringing together an elite group of 80 potters from 17 countries, Mr. Kanayama organized the festival as a way to open up his island nation to the international community and to promote interaction for the sake of world peace, according to festival literature.

Mr. Middleman says he spent his time working with the other potters sharing techniques and philosophy, comparing styles, and learning about unfamiliar cultures. "I feel like I have 80 new friends from around the world," he said of his fellow potters at the festival.

During his time at the festival, which was sponsored by the Japanese government, Mr. Middleman was treated to nightly "first class" entertainment of traditional or modern Japanese dance, music or song, he says. Meanwhile, thousands of Japanese visitors formed a constant audience around his wheel as he worked.

"I felt like a rock star," he says, "and I tried my best to entertain my curious visitors with my limited language skills."

Mr. Middleman, who has a doctorate in physics from Stanford University, was a frequent business traveler to Japan in his previous career in the high-tech industry. This trip, however, was a "door-opener" for him, allowing interaction with his Japanese hosts in a way not typical for most tourists and business travelers.

He speaks highly of his more-than-gracious hosts in Goshogawara. Among his souvenirs is a hand-made, hand-painted traditional noren, a type of split curtain given to him by one of the volunteers staffing the festival. It now hangs in the doorway of his neat Portola Valley home studio.

Lee Middleman is relatively new to the art of pottery-making. Four years ago he left his job as vice president for research and development for Nellcor Puritan Bennett Inc., and took a class in pottery at the Palo Alto Art Center. Now a juried member of the Association of Clay and Glass Artists of California, Mr. Middleman does pottery full-time, his goal being to enjoy and create, he says.

His recent efforts involve exploring what he calls the interplay of shape, surface texture, ordered patterns, and random effects to create works that demand to be handled. His creations -- a mixture of delicate vessels in various shapes and sizes glazed in natural, earth-tone colors -- take on organic textures as Mr. Middleman mixes his knowledge of the physical world of science with his creative spirit.

"It's like a butterfly," he says of the surface of a finished piece. "The scales on its wing are irregular, but the overall shape is a pattern that has order."

** Lee Middleman's work will be on display November 9 and 10 at the San Francisco Clay and Glass Festival from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Herbst Pavilion at Fort Mason, Buchanan at Marina Boulevard, in San Francisco. (415) 507 9909. Admission is $7, general; $5 for students and seniors; and free for children under 12. For information, call 415-507-9909.

** In late November, Mr. Middleman's work will be available for sale in the Fumiki Gallery, 789 Santa Cruz Ave., in Menlo Park.


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