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Breathing Life into Porcelain
Chinaware Artisan Yasuhiko Kato


On an unglazed porcelain vessel, thick underglaze pigments are applied to elaborately sketched lines. With a simple stroke of the brush, a richly gradated indigo pattern is born onto the ceramic canvas, a result of the skilled hand of the artist giving life to the piece.

"The painting is more a sense of stretching drops of underglaze across the surface with the tip of the brush than a deliberate layering of texture. In order to achieve a consistent color tone, once the painting starts, it must be completed all at once. It's a process that taxes the nerves and requires intense concentration," says Yasuhiko Kato, 68, the seventh generation potter to head the Shingyokuen kiln in Seto, Aichi Prefecture.

A recent work by Kato combining German underglaze pigments with traditional Seto techniques.
The production of chinaware is a relatively new addition to Seto's rich ceramic history, which dates back to around the seventh century. Its origin can be traced to 1807, when Tamikichi Kato brought back porcelain-making techniques from the Kyushu region of Japan. Over the years these techniques acquired their own regional flavor, evolving into what came to be known as Seto china-ware. The pieces are characterized by their lustrous white porcelain and delicate patterns hand-brushed in indigo.

The pieces became a highly-prized export item following their showing at the 1873 World Exposition in Vienna and at subsequent expositions around the world. Hand-drawn pieces began to decline, though, after the leading-edge technologies of the day were pooled to develop a machine capable of mass producing intricate patterns. Ironically, this sparked renewed demand for the warm and subtle tones of hand-painted pieces-a victory for the artisan. Still only around 30 kilns for Seto chinaware remain today, down from a peak of over 300 in the city of Seto alone. Kato, designated a living treasure by the Seto municipal government, is one of the few remaining potters who incorporate traditional techniques throughout all stages of the making process.

"The life of Seto chinaware is in its intricate patterns and vibrant colors. Whether or not a piece can be brought to life depends on the glaze and pigment formulation techniques, as well as, of course, the quality of the painting. The reason I insist on using the best raw materials is simply because I want to create the highest quality work possible." Sato is presently experimenting with multicolor variations, incorporating the traditional art of German underglaze painting into his work. With his relentless pursuit of artistic excellence, Kato is breathing new life into a traditional style.

(Phots by Masatsugu Yokoyama, Text by Tomohiro Takahashi)