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An Australian Potter in Japan – Part 3

Posted on Mar 24, 2013 by in Articles | 0 comments


In 1979, Alistair received a Monbusho scholarship from the Japanese government to complete his training at Kyoto University of Art. Although, by this time, his Japanese language had improved substantially, to fulfil the requirements of the scholarship, he had to travel daily to Osaka for intensive Japanese language training for a period of six months. Apart from this, he spent almost three years in Kyoto studying at the University where his work focussed on the production of hand-thrown porcelain.

During University breaks, Alistair took the opportunity to see as much as he could of other aspects of Japanese pottery. Travelling by motorcycle, he visited many of the pottery areas in Japan and discovered that, beyond porcelain, the more he saw of Japanese ceramics the more he appreciated other styles. he developed a perticular liking for karatsu ware, in particular, the e-garatsu, the painted karatsu style and also found himself drawn to the warmth of Hagi wares. Interestingly, both these wares have a strong Korean influence, the kilns having been founded by Korean artists around the turn of the seventeenth century. Alistair also became interesting in the effect that fire has on certain wares; in particular, the unglazed wares of Bizen and Shigaraki and, although he had worked in raku virtually since he had started potting, his time in Kyoto fuelled his interest further. Despite this interest, which he still indulges by making the occasional piece, porcelain remained his major fascination and specialisation.

While at the University in Kyoto, Alistair was fortunate to study with the master porcelain maker, Hirokuni Katsuno, whom he had written to unsuccessfully several years earlier, seeking an apprenticeship. Impressed by Alistair’s work (he won the prestigious Kyoto University of Arts Tomimoto Prize in 1980), Katsuno invited him to work in his personal workshop on the completion of his formal studies.

Hirokuni Katsuno (see Figure 6A) is a third generation Kyoto potter who trained at the Potter’s Training Centre in Kyoto. Following his uncle into potting, Katsuno’s major influence was his teacher, Hikaru Yamada, one of the founding members of the famous avant-guade Kyoto ceramics group, the Sodeisha. Much of Yamada’s individual work, outside of his Sodeisha interests, is in fine white porcelain which is characterised by a clean purity of design (see Figure 4). it is this element which is reflected in Katsuno’s individual craft work.

In the traditional Japanese pottery workshop there is a strong division of labour between claymakers, throwers, decorators or painters, glazers and so. This system also applies, to some extent, in the workshop of the individual artist-potter, particularly in the making of production wares. In Katsuno’s workshop there are essentially three different types of ware produced.

The first type is the traditional Kyoto style wares, mainly the underglaze blue and white Kiyomizu wares (see Figure 5) which are sold through wholesalers. These are the production wares which provide the main income for the workshop and, although the master is responsible for their design and production, the actual making and decorating of the pieces is usually delegated to other members of the workshop.
During Alistair’s time in Katsuno’s workshop there were usually four people working on most days : the master himself, the shokuninsan (master thrower), a Japanese deshi (apprentice or disciple) and Alistair. Whereas the two young apprentices were required to do most tasks in the making process including preparing the clay, making kiln fumiture, throwing and turning pots and tending the kilns, the shokuninsan was employed solely to throw and turn pots. After the master, he was highest in the workshop hierarchy.
Katsuno designs and makes wares and, although he has ideas about how he would like things decorated, he is not really a decorator. Because he is a maker of ceramics rather than a painter, the underglaze decoration for the production ware was invariably done by his father, who was a very good painter, and his brother. Since the death of his father, Katsuno’s wife and daughter have taken over much of the decorating of wares (see Figure 6B). The production of these commercial wares is therefore very much a family concern and, although Katsuno’s son has no interest in following the family pottery tradition, his daughter, who is trained as a painter, recently returned to study at The Potters’ Training Centre.

The second type of ceramic ware produced in the workshop is Katsuno’s own individual, art-craft wares (see Figures 7 & 8) which he exhibits through the Nihon Kogeikai (the Japan Crafts Association) and sells through craft shops and his own exhibitions. This work is simple, fine porcelain, often undecorated, which Alistair describes as having a “Scandinavian feel about it.” He also makes celadons and other wares. On those pieces which he does paint, the decoration is generally restricted to simple blue lines. Any other painting, while much simpler in style than the traditional wares, is still be done by his wife or daughter, to his own design and such pieces are still regarded as his wares.

The third type of ceramics produced in the workshop is Katsuno’s own individual Sodeisha pieces. These are avant-garde ceramic forms usually of porcelain which are produced for Sodeisha group exhibitions. Although he has a very strong interest in the Sodeisha, these pieces are not really made to sell. Alistair found this aspect of Katsuno’s work hard to relate to but he believes that it is a creative outlet for Katsuno that he enjoys as a break from the technical demands of his fine craft ware. An example of Katsuno’s Sodeisha work was included in a tour of Australia in 1979 (see Figure 9) and the Newcastle Art Gallery has acquired a piece for their Sodeisha collection.