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Lightning strikes in Isezaki's Bizen

 for The Japan Times (June 13, 2001)

Isezaki Jun was named a
Living National Treasure in 2004.
Click here for story about Isezaki's LNT award

I once asked the veteran Bizen potter Isezaki Jun why he makes certain shapes exactly the same as they were centuries ago. His reply was simple: "What works well need not be changed."

Bizen ceramic works
by Jun Isezaki

Work by Isezaki Jun

Rectangular flower vases

Work by Isezaki Jun

Straight-rim water jar

Work by Isezaki Jun

Rectangular dish

Work by Isezaki Jun

Crane's neck flower vase

Indeed, this is true for some items in the ceramic and tea worlds -- can there ever be any real improvement on a tea whisk? The simple beauty of form and materials has served us well; nothing new is needed here.

Yet Isezaki has also brought something fresh into the Bizen world by creating very sculptural forms that depart from his more traditional tea shapes. Examples of both styles of his work can be seen this month (June 2001) at an exhibition at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi's sixth-floor gallery that marks his 45th year as a Bizen potter.

Back in the late 1950s, when Isezaki was getting started, the world of Bizen was small -- there were only a dozen or so potters struggling to earn a living. A ceramic boom in the 1970s, however, attracted many wannabes and today there are nearly 600 potters active in the Bizen tradition. Isezaki's father, Yozan Isezaki (1902-1961), was one of the finest saikumono (ornamental figure) potters Bizen has ever known, while his elder brother, Mitsuru (1934- ), is one of its finest tea potters; it was therefore natural for Isezaki to throw clay in both worlds.

All three have been designated as Okayama intangible cultural properties in recognition of their magnificent works and unselfish sharing of their knowledge; between the two of them, Jun and Mitsuru must have had over 50 deshi (apprentices).

The Isezaki family were also instrumental in fostering the construction of anagama kilns in the small town of Bizen. The remains of three ogama (large) kilns that were fired in the Muromachi through early Edo periods can be found in the town, but near Isezaki's studio are the remains of another, earlier anagama kiln that historians believe was fired in the Heian and Kamakura periods. Yozan discovered this kiln back in 1961, and it caused quite a stir. A few months afterward he passed away, but later that same year Jun and Mitsuru built a similar anagama and fired it -- the first in Bizen for over 600 years. Now, hundreds of anagama are fired in and around Bizen.

Isezaki's work is strong, angled at times, organic at others, and very dynamic. One of the most pleasing shapes in Bizen's long history is the tsuru-kubi (crane's neck) vase or sake flask. Its rounded base leads up to an elongated neck, and the viewer's eyes drift softly over the surface. If ever there was a visual  mantra in a ceramic form this would be it. Isezaki fires many of his tsuru-kubi in a technique known as kabuse-yaki, in which a cup or slender vase is placed upside down over the neck of a piece to shield it from the flying ash in the kiln. One tsuru-kubi in the exhibition was created by wrapping the vessel shielding the neck with straw, which left flashes of red when it burned off (a technique known as hidasuki).

Isezaki also used hidasuki on one of the large plates in the exhibition. After brushing black slip on its outer edges, he placed straw in the middle, covered it with a bowl or round disc (known as a "senbei cracker") and then fired it, leaving a stunning red "lightning pattern." It is a stellar work -- absolutely gorgeous.

Recently Isezaki has been working on some thickly cut vessels that stand on pillarlike feet. Some have triangular windows cut in the upper area and ethereal patches of hidasuki on the surface that look like celestial views. One koro (incense burner) resembles a monolith with its squared form sliced into hemispheres. A triangular window, which Isezaki has carved to resemble a crescent moon, serves as the escape hatch for the wispy smoke. It's very much  in the style of Kakurezaki Ryuichi, Isezaki's No. 1 deshi (who will himself have an exhibition in Kurashiki beginning July 1); perhaps Isezaki intended it as a compliment to his shining student.

For those interested in hearing Isezaki expound on his art, there will be a talk at the gallery June 17 at 1 p.m. It's a wonderful chance to meet a true Bizen master. 

Isezaki Jun exhibition, until June 18 (2001) at Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi's 6th-floor gallery, 1-4-1 Nihonbashi Muromachi, next to Mitsukoshi-mae Station on the Ginza and Hanzomon subway lines, (03) 3241-3311.

The Japan Times: June 13, 2001
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