Japan has long been a center of ceramic excellence, but in the 20th century many of its celebrated traditions began to change. An engaging new book, Listening to Clay: Conversations with Contemporary Japanese Ceramic Artists (Monacelli Press, 2022) by Alice North, Halsey North, and Louise Allison Cort, reveals the people, places, and moments behind this seismic shift. The book’s lively, in depth interviews with 16 of the country’s most revered living ceramists, along with five influential dealers of Japanese ceramics, shed light on how the Japanese clay worker went from shokunin (skilled production craftsperson) to sakka (fine artist), transforming the country’s culture and society in the process. As they discuss the fascinating ways that their lives and work overlapped with new artistic currents and changing identities, the artists also tell the complicated story of 20th-century Japan.
The book’s participants, who range in age from 63 to 93 years old, have lived through, and speak about, some of the country’s most important events. Before embarking on his 70-year career, for example, Hayashi Yasuo trained as a kamikaze pilot in World War II, an experience that still influences his work. Some of the artists, like eighth-generation Hagi potter Kaneta Masano, come from distinguished ceramics families in established craft centers, while others, like the spunky, Pop art-inspired artist Mishima Kimiyo, discovered the material on their own.
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What connects the artists is their decision to “listen” to clay itself. They embody an “attitude of receptivity,” the authors write, of “collaborating with rather than imposing intention on the material.” In the foreword, Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Monika Bincsik relates this sensitive impulse to Japanese Buddhism, in which “listening is done not only with the senses, but also with one’s heart.” Kondō Takahiro, one of the book’s featured artists, explains that “part of everyday life in Japan is an animistic belief that respects the life in the material.” Reflecting on his studies in Scotland, the artist says that his Western peers approached their work by stating, “This is what I want to do.” Instead, he asked, “What does the clay want to be?”
Though many of the artists in the book ask this question, their answers — and their relationships to clay — are richly diverse. Standouts include Koike Shōko, whose vibrant shell-shaped vessels burst with life, and Ogawa Machiko, whose mysterious, elemental forms reflect her interest in water and geology. Both artists began their work with ceramics at a time when the field was dominated by men, and were among the first women to be admitted to the Tokyo University of the Arts (also known as Tokyo Geidai).
From years-long apprenticeships to avant-garde art training abroad, from cutting-edge techniques to reworked traditions, each creator in Listening to Clay recounts the challenges and gains they experienced in the process of forging their careers. The book is a poignant account of a nation in flux, but also a powerful reminder that individuals who dare to call themselves artists sometimes find great personal and professional freedom.
Listening to Clay: Conversations with Contemporary Japanese Ceramic Artists (2022) by Louise Allison Cort, Alice North, and Halsey North is published by Monacelli Press and is available online and in bookstores.