The originality of new artists
To the touch, the surface appears so brittle that it is ready to crumble to pieces in one's hands. The work has a distinctive coloring and gradation reminiscent of rust-covered metal scrap; examining Weather, the latest work of Seto-based ceramic artist Jiro Nambu, 30, one is struck by a sense of both the transience of an object in the process of decay and the beauty born of this transience. The style of the work is totally distinct from Seto's traditional style of ceramics, reminding one more of modern art.
"The motif of my work is Weathering," says Nambu. "I wanted to take a single moment in the slow, gradual process of decay and capture it in ceramic form. Of course, the state of decay seen in the piece is artificial, so the biggest challenge is to what extent I can make it appear natural... You might call that my main theme."
While Nambu fully appreciates the beauty of traditional pieces, which strive to present a perfect, flawless form, he has his own unique sensibilities: "I have a great fondness for old things-an old car red with rust, lying abandoned in some weed-overrun field, for instance," he says. Nambu brings a novel notion of beauty to the ceramic world.
Jiro Nambu, an instructor at Seto Pottery Senior High School who focuses on the motif of Weathering in his works, says that sometimes students who are not technically mature come up with new concepts that had never been thought of before, leading to a sense of fresh exhilaration.
Mariko Shibata, 42, another ceramic artist living in Seto, pursues a different but equally distinctive approach, emphasizing fragility in her pieces. In a collection of her works entitled Still Lifes, the individual pieces are in the shape of vessels. Yet all the pieces have diaphanous walls, thin to the point of being nearly transparent; they are pocked with numerous holes, moreover, rendering them useless as utensils. Not only do they lack utilitarian value, they also appear so vulnerable and fragile that one hesitates to even pick them up.
"The works I create, even if they have the form of vessels, can by no means be used as such," says Shibata. "They have no utility: their only purpose is to exist quietly."
Since pottery is normally appreciated not just for the beauty of their form but also for their feel in one's hands, the momentary tension created when one reaches out to touch one of her works-the thought that one might break the piece crosses one's mind-will no doubt bring the observer a fresh sense of exhilaration.
The works of both Nambu and Shibata are unique and stimulating. These are but two examples of the cutting-edge styles breathing fresh life into the world of traditional pottery.
Blending of sensibilities
Not all of the Aichi artists studying traditional techniques while pursuing their own unique styles are Japanese.
A native of Brisbane, Australia, Mick Green, 37, currently makes ceramic works in his workshop in Nagoya. Green's entry into the world of pottery was spurred by an encounter with Fumitada Moriwaki, a ceramic artist living in Seto.
After coming to Japan in 1991, Green toured pottery production centers throughout Japan, but it was Moriwaki's works that drew him most strongly. "More than anything it was the subtle delicacy of Mr. Moriwaki's works-I was moved by their traditional beauty," recounts Green. The desire to truly understand the quality of this beauty is what spurred him to start making his own pieces. After finishing his training in Seto, Green moved to Nagoya, where today he devotes his energies to producing an original style.
Mick Green's four-piece composition entitled Intoxication, Life, Dream, Death, (photo shows Life and Dream) was inspired by a short story by the Japanese novelist Saiichi Maruya. When asked about his dreams for the future, Green said: "Someday I'd like to return to my native Australia and cultivate the seeds of Aichi's traditional pottery there."
"This may seem obvious, but we foreigners have our own sensibilities distinct from those of the Japanese," Green notes. "Take light, for example. In Australia, the sun beats down with piercing intensity, but in Japan light is much gentler. I think this is one of the factors that gives Australians and Japanese different sensibilities with regard to color. And this difference," Green continues, "will surely be reflected in the kind of pottery we create."
While geographical differences give rise to differences in sensibilities, the blending of native and foreign perceptions should open new vistas in Aichi's pottery-making world.
In order to preserve tradition on the one hand and encourage experiments with new approaches on the other, a training ground must be provided to attract talented young artists and enable them to freely pursue their creative activities. This is true not only of ceramics but of all traditional arts and cultures. It is also necessary to create an environment that welcomes foreigners who, like Mick Green, hold a deep regard for Aichi's ceramic culture and desire to create their own works.
In this respect, the opening of the Seto Ceramics and Glass Art Center by the city of Seto in May 1999 bodes well for the future.
The three missions of the center are to offer a forum for exhibitions and presentations; release information and promote exchange; and nurture artistic talent. Director Tomotaka Uchida puts it clearly: "Our activities are based first and foremost on human development. Ultimately, we hope to create a new style of Seto pottery with an image distinct from that of traditional Seto ceramics. I believe that what is needed in order to accomplish this is human development, in other words the nurturing of young talent, including foreigners."
"I think the true nature of pottery is delicacy and fragility," says Mariko Shibata, an instructor at the Seto Ceramics and Glass Art Center. "That's why I keep making a conscious effort to create thin, vulnerable-looking pieces." Shibata's works are marked by forms that explore the extremes of delicacy and colors that evoke poetic sentiments. "The means of expression available in ceramics keep expanding, but technically I'm not doing anything different from the potters of the past."
At present 16 aspiring artists (8 of whom work in glassmaking) from all over Japan study at the center. These young artists, whose average age is 24, work together in harmony, encouraging each other as they pursue their dreams. The center plays a pivotal role in supporting their creative activities in a variety of ways. From time to time it invites noted artists from both Japan and abroad, holds workshops to promote artistic exchange, and hosts exhibitions of the young artists' works. These activities have made the center a new tourist attraction, but even more important, they provide new, stimulating ideas for the young trainees.
"The actual shape and color of Seto's ceramics of the future are something the trainees themselves are groping for right now," says Uchida. There is an undeniable feeling in the air of the just-built center that something new is about to be born.
Going beyond tradition
If the Seto Ceramics and Glass Art Center is a training ground for young artists, Yakimono Nagaya ("Potters' Row") might be called a communal workshop for artists who have actually begun working in the field.
Potters' Row was opened 21 years ago in 1978. Once a tile factory, this old wooden building was rented by graduates of a local ceramics trade school and converted into a workshop in the style of a row house containing several studios. This was the birth of Potters' Row.
Shozo Michikawa, 46, one of its original "inhabitants" and now trotting the globe holding one-man exhibitions in Paris and London as well as in Japan, speaks thus: "Compared to other ceramic production centers in Japan, the competition between artists in Seto is very tough, and it might be one of the hardest places to continue working as a potter. But I chose to work here precisely because of the challenge it offered. When I was starting out around twenty years ago, though, there was no place for a young artist fresh out of school to work in Seto. So that's why we decided to create the Row."
"When I showed my work in Paris and London, I realized just how highly Japanese ceramics are regarded abroad," recalls Shozo Michikawa. Behind him is Seto's "Potters' Row," a focus of artistic creation in the city for more than two decades. Two galleries have been built adjacent to the Row, where the works of the 20 resident artists are displayed and sold.
At present, Michikawa is among approximately 20 male and female artists who make Potters' Row their base. These artists, who range in age from their early twenties to late forties, come from all over Japan, and their styles are as diverse as their backgrounds. According to Michikawa, this is a good thing, helping the artists to inspire each other. "As for me, no matter how styles change I always insist on creating pieces that can actually be used. Pottery was originally an integral part of people's lives. That is why I have no desire to create pieces that have no utilitarian value. This is just my own personal opinion, and naturally some people will disagree with me. But I think the fact that there are so many different philosophies and modes of expression is good for the art form.
"Pottery itself is a traditional craft, but I think that we must be more than mere conduits for the transmission of tradition. If you see value only in tradition, then you might as well become an antique collector. The central issue facing the artist is, Can you express your artistic self in your works while maintaining a grounding in traditional techniques and philosophies? The goal of an artist is not to follow in someone else's footsteps; artistic activity is essentially a tool for self-expression."
Michikawa's words appear to express the sentiments of all ceramic artists who are searching for new possibilities in the world of pottery. As long as this feeling endures, the flow of tradition in Aichi's ceramic culture will continue despite its myriad incarnations, moving ahead in the quest of ultimate beauty.
(Photos by Kiyoshi Inoue, Text by Masaki Yamada)