From Lump of Clay to Divine Art

Linda Gould

Linda Gould

JAPANARTPOTTERY 

Summary

Pottery is a reflection of the natural world. This article explores how natural elements affect the finished pottery pieces, and how one potter allows nature to express herself through his work.

Art will never be able to exist without nature.
Pierre Bonnard, French painter and printmaker, 1867-1947

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The process of making pottery, one of the oldest human inventions, is the archetype of Bonnard’s quote. It is closer to nature than any other art form. Earth, the bedrock of our planet, is the foundation of each piece of pottery. Water, the substance in which life develops and feeds, is mixed with the earth to create a malleable material which the potter molds into shape. Air, an invisible force in nature that can both destroy and nourish, is first pounded out of the clay to prevent imperfections in the finished piece and explosions in the kiln, but then becomes an integral part of the process as the various stages of the natural drying process determine when potters can carve, decorate and glaze their work. Finally, fire, the element that advanced humanity, develops the piece of pottery in terms of variability, color, texture and nuance. Like in nature, the potter can regulate and manage the fire to some degree, but this element of nature also contains moments of unpredictability that can manifest in pottery pieces of divine beauty or unmitigated failure.

A Place Where Nature Inspires Art

In the country of the town of Hadano, in Kanagawa-ken, Oyamada Kouhou is a potter who embodies Bonnard’s quote. Once a salaryman who commuted into Tokyo every day, Oyamada quit a job that was far removed from nature, to create. He created a sanctuary where nature could run wild despite the encroaching housing developments and apartment complexes. A place for inspiration from the blizzard of cherry blossom petals that blanket the ground in the spring to the wildlife that is housed on the property—free range chickens and a flock of geese that are the official greeters, their raucous cries announcing with great fanfare the arrival of visitors. It is a place of solace for Oyamada, as well as an endangered species of native honey bee that he made hives for and the birds that cackle and tweet as they flitter among the tree branches.

A Natural Approach to Pottery

In such an environment, you never know what will happen on any given day, and it is that unpredictability, that inspires Oyamada.

“Nature is changing constantly, and there are a million factors that determine what will happen in a day,” he said. “When I quit working to become a professional potter, I wanted to try something that reflected that in my work.”

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He was unsatisfied with the three traditional techniques for firing pottery—gas, electricity, and wood—because he understood how each type of heat affected the pottery placed in the kiln. To add an element of unpredictability, he designed a dual-fueled kiln that burns both gas and wood, then experimented to find his signature style by determining the combination of gas/wood firing that would provide him with a degree of control over his work, but also would allow the natural elements to emerge.
Oyamada is, to his knowledge, the only potter in Japan to use this technique, and his work is appropriately unique. Although he creates in many styles, his signature style uses no glaze, yet his pieces sparkle and shine as the natural elements of the clay burn and melt in the kiln’s heat. One-of-a-kind misshapen pieces result from shrinking and melting, while the striations, bursts and color variations naturally materialize. Whenever he opens the kiln door, Oyamada feels satisfied that nature is repaying him for his decision to immerse his hands in Earth’s clay, for his ability to channel the water, air and fire, so he can be the outlet for nature’s artistic expression.

Pottery Throughout Japan

Every region of Japan has potters. The earth from each region affects the type of pottery created, as does the region’s culture and history. As you travel throughout Japan, you’ll find earthenware and ceramics at temples and shrines, in hotel lobbies, and in restaurants. You don’t have to visit a potter’s studio (although that is highly recommended) to experience the diversity of skills, objects and styles that Japan’s potters have created since the earliest peoples. But do take a moment to remember that all of them are the result of nature’s bounty.