Clay Culture: Born of Earth and Fire

Two interrelated views of tradition coexist in Shigaraki, one built on continuity, and the other on evolution.

Tradition is a concept that is easy to think of when discussing Shigaraki. However, the real overriding tradition may be hidden because of the contrasts in this area of Shiga Prefecture.

Maybe it is the contrast of the eight golf courses in the hills surrounding Shigaraki and the ever-present ceramic raccoon-dogs, a good luck symbol and a common ceramic product for many potteries in Shigaraki. Then there is the contrast between the 11-chamber noborigama at Soto-en studio using wood to fire and the Otsuka Ohmi Ceramic high-tech factory. What may be lost in these comparisons is a thread of consistency running through the place that affects all. There are traditions born of the long and short histories in the area.

1 Sistine Chapel reproduction, Otsuka Museum of Art, Naruto, Tokushima, Japan. This reproduction of Michelangelo’s fresco is full scale with architecturally exact curvature and precise rendering to scale, color, and brush strokes of the chapel’s masterpiece. Courtesy of Otsuka Museum of Art.

One of Six Ancient Kiln Sites of Japan

The long history is noted by the recognition of Shigaraki as one of the six ancient kiln sites in Japan. When Emperor Shomu (724–749 CE) built his palace in Shigaraki, it encouraged the development of a ceramics industry. Shigaraki became a center of ceramics because of the abundance of clay found locally and from nearby Lake Biwa. By the time the Soto-en kiln was built, Japanese culture was involved with the tea ceremony and treasured fine ceramic items for the ceremony. This affected the aesthetic development of handmade ceramics that came to be.

Adding to the aesthetics of Shigaraki ware were the natural elements found in the area that gave the pottery its distinctive look. The clay in the area has a naturally occurring high-quartz (silica) content along with coarse feldspar. The high silica content in the local clay allows for raw clay to self-glaze, while the feldspar adds the characteristic white specks to the surface of the wood-fired clay (kani-no-me). But just as important as the clay is to the ancient traditional look of Shigaraki ware, so is the wood for firing that has been used since the beginning. Soto-en will only use local wood for the firing because of its salt and other mineral contents. These add to the self-fluxing and coloration of the surfaces of pots fired in the wood kilns.

The great noborigama at Soto-en was built during the latter part of the Edo period. The studio has been active making ceramic art and utilitarian pieces and firing them in the great kiln for the entire time. A great part of the continuing traditions at the Soto-en yaki works and its noborigama is that it has been in the Ueda family for about 200 years. The use of wood to fire much of the ceramic output of the Soto-en pottery continues the methods used when the family acquired the kiln many years ago. Today, the noborigama is fired nine to ten times a year.

2 Jun Komatsu’s functional ware pieces (2017) are made from the same clay from the Shigaraki area. The black coloration occurs when the piece is in a high-reduction area of the kiln in the cooling period while the brown color appears when the piece is in an oxidation atmosphere area of the kiln during cool down.

3 Souyu Ueda’s, traditional kinuta (flower vase) from the Soto-en nooborigama, ca. 1985.

4 Jun Komatsu’s earthenware and polychrome wooden sculptures are approximately 6 ft. 9 in. (2 m) tall and incorporate iron supports within the structures for stability. The sketches on the back wall are part of the installation.

The Opposite End of the Spectrum

At the other end of the spectrum is the start of Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics (OOC), which was founded in 1973 by Masahito Otsuka with the vision of the enterprise to use state-of-the-art ceramic technology with natural elements to create Otsuka Toban (toban translates as ceramic board) and architectural art. OOC sees toban as artistic workspaces that are bounded only by the artists’ aspiration. The company’s advanced technologies can produce 35 in. × 9 ft. 9 in. (90cm × 3m) panels.

Since the process was developed, the artistic output and use of these panels has been mostly in Japan with notable US installations at Newark and JFK airports. The richness of the process and the multiple-firing capabilities of the material allowed OOC to create original work on walls and to have amazing copies of masterpieces reproduced in full scale.

The creation of the toban concept allows artists, either from within the company such as Yukio Matoba who has been associated with Otsuka Chemical (parent company of OOC), for over 50 years and who created ceramic portraits and other art works, or from outside as in 1982 when Robert Rauschenberg came to the Shigaraki factory to create art. For the Otsuka Museum of Art in Naruto, Tokushima, the OOC technical artists recreated a full-scale reproduction of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel along with ceramic reproductions of other masterpieces and historical artifacts with toban technology. The Sistine Chapel project alone demanded that OOC develop a way to produce their panels with a curve to match the vaulting of the chapel’s ceiling. This tradition of expanding the highest levels of ceramic technology enables artists to find new and exciting expression.

Coexisting Approaches

These separate approaches to following a tradition do not conflict. They coexist and even enhance each other. This can be seen in the way Jun Komatsu moves seamlessly from his work at OOC and his ceramic art. Making pottery and sculpture as his personal work along with designing toban for clients requires him to use several traditions as his guides. In each setting he follows the traditions most appropriate and evident in Shigaraki. Komatsu says, “It is the energy, the energy comes from the heart that you put into the ceramic work that makes it art. The traditions just provide an avenue to express your art.”

5 Soto-en’s noborigama has 11 chambers climbing the hill. The footprint of the kiln is 49 ft. 2 in. (15 m) wide by about 98 ft. 4 in. (30 m) long with each chamber being about 11 ft. 6 in. (3.5 m) high. The kiln is fired with wood and is stoked at the hubukuro (fire-box) for about two days until the first chamber reaches 1652°F (900ºC). Then the hubukuro is closed and each chamber is stoked successively until that chamber reaches temperature before the next chamber is stoked. Usually, only the first eight chambers are filled with glazed ware and are stoked with the remaining three chambers reaching bisque temperatures as the heat from the lower chambers moves up through the kiln. Photo: Michael H. N. Rand.

6 Robert Rauschenberg, Toban sculpture, 1982.

At Soto-en the methods and aesthetics have been passed down through the family reinforcing a tradition and continuing a rich heritage, while at OOC a technological enhancing tradition supports artists, inside and outside of the company. Just as the building of kilns and understanding that the origin of the wood for the firing is important to the older, the technological support of OOC allowed a newer tradition of thinking about expanding ceramic art to the realm of architecture. These two seemingly opposite forces interrelate to one another. Yoshiharu Tomimasu, OOC’s director of technical development and promotion said, “Soto-en traditions are built on continuity whereby Otsuka Ohmi Ceramic’s traditions are built on evolution.” Regardless of the basis of traditions, lasting traditions come from total commitment.

It can be said that a major tradition of Shigaraki is neither historical nor technological, but what happens to the earth in the fire. The true tradition is the exacting control of the medium. Both Soto-en and Otsuka Ohmi Ceramics live this ceramic tradition and the quality and aesthetics of the ceramics in Shigaraki have grown and persisted as a result.

the author For over 40 years Glenn Rand has produced, taught, photographed, and written about ceramics. His editorial and photographic work has appeared in Ceramics Monthly and the educational and crafts press since the 1970s.


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