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Saeki Moriyoshi
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Pottering in a Forest of Memory

 for The Japan Times, 2001 July 11

"A magnificent sunset burns beyond the horizon. Trees are ablaze against the fiery sky. The beauty of the dark silhouettes left an everlasting sensation." These are the words of potter Saeki Moriyoshi from a book published in 1995 titled "The Vibrant Potters of Tochigi."

Piece by Saeki Moriyoshi

Vase with iron glaze

Certain instances in life do leave an indelible impression in our memories -- some seem  insignificant, like something a friend said or some dinner we had as a child, yet they burn themselves into our memory cells; we simply  cannot forget.

That is how it appears with Saeki. The glorious sunset in his hometown of Haga, Tochigi Prefecture, will always be in his heart. And those trees, well, every piece in his traveling exhibition --  every single pot, plate, vase and cup -- has at least one. Memories have become an obsession here, no doubt. 

But Saeki is not the only potter to have a design or symbol become synonymous with his works. Take, for instance, another great Tochigi potter, Hamada Shoji. The sugar millet was his chosen motif and is found on thousands of his pots. (So much so that if I never see another one that would be all too fine by me.) I can imagine that, sometime back in the Showa Period, Hamada had an exhibition with the millet on every pot. 

How does it play out for a viewer of the exhibition? Might not one walk away feeling the works became dull and tedious after the first dozen?

Piece by Saeki Moriyoshi

Lidded container in marbled clay

For some, yes. Yet for those who look at the subtle or sublime differences in each piece, Saeki's work becomes a refreshing stroll through a varied forest. 

Saeki's tree of choice for almost all the works is the keyaki, or zelkova. It's a medium-size, sturdy tree, growing to heights of 15-24 meters, and has been used for centuries to make tansu (chests)  and other traditional Japanese furniture. It has brilliant autumn foliage in colors of yellow, russet, bronze, dark red and purple.

Occasionally we see a shirakaba (white birch) or a yanagi (willow).

The trees were made with an old Korean scraping and inlay technique known as zogan. The most famous style is called Mishima. Saeki has made the zogan technique his own, and each piece is instantly recognizable as his. Shapes run from standard round tsubo (jars) and kabin (flower vases) to jagged-edged  forms that resemble mountaintops. 

The latter are quite powerful and do his motifs well. These rocky forms, along with his taller-shouldered shapes, are where we see his work excel. The trees meander, leading our eyes up to the peak of  the vessel.

Piece by Saeki Moriyoshi

Picture plate in marbled clay

Some of the works remind me of the woodblock prints of Umetaro Azechi or Kiyoshi Saito. The lines and treatment of perception in terms of depth are quite similar. We never see foliage on any of Saeki's trees though; they are all silhouetted in dark tones and whites.

He uses an iron glaze to add the colors for the seasons. One pot has burnt-orange and amber tones recalling a walk through a late-autumn park covered with crunchy leaves. Another appears stark and bleak with snow wrapped around the zelkova's trunk in ghostly winter whites. Marbled clay also adds a bit of seasonal swirl to a few pieces. 

As a matter of fact, all his work deals with just these two seasons. I've yet to find a spring flower or bud or the deep foliage of a summer tree on any of his works. They are all the more moody, austere and somewhat eerie when the trees are outlined in dark tones. I expect a raven to come flying off one of the branches at any moment. 

Saeki grew up near carving tools, so it's quite natural that he has incorporated them into his own creative endeavors. His father was the sculptor Rusuo Saeki (1912-97), who made Buddhist statues and noh figures. 

Saeki doesn't just throw a pot and load it in the kiln. Like his father's sculptures, each piece is meticulously carved.  

"My father's chisels and carving knives were always shining and well taken care of," he writes in the catalog for an exhibition about different artists' work related to their artist fathers.  

Saeki took pride in how his father cared for his tools, which were "sharp enough to cut a thin piece of paper lengthwise." 

I wonder if Saeki uses some of those carving tools. There is a feeling of something profound, like a Buddhist sculpture, in some of his works. This leads me to believe his father's energy, stored in those beloved tools, has come out in his own works as well. Or maybe it was just a fleeting moment when his father said something in passing, years ago, that has lingered on forever in Saeki's mind --  like that unforgettable sunset he saw in his hometown so many years ago.  

Works by Moriyoshi Saeki, at Kyoto Takashimaya's 6th-fl. gallery until July 17. They will then move to Yokohama Takashimaya's 7th-fl. gallery July 25-31, and to Nagoya Takashimaya's 10th-fl. gallery Aug. 8-14.   

The Japan Times: July 11, 2001
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