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2004 Newsletter Archive



                   Written by Robert Yellin

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Summer 2004


Murata Gen; Bizen; Tanabe Museum

-- Murata Gen Exhibition
-- New Bizen Living National Treasure
-- Tanabe Museum Review
-- Ode to Japanese Pottery/ Shuki Exhibition
-- Odds & Ends

Murata Gen Exhibition

Mashiko potter Murata Gen, (1904-84), Hamada Shoji's near forgotten apprentice, is in the spotlight these days as the Mashiko Ceramic Museum (a.k.a. Togei Messe Mashiko) is finally hosting a Murata retrospective in commemoration of the 100th year since Murata's birth. The exhibition is titled "Tsuchi ni Yadoru Chikaru" (The Strength that Resides in Clay) and runs until Sept. 26th.

I have been a huge fan of Murata's for years now after seeing and acquiring a yunomi of his back in 1988 at a local coffee shop cum gallery. Ironically, the shop was named "Rosanjin" after the eccentric artist who thought Mashiko-yaki and the Mingei movement were a total farce!

I never had the chance to meet Murata in person. Yet, I feel I have met him through his work, which is honest, sturdy, bold, daring, and solemn. Upon viewing his striking faceted jars with slashing iron brush designs or overlapping impressionistic-colored glazes, I truly felt uplifted, as if looking at the epitome of what a good pot is and how it should affect the viewer.

Of course it's easy to argue with me when I say Murata was the best studio potter Mashiko has ever seen. We can easily see the finesse in Hamada's brush, his sophisticated "rural" sensibilities honed through years of art school combined with his travels and meetings; he was a true genius. Or how Shimaoka has contributed his family's rope designs into his perfectly crafted forms; he is the backbone of Mashiko today. And then there's the warmth in Sakuma or Kimura or Akiyama; all radiate the finer points of Mashiko. Yet for me Murata transcends them all with his vigor, subtlety, rough skills (isn't that folk pottery?), his intense inner will that pulled him through the rough roads of Mashiko when a lesser man would have pulled out; he was the impoverished potter who lived a true mingei life.
To learn more about Murata's arduous life, and to see about 50 photos from the Mashiko exhibition, please visit:
The above article was adapted from one I wrote for DARUMA magazine (

New Bizen Living National Treasure
The question that has lingered for years in the yakimono world here -- who will be next? -- has finally been answered. Some thought it might be the man currently constructing the world's largest anagama, the fabled Mori Togaku. Others wished for the younger "giant," one who has created an entirely new vision for Bizen, the charismatic Kakurezaki Ryuichi. Other names heard floating in the wind have been Matsui Tomoyuki, Matsuda Kazan, Yamamoto Yuichi, or Isezaki Mitsuru. The answer is Isezaki, yet the highest honor in this artful land was bestowed upon Mitsuru's younger brother, Jun.
I will suggest to those of you who just bow before such titles have a read of Aoyama Wahei's critical look at the LNT system at:

For all it's worth, some are more deserving than others and earnestly contributed to the welfare of their respective arts, others just took the glory. The last LNT named was Ito Sekisui who creates dazzling Mumyoi neriage or understated red/black burnished pots. As I wrote at that time, Ito was a good selection not only for the his bringing attention to Mumyoi pottery and certainly helping preserve the style, but mainly for the fact his work is deserving. Of course there were the geo-political aspects of the selection, just like Kinjo Jiro in Okinawa, yet who cares when the selection is right and contributes to the welfare of these artisans.

Bizen is certainly not in need of any more tourist yen, and the selection is certainly not as political as Bizen's previous LNT, Fujiwara Yu. Isezaki Jun is one of Bizen's most dynamic veteran potters being a pioneer in bringing a sharp balance in his work between functional and purely sculptural aspects long before others. He is also a dedicated teacher whose students have included Shibaoka Koichi, Kakurezaki, Wakimoto Hiroyuki, and many, many foreign potters as well. He's served his time on regional art committees and needless to say has the right connections. Yet all in all his work has been groundbreaking, including his reintroduction of a medieval-style anagama to Bizen in the early 1960s, his unique botamochi shapes (botomochi are the roundels on works where a "cracker" was placed to block the flame and ash, thus creating a "rice cake" design), his large "Black Sun" series of the 70s-80s, and his Bizen murals.

He is a humble man and will surely be a gracious and inspiring LNT. More about Isezaki can be read here:

Tanabe Museum Review by Aoyama Wahei
21st Annual Tanabe Museum "Tea Forms" Exhibit Review

The 21st Annual Tanabe Museum "Modern Tea Forms Exhibition" was held from April 24 to May 30, 2004, at the museum in Matsue, Shimane prefecture, and to the surprise of many, there was no Grand Prize -- a first for the exhibition. Close to 500 works were submitted for competition, and less than 100 were honorably mentioned. All works must pertain to tea ware/utensils (chadogu), while eligibility is only limited to potters from western Japan. The exhibition has two key words: mitate (selection-choice) and challenge.

Regardless of the lack of a Grand Prize, the young potter Kako Katsumi (1965- ) deserves special mention for being one of three potters named runner-up to the Grand Prize (the Award of Excellence, "Yushu-sho") by beating out hundreds of other potters with his shizuku chawan (it was on the cover of the exhibition catalog and poster). It is important to note that Kako is only the third person to win this prize for a chawan. When Bizen maestro Kakurezaki Ryuichi heard of Kako's feat, he mentioned to Robert Yellin: "for a chawan, a great feat indeed!" Some words of praise from the jurors included: "Kako's natural, instinctive sense of balance" and his "soft poeticism in clay" through his "modern designs." Hayashiya Seizo, the "don" of art critics in the Japanese art world, said of Kako: "This must be a first, indeed, to have a chawan that is at first glance so decorative, yet not giving off any sense of pretension." He went on to say: "What, Kako is only 38? What potential!" For more on Kako, please see an exclusive interview at:

Tamba extraordinaire and Japan Ceramic Exhibition 1995 Grand Prize winner Ichino Masahiko (1961- ) received an "honorable mention" (Shorei-sho) for his Tamba tobako (ceramic box), which was highly praised for his imaginative design of making a ceramic box that looked like a petite chair. For more on Ichino, please see:
(Please note this tobako will be offered on in the near future)

Likewise, Mihara Ken (1958- ) also received an "honorable mention" for his Sekki Kaki (vase) that looked like something from outer space -- it was surreally alien in its twisted, riveted neck. For more on Mihara, please see:

We are honored to have the opportunity to offer the works of the "next generation" of Japanese potters, and will continue to feature these talented artists' works in the future. Please stay tuned.

For the 20th exhibition, the breakdown of chadogu was:
-- 28.7% chawan (tea bowls)
-- 26.6% vases
-- 10.2% mizusashi (fresh water vessels)
-- 16.7% hachi (serving bowls)
-- 7.7% tsubo (jars)
-- The remainder were chaire (tea caddies),
   koro (incense burners), tobako (ceramic boxes), others

Ode to Japanese Pottery/Shuki Exhibition
Life is a fascinating journey and the discoveries to be made are endless, within and without. I never thought that I would be living in Japan for 20 years -- was only supposed to be only a year -- and that its ceramic world would change my world.

With the advent of the Internet, I have been able to share this clay passion, knowledge, images and works with you all, the world over; for that I am deeply grateful.

I am very pleased to announce that something in print, other than a newspaper or magazine article or web site pages, will be available from us soon, as July 26th is publication date of "Ode To Japanese Pottery/Sake Cups and Flasks." It's a book I wrote about ten years ago for a Japanese audience and it was translated and published by Kogei Shuppan in 1995.

Offering dozens of color photos of various contemporary sake vessels and the thoughts/inspirations/stories that go along with each one, the book is more poetic than scholarly. Aoyama Wahei ( added an insightful essay into the origins of sake vessels, also included is a glossary and index.

We'll be offering the book through our web sites and a sneak preview can be seen here:
In commemoration of this publication, we shall be having a large sake vessel exhibition online and here in our gallery starting on the 26th of July, continuing for a month. There will be many works featured in the book, from Yellin's collection, and also new works available for a total of about 200 pieces. >

I have enjoyed the works in my collection for many-a-moon and now it is time to let them go, for several reasons. First, is to share this book in more meaningful ways. Letting go is not an issue for me; it's more of a passing on, a giving, and connections. The works in the book will always be a part of me. Next is wanting to avoid an "image" of a dealer who collects what he sells; too Haliburton for me. At the time I was writing the book, indeed, I was a collector, yet now I am not. Thirdly is to continue to assist my clients in creating inspired and wondrous shuki collections. This not only brings me great joy, it's also rewarding to know how many truly are "into" shuki, up until this point in time a rather overlooked aspect of Japanese yakimono, outside of Japan that is.


Dealer auctions in Japan; An Outsider's View In
Procuring new works is a very time-consuming task and one I spend a large portion of my time on. Much of acquiring works has to do with timing and luck, good relations with artists, and also a solid network of dealer contacts. One such place where the latter gather is at monthly auctions for members only. I happen to belong to a few of these groups and am almost inevitably the only non-Japanese at them all. The number of dealers who attend average between 40-60 and it is a rather fast-paced affair where hundreds of artworks, sometimes more, appear. The nearest one to me is only a twenty-minute drive, while the farthest away requires a two-hour "bullet train" ride. I've returned from the latter empty-handed -- not a good thing on numerous occasions, for even these auctions have a wide fluctuation in quality and styles. I recently found an interesting, albeit brief and basically correct, essay on the dealer auction issue and you can read it here:

New Book: Shards/Mashiko Poetry by Anne Holmes
Anne Holmes has written a delightful poetry/memoir book about living in Mashiko and then working in clay there. Titled "SHARDS/MASHIKO POETRY," the book was published by Turn of The River Press, Stamford, Connecticut. (ISBN No. 0-938999-16-8)

As written on the back cover, "Shards is a poetry-memoir on the potter's life in Japan, illustrated with photographs by the author. Poet Anne Holmes lived in Japan for six years. During this time, she interviewed and photographed Mashiko potters, and later returned there to study pottery. The collection is divided into two parts, "Clay" and "Potters." "Clay" relates the experience and perceptions of a 50-year-old woman apprentice. In "Potters" the poet has magically transformed the potters' words and stories into a lyrical tribute."

The book is a bit hard to come by, yet Holmes-san did send me this about obtaining a copy:
Folks can write to me at:
282 S. Compo Rd., Westport, CT 06880, USA

Make your check out to me, Ann Holmes, or to "Shards." The book is available on Amazon, Baker & Taylor, and soon through Barnes & Noble. It will be available at Borders too. Everywhere it's on back-order, meaning I send copies to the stores or wholesalers, or as in the case of Amazon, I send to the person who orders it. So the quickest way to get the book is to order it directly from me as mentioned above.


One of Japan's famed ceramic museums is the Museum of Oriental Ceramics located in Osaka. They have an extensive collection of Chinese, Korean and Japanese pots and many can be viewed online. I do believe it's always a good idea to look at the classic works of history:

And to end as we began, with Murata Gen, as he told Anne in her book:
"The war came. We had four children and nothing to eat. I told Shoji Hamada that all I wanted was to build a kiln at the foot of a mountain and to live a quiet life."

With kind regards,

Robert Yellin


Copyright 2001

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