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Sweet treats on a canvas of glaze

 for The Japan Times, May 27, 2000

Though most of the world loves labels, it's hard to give one to the pottery of Norio Kamiya. Many collectors of Japanese pottery feel more comfortable if they  know that this style is called Kutani or that one Arita or that this potter has won this award and exhibits at such-and-such gallery. Only after many questions are answered does the potential purchaser decide if the pot comes home or stays; it's an intellectual decision.

Even though in Japan labels play a big part in collectors' minds, very few good collections were ever built this way. It's much better to listen to your heart and buy what appeals to you, no questions asked.

With that said, leave your questions at home and go see Kamiya's colorful pottery exhibition, at Ginza's Wako Hall until May 31, 2000.

Actually, Kamiya gets asked quite often what style of pottery he makes. Most Japanese styles derive their names from the location in which they're fired, so something made in the city of Bizen becomes Bizen-yaki by definition.

Kamiya, however, lives in Chiba, where there is no local tradition to name his wares. So he named it after himself -- Kamiya-yaki. Solves everything and puts the overly inquisitive mind to rest.

Just as his answer to the above question was calculated, so is Kamiya-yaki. When he puts a pot into his kiln he's pretty sure of how it's going to pop out. The pot gods have blessed him with a sensitive eye, a skilled hand and a fine technique.

He was born in 1940 in the potting town of Mashiko; his father was a third-generation potter. As a young boy he played around the workshop and kiln, but he wanted nothing to do with the shokunin or craftsman way of doing things, like throwing 300 tea cups (yunomi) of exactly the same dimensions in a given slot of time. On the contrary, he wanted each of his works to be full of his personality, instantly identifiable as Kamiya-yaki.

He has succeeded.

It's hard, though, to overlook the influence of one of his teachers, the late Tamura Koichi (1918-1987). Tamura was named a Living National Treasure in 1986 for his iron-underglaze paintings, and Kamiya has incorporated that glaze into his own work, as well as Tamura's fondness for floral motifs.

Calling his technique tetsu-e dosai (iron paintings, copper colors), Kamiya makes his pots canvases for plums, chrysanthemums and grapevines that dance around or over his jars and platters.

Kamiya uses green and also makes good use of reds, often painting designs over a white slip that he airbrushes onto his work to form a "canvas." Other times he uses a sgraffito technique in which he carves a leaf pattern on the slip which contrasts with the color of the clay. His technique is so respected that he writes a regular column on the subject in Japan's premier pottery magazine, Honoho Geijutsu.

Even though not much of the clay body can be seen on Kamiya's work, he is very particular about the kind of clay he uses. Mashiko and Bizen clay is what he chooses, and he buys the Mashiko clay from the last remaining handmade clay processor in Mashiko -- all the rest there is machine processed. It seems that his glazes and firing technique work best with his hometown clay, which has a high iron content. Sometimes cheesecloth impressions are left in the clay, giving it a little extra texture.

I can't say I'm a big fan of Kamiya-yaki style; my own tastes run to the blistered and earthy tones of wood-fired pottery. Still, Kamiya's work is well received because it's purely Japanese and sits very prettily next to a Bizen jar or, better yet, on its own -- so I think I'll leave all my superfluous questions at home also and take a look with a fresh eye at the pottery known as Kamiya-yaki.

About 60 pieces will be on display for sale at the exhibition, including jars (tsubo), platters, incense burners (koro) and tableware (shokki)

The Japan Times: May 27, 2000
(C) All  rights reserved

Nagaoka Masami, one of Kamiya's students, recently gave an exhibition in Tokyo.
Click here for photo tour and essay.



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