A KEEN EAR FOR THE VOICE OF THE CLAY
By ROBERT YELLIN
for The Japan Times, April 10, 1999
Japanese ceramists often talk of the materials they use as having spirits and souls. A kiln, for instance, has its own kami, and the clay has a voice that if listened to carefully will reveal a shape that has lain dormant for centuries.
It is up to the potter to communicate with these elements and create pottery that is not merely a form, but an entity that shares a place in our homes and hearts. Not many potters have the sensitivity to "listen" carefully to the voice of the clay or the kiln; that takes years of experience, and only a few ever do.
Tsuji Seimei (b. 1927) has. This living legend of the Japanese ceramic world is having a long overdue exhibition in Tokyo (his last one was in 1982) at Shinjuku Isetan's eighth floor museum until April 13, 1999; "Sixty Years of Potting" is the theme.
Tsuji started his clay journey quite young -- he first turned a te-rokuro (hand-turned potter's wheel) at the age of 10. His father was an antique collector and Tsuji was handling antique pots and listening to their secrets from early childhood (he says he could tell a good antique from a bad one when he was 5).
When he was 13 he formed the Tsuji Ceramic Research Institute in Setagaya, working there during the day and attending junior high classes at night. As a teenager, he worked with porcelain and visited masters such as Itaya Hazan, Tomimoto Kenkichi and Hamada Shoji to get their opinions about his work.
Itaya told him, "This is a very modern form, something I haven't seen before. Take out some of the lines here and it will be much better." Tomimoto gave similar advice. I'm not sure what modern forms they were referring to, though, because so much of Tsuji's work is traditional.
Tsuji fires mostly Shigaraki-yaki (he thinks it's the purest form of Japanese pottery) and Karatsu at his kiln Renkoji in Tama-shi -- yes, that's right, he's based in Tokyo. Shigaraki is the name of a small town in Shiga Prefecture and of the pottery made from the precious clay taken from its hills; Tsuji uses Shigaraki clay and his style is known as "Tokyo-Shigaraki."
In 1955 he built one of the first noborigama (climbing kilns) in Tokyo to fire the unglazed, high-fired stoneware. In the early days his neighbors thought that a conflagration had broken out when Tsuji fired his noborigama and some even called the fire department. Luckily, the hoses never extinguished the kiln fire, although there were a few close calls.
Tsuji says that it's the warmth of the gritty Shigaraki clay and the "twilight" colors of the fired works that attract him to it. His work enraptures the senses like a sunset sky, and all in natural simplicity. His chawan (tea bowls) are not fancy looking in their basic shapes. It's the masterful throwing and the rhythm (particularly the rhythm) that make them special.
"I use a te-rokuro which I rotate with a stick to give my work the rhythm of my soul," he comments. "With an electric wheel all is too precise and mechanized."
I have seen some Tsuji chawan, vases, and tokkuri (sake flasks) that I can only describe as symphonies in clay; the rhythm is the same.
Tsuji has also essayed Shigaraki objets including cans (complete with half-opened lids), large boxes, Chaplin-like bowler hats and walking canes, and spiral- or wavy-lined impressed platters.
Still, it's the basic forms that Tsuji has worked with most: chaire (tea caddies), tokkuri and guinomi (sake flasks and cups), leaf-shaped plates, and hachi (serving bowls). For Tsuji, the basics are all important.
"Pottery uses the five elements that give this planet life: clay, water, fire, wind and sky, along with the potter's hand working in harmony," he says. "Thus beauty is born."
Tsuji refers to his Shigaraki as having a feeling of akarui (light) sabi, which contrasts with the dark and lonely feeling usually associated with this crucial term in tea aesthetics. He has studied cha-no-yu for years and has a wonderful chashitsu (tea house) in his garden.
"I will focus on tea utensils from now on," Tsuji vows. "The world of cha-no-yu is so deep and spiritual that I have only scratched the surface. I'm not interested in the superficial way that tea is served today."
Known for being a heavy sake drinker, he was once dubbed the "yokozuna sake-guzzler of the east" (the late Bizen potter Ken Fujiwara was his counterpart in the west). Now, though, it's the frothy tea that he enjoys.
In Taiyo magazine's series "Nihon no Kokoro (The Spirit of Japan)," an issue was solely devoted to Tsuji; the only other ceramist ever to have the same honor was Rosanjin. In it he poses with his own chawan and some antique ones. Tsuji's antique collection served as an inspiration in his work over a 50-year period. In 1987, he transformed an old farmhouse in Nagano Prefecture to store the 2,000-piece collection. Then, in 1990, disaster struck: The whole building burned to the ground, with the treasured collection in it. It took years for Tsuji to recover his strength.
But recover he has, and this exhibition is a celebration of his resilience and his life, so extraordinary and full of the rhythms of the universe and clay.
The Japan Times: April 10, 1999
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