A few weeks ago, reading CRAFTS No. 273 (July/August 2018), I discovered the work of Roberto Lugo. This artist, born in Philadelphia, creates pots at the intersection of art and politics.
"The objects I create speak of personal subjects – my experiences with obesity, racism, and class division. I use the associations with ceramic material and forms of pottery, such as elite fine china and porcelain, to discuss these issues with humour and irony." - Roberto Lugo 
In 2015, he gave a fascinating talk at the NCECA (National Council on Education for the Ceramic Arts) conference where he explained how his life experiences shape his art. His goal, he explains, isn't to make art, it is about helping each other out and having empathy. With his intricate paintings, he is hoping that people will take a closer look, and start questioning things.
Ceramics, he says, is usually associated with high society. Using traditional techniques to tell his life story, he builds a bridge between those two worlds: the gangsters and the elite ; the oppressed and the privileged.
To take his commitment a step further, he joined the board of trustees at Haystack Mountain school of Crafts so that he could influence decisions from the inside. He also started giving presentations to educate people and share his journey. Earlier this year, he curated the THEY exhibition at the Clay Art Centre in New York that gave a space to the marginalised and underrepresented.
There is something highly refreshing in seeing people in the arts and crafts trying to make social changes happen and better the world in those times of turmoil.
“With nunozome fabrics are cut into shapes and placed on surfaces and transferred using a brush to bring out colors” 
The pieces made with these techniques have very intricate details and subtle variations in colours and shades. I was particularly impressed with the work of Nakao Hidezumi (中尾英純), Nakamura Emiko (中村ゑ美), and Uwataki Kouichi (上瀧浩一) whose works are shown just above. The variety of patterns, colours and how each layer stands out is quite stunning.
To find out more about the Japan Kogei Association; a list of the members can be found on their website with photos of their work. Here is the link to the ceramic artists exhibited at the 64th in 2017.
1. Heritage: contemporary Japanese ceramics and metalwork, Onishi Gallery, PDF document.
Then, the lacquering process involves the use of Wajima jinoko (a local sedimentary rock that is fired then grounded into a powder) mixed with lacquer to form a durable coating. Through multiple layers of coating, the shape is refined and the piece becomes more resistant .
While walking around Wajima and hopping from one lacquerware shop to another, I encountered the work of Katsuji Kamata at the Utsuwa Waichi gallery. The shop owner explained to me that this craftsman uses cotton cloth as a base instead of wood. This results in beautiful asymmetrical shapes that are very soft and have a mat finish. These pieces were absolutely stunning, a gorgeous modern take on this traditional craft.
If you have a chance to go to Wajima, I highly recommend going to the Lacquerware Museum to understand all the different steps involved in the production of Wajima-nuri, and then to wander around the lacquerware district next to the morning market.
. An iintroduction on Wajima lacquerware and its history.
 & . A brief introduction on the Wajima Lacquerware Museum's website.
. A description of the different steps.
One piece regarded as one of the best of its kind is of the Ido (井戸茶碗) type. This kind of pottery was used by commoners in Korea. That these kind of bowls were chosen for the tea ceremony in Japan is a dramatic shift from the refined Chinese potteries.
Wamono (和物) describe items that were produced in Japan. These seem to combine the elegance of the Chinese karamono with the imperfection of the Korean koraimono. Under the influence of Murata Juko, Takeno Joo and Sen No Rikyu, famous tea masters, ceramics produced in Japan were increasingly used for the tea ceremony. Sen No Rikyu would not only carefully select ceramics from Korea or China, he would also create pieces to match his philosophy. His collaboration with Chojiro, first of the Raku family is a good example of this . These three tea masters devised the wabi-cha (わび茶): the Japanese tea ceremony as we know it today.
If you are interested in learning more about the Japanese tea ceremony, this page lists English books covering both the historical and technical aspects of it.
. A brief introduction of the Chanoyu exhibition on the Tokyo National Museum website.
. A list of the pieces exhibited at the Chanoyu Exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum in 2017.
. See my previous article on the Raku family.
The collaboration between Sen No Rikyu and Chojiro resulted in unique and avant garde objects. Indeed, at that time luxurious Chinese ware were prized. However, the bowls that the Raku family made for Sen No Rikyu were simple and free from any ornamentation. These pieces were first called “Ima-yaki” (今焼) meaning the “now-wares”, a name that emphasizes the contemporariness of these pieces.
The exhibit at the MOMAT presents work from each of the 15 generations and even introduces works by Raku Atsundo who will carry on the tradition as the 16th generation. While the first generations’ tea bowls are glazed with only one colour, the creations by Kichizaemon XV are a lot more audacious: the surface is like a painting with brush strokes of dark blues and whites animating the bare clay.
What striked me most in that exhibit is how timeless the Raku wares are. Looking at the bowls from the 16th century, I felt like it could have been made just yesterday. There is something about the simplicity and organicity of the shapes, the texture of the glazes that allow these pieces to go through the ages without ever becoming outdated.
To read more about this exhibit that was held in Kyoto earlier this year, I recommend this article by the Japanese Times: Raku, A traditional contemporary art form.
You can also check out the exhibition’s official website (in Japanese) with photos of Chojiro’s work.
“On top of that, I think about how people will approach the building and experience that space... If you give people nothingness, they can ponder what can be achieved from that nothingness.”
This leads me to what seems to be the second main element in his design process: the experience one has entering and being into a building. He writes: “Also of importance are the personal experiences one takes away from the architecture, as well as the impressions and memories that elements such as the surrounding nature impart on the visitor” .
This aspect of his work was influenced by the architect Carlo Scarpa who designed “with an exceptionally thorough consideration for humanity and the way people would feel in the spaces he created” .
The link with the environment is one side of these impressions, as stated earlier, the other one is about passing on the traditions of that place. This was striking at the Ando Museum on Naoshima: the traditional Japanese building was kept intact, while inside the space was divided by concrete walls. The contrast was stunning but still, both coexisted in perfect harmony, thanks to the light circulating and the use of unadorned materials (natural wood and concrete).
I recommend reading the Conversations with Students to know more about Tadao Ando’s work, but no picture or essay will ever surpass the experience of visiting one of his buildings.
1. Ivy, Robert. "The Spirit of Modernism" Architectural Record, May 2002, from ArchDaily
2, 3. Ando, Tadao; Hunter Matthew. Conversation with students. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2010. ISBN: 9781616890704
One could spend a few days on these islands and still not see everything but taking the time to go from one site to another is highly inspiring. After a long day, the I♥︎湯 (read: “I Love You”) public bath is a last must-see on Naoshima island.
Tadashi Hirakawa has spent years trying to rebuild medieval kilns from Bizen which were not made of fire resistant bricks as it was later, but from a structure covered in soft clay ; hence the name Tsuchigama (clay kiln). It was very interesting to see videos and photos of the kiln he built in Arkansas with Chris Powell.
On the third floor of the museum, pieces by the potters honoured as intangible cultural property and living national treasures are exhibited. One of them, Jun Isezaki became a Living National Treasure back in 2004. Jun Isezaki‘s pieces are very sculptural, an interesting mix between traditional techniques and contemporary art.
The main street in Inbe is lined up with countless galleries, most of them adjacent to the pottery studio. Going from gallery to gallery, hearing about the family stories was a wonderful experience. At Ichiyougama, the owner agreed to show us the Noborigama (climbing kiln) in the backyard. They fill it with thousands of pieces and fire it about twice a year. Going inside the kiln, we could see how the chambers were connected and how the air could flow from one to another.
Bizen ware has gorgeous colours and textures, one single piece has so much to offer to the eye. The shapes can be smooth and very refined but also very rough. I loved looking at these, imagining the swift and expert movement that shaped the clay. These pieces feel alive, like they have a story to tell. I brought back home a couple of pieces, one is a bowl by Yasushi Mori with beautiful colours and the other one is a gorgeous cup by Nobuyoshi Shibaoka . There is something very special about using such stunning pieces everyday.
This collaboration resulted in the creation of the brand 2016/. There, the pieces were definitely contemporary with an obvious focus on forms and uses. As I was looking at these pieces I realized I could have never known these were made in Arita.
To me, this raises interesting questions: in Japan, Arita ware is easily identifiable because of its unique styles (you can read more about it in my previous blog post). But in collaborating with foreign designers, it becomes impossible to connect the finished product with the place of production. While there are obvious benefits in sharing the knowledge and skills, I wonder how Arita’s identity will evolve in the future.
In an effort to relaunch the production in Arita, which has struggled against foreign competition these past decades, Saga prefecture’s officials are earnestly promoting Arita ware internationally.
This campaign, called “Episode 2” aims at shaping Arita’s future as a porcelain production center for the next 100 years:
This ambitious project “will focus on a variety of projects under 3 key concepts: innovation, branding and nurturing creators” .
If you want to learn more about what this Episode 2 is about, I highly recommend you visit the official website which lists all undergoing projects as well as a very interesting series of articles filed under “Topics”.
Visiting the Kyushu Ceramics Museum is really interesting as we can see how little has changed in the past 4 centuries. The pieces on sale in galleries today are not very different from what was made in the 17th century. At that time already, the pieces were thin, white and with delicate patterns with impressive regularity.
The Kyushu Ceramics Museum has also a very interesting timeline of the history of ceramics in Saga prefecture compared to pottery in China at the same time. The similarities in shape and styles are striking, with only a few years of difference between Japanese style and Chinese style.
For me, the most interesting section was the technical gallery with samples of clay raw, bisqued, glazed and fired to explain each decoration technique.
Aside galleries, it is possible to visit factories and see some of the traditional kilns in Arita. One of them is the Gen-Emon kiln. I didn't get a chance to visit it but it might be worth a detour if you're interested in the process of making ceramics.