Saturday, March 20, 2010

Types of Clay

There are many types of clay in Japan, all of which have their own character, color and unique aspects. There are six main branches of clay areas in Japan all of which have their own style related to the specific region of where they are from. They include...

Bizen from Okayama Prefecture
Shigaraki from Shiga Prefecture
Seto and Tokoname from Aichi Prefecture (Where my teacher, Arai Sensei is from)

Echizen from Fukui Prefecture

Tamba from Hyogo Prefecture
These six areas are known as the rokkouyo or old kilns of Japan. They have some of the longest histories of ceramics in Japan but they are not the only kilns with such long traditions and steady hold in Japan. There is also...
Mino from Gifu Prefecture

Karatsu, Imari and Arita from Saga Prefecture

Hasami from Nagasaki

Iga from Mie Prefecture

Hagi from Yamaguchi
just to name a few...there are of course many more. But seeing these names of different ceramic types and the names of the areas where they are from doesn't mean much to someone who isn't a pottery fanatic. So I'd like to start with the most basic element to any type of ceramics...the clay!
Understanding what goes into the base material of a piece will help you to understand why each areas colors or textures are the way they are. Of course there are several types of clay in Japan, not to mention unique clays which many potters go into the mountains or woods to find. Today I'll keep it simple, and go off my experience and clays I use at Sara Yama Studio.

There are three basic clays that are always available at Sara Yama, all are from Shiga prefecture.
With the descriptions I've included pictures of what the clays look like wet and fired. Look at the base of the fired pieces to see the clay without color.

The first is Shigaraki 信楽 It is brown in color and has a grainy texture

The second is Koshigaraki 古信楽 It is white and very smooth
Last there is Namigoshi 並漉 It is also brown like the shigaraki clay but is smooth in comparison

To get an idea of the subtle differences look at this shot with all the fired pieces together

Besides these basic three which are always readily available, we can also order specialty clays which have unique colors and sand texture. These clays are usually used by the more advanced members at Sara Yama since from experience they know what texture and color they like best in their pieces.

The most popular is Bizen clay from Okayama Prefecture (Like I mentioned above) This clay is extremely smooth and soft. There is no gritty-ness to it at all and is a wonderful clay to work with on the wheel. It's easy to mold, easy to shave and easy on the hands. It is light brown and when fired turns into a fabulous terra cotta red type color. I love working with Bizen clay a lot, but it has some downsides. Since it is so smooth, it disappears quite quickly when on the wheel. I find myself rinsing my hands often. It is also easy to over water this clay, ie. get too soft, making it difficult to throw without letting it dry again. This is also a very delicate clay, its effortless to make wonderful thin walls but just as easy to have them flop and have to start all over again.

Here is bizen clay in wet and fired form

More types of clay to come! Keep checking back~

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Interview with Norihiko Arai

Norihiko Arai is my teacher at Sara Yama Pottery studio. He was kind enough to sit down with me for over an hour while I asked him tons of questions about himself and Japanese ceramics.

First some background...

Arai Sensei is originally from Seto city Aichi prefecture in northern Japan. The region is famous for its pottery, and has a long history of over 1300 years. Arai's family is not one that has been practicing pottery for generations, but has recently (last sixty years) started in the trade.
After porcelain techniques were brought to Seto city the area became known for its novelty figurines, (dolls, birds, vases, ash trays, paper weights etc.) which were mostly sold overseas.
Arai's father worked at one of the factories that produced these exports. The factory opened a new branch down in Saza Town Nagasaki prefecture located in Kyushu, where he was transferred to work. As a result the whole family uprooted from Seto City and moved down to Kyushu.

Arai Sensei was still young and inexperienced at the time so he went back to Aichi Prefecture to attend a one year vocational ceramics school. There he learned kiln techniques, how to make glazes and most of the technical aspects of running a pottery studio. After graduating he did an apprenticeship at a traditional pottery studio in Aichi prefecture for ten years! It was the type of studio where you make everything from start to finish (including the clay!) to learn the hands on techniques passed on from generation to generation. A skill that cannot be learned in any vocational school.
Arai returned to Saza and opened Toubou Yamabiko studio and Saza Yaki store in 1986 with his father who quit the factory soon after his return. At Toubou Yamabiko Arai taught classes for four years until in 1990 he was asked by the town of Saza to open Sara Yama Pottery studio. (A town funded studio to draw people into Saza Town) He has been at Sara Yama Studio since then but still makes his own pieces at his personal studio, Toubou Yamabiko. He holds one to three exhibitions per year there and sells his wares.

"What inspires you?"
"Space, the universe. I like the idea of planets, craters, the moon. My last exhibition had large plates which were inspired from the moon."

"What is your favorite clay to work with?"

"Blended clays are my favorite. I don't like the processed clay from factories. I like to go out to the mountains and find my own materials that cant be bought."

"What's your favorite firing process?"

"Definitely slow firing gas."

"What's your favorite glaze to use?"

"A color called Haiyu, a deep green. But I also like to use colors that move on their own, that have depth."

"What is your favorite thing to make?"

"Things that I can use on a daily basis. Like cups, bowls and plates."

"Who is your favorite Japanese potter(s)?

"For porcelain I like Kakiemon*, Iemon*. For traditional Japanese pottery I like Arakawa Hiyozou, Katou Toukurou and Hamada Shoji for his old style. When I see any of these masters I feel inspired."
*Kakiemon and Iemon are a family of potters who have been practicing porcelain for hundreds of years, they are some of the most well know ceramic families in Japan.

"Who is your favorite foreign potter?"

"Maybe you don't know him since I'm old but I like Benard Rich.

"Where do you think Japanese ceramics is headed?"

"I think it's splitting into two different groups, traditional and modern. Maybe both groups are using the same materials but the ideas and design are changing. The shapes associated with clay in the modern group are changing and becoming things the Japanese have not seen before. This maybe because of outside influences from the rest of the world, but the traditional way of Japanese pottery will always have a strong hold in Japan, there will always be someone who wants to stick to the traditional method, but it's not certain."

"When you see foreign clay art, what do you think of it?"

" I think it's original, has new style and is focused more around objects. There are so many designs and shapes that aren't found in Japan. It's very interesting."

"What's the biggest difference between Kyushu and Honshu* ceramics?"

"Before Kyushu was only porcelain and the rest of Japan only clay but now you can get anything sent from all over Japan, but Kyushu is still the strongest in porcelain. "

*Honshu is the main island of Japan and hosts most of the other famous ceramic spots in Japan

"Whats the biggest change you've seen in pottery since you've started?"

"I haven't really seen any big changes..."

"What's the future of your studio?"

"I'd like to mix different clays together to create new colors and designs. I also want to study more design aspects and shapes."

"What is the most important aspect of mastering Japanese clay?"

"Practice! Making good design, original pieces, using color inventively and learning from your mistakes. It takes years to master ceramics, and the only way to get better is with hands on experience."

***The entire interview was conducted in Japanese, translated to English by Sierra Sroka

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Gem in Plate Mountain

I came to Nagasaki Prefecture in August of 2008, but didn't discover the wonderful hidden treasure in my tiny town; Sara Yama Pottery Studio until May 2009. The studio is nestled between a park and Sara Yama, or Plate Mountain and has been there for over 20 years. The teacher, Arai Sensei, is a native of Akita prefecture and has been practicing ceramics for 35 years.

Until I came to Sara Yama Studio I had no ceramics experience whatsoever besides the coil pots American elementary kids make in art class. I fell in love with it and discovered a new type of thinking towards art, one revolving heavily on technique and tradition. The perfection Japanese ceramics has cannot be challenged easily, nor can the technique be learned quickly.

"Practice, practice, practice" is the phrase me and Arai Sensei jokingly say when something I make flops, but honestly I'm learning that's the only way to achieve the Japanese standard of "flawless"

The road to perfection is a slow one, but I'm enjoying the trek. I'm here in a prefecture steeped with ceramics history, I need to learn as much as I can while I'm in this special place.

* Pictures are all taken by me unless otherwise noted.

** These shots are of Sara Yama Studio