Working Potter: Hanako Nakazato, Karatsu, Japan, and Union, Maine

1 Hanako Nakazato altering oval bowls.

Career Snapshot

Years as a professional potter

Number of pots made in a year

Majored in art at Smith College, 2½-year apprenticeship with my father, Takashi Nakazato, in Karatsu, Japan. Mentorship with Malcolm Wright, Turnpike Road Pottery, Marlboro, Vermont.

The time it takes (percentages)
Making work (including firing): 70%
Promotions/Selling: 15%
Office/Bookkeeping: 15%

Favorite Tools
Most of my work is wheel thrown using a gyubera rib (see 3, 6). While requiring a specific skill to handle, it enables me to stretch clay thin and it’s useful for creating a wide range of shapes and sizes. I use a slab roller and hump molds to introduce non-round shapes into my work. Since my pieces have a very delicate undulating rims, trimming on a chuck is essential. My trimming tool is a bent strip of metal.
Many objects have potential as pottery tools. Pieces of an old broom become a slip decoration brush and kitchen utensils (a peeler, cheese wire, or fruit carving tool) are often ideal for trimming surfaces and edges.

Changing Materials
I buy clay to save time and energy. Over time, some types of clay have become unavailable, but switching to different materials is like discovering a new voice and vocabulary. I recycle all my scraps and sometimes different types of clays get mixed together and become a new clay.

Where it Goes
Retail Stores: 20%
Galleries: 60%
Studio/Home Sales: 10%
Special Order: 10%

Where to See More
Sara Japanese Pottery:
The Good Supply:

Learn More
Instagram: @monohanako
Facebook: monohanakopottery

2 Nesting almond bowls, to 8½ in. (22 cm) in diameter, stoneware, dark blue glaze, fired in an electric kiln, 2015.

3 Nakazato throwing a double-lipped plate using a gyubera throwing rib.

Pottery for Practical Reasons

I majored in art in college because I was interested in artistic expression, but later on my interest shifted to craft and design. I felt that fine arts were accessible to only a few and that they didn’t have much of an impact on people’s daily lives. Rather than express myself through art for personal reasons alone, I wanted to make something beautiful and accessible, to be utilized in people’s everyday life. I was also interested in architecture, but I was afraid to make the financial commitment to pursue graduate school. I decided to become an apprentice to my father, Takashi Nakazato, a well-known potter in Japan. I chose pottery for practical reasons, because it was the most accessible art form to me at that time.

Throughout my 2½-year apprenticeship, I performed menial studio tasks all day, every day. I could only practice on the wheel before breakfast or after dinner. I had to copy my father’s production line pieces until I could meet his standards, then I wedged every single piece back into clay. There was no creative freedom, but I developed a great sense of discipline, time management, and a hunger to become independent and make my own work. In 2000 I moved to Marlboro, Vermont, to work with Malcolm Wright at the Turnpike Road Pottery. He generously shared his studio space, materials, and firings with me. He encouraged me to develop my own voice and taught me how to manage a business as a studio potter. I also shared a lot of warm and beautiful meals with him and his wife. I understood what an important role pottery plays in making a good dining experience, something I also value in the food culture in Japan. I, too, wanted to make beautiful and affordable tableware to have people enjoy daily life and live artfully. I was very lucky to sell at galleries and stores from the beginning and to be invited to show at galleries in Japan with my family. In those early years, I found more and more meaning in my work and my passion for making pottery grew.

4 Pour-over coffee pot, 7¾ in. (20 cm) in height, stoneware, two-toned glaze, fired in a gas kiln, 2014.

5 Uroko V bowl, 8½ in. (22cm) in diameter, stoneware, black slip, fired in a gas kiln, 2014.

New Studio and New Opportunities

In 2006, I moved back to Karatsu to build my own studio. I had more business opportunities in Japan, so it made the most sense to produce there. I took out a big loan without any promise that my business would be successful enough to pay it off. You never really learn how to run a business until you run your own. By making mistakes and suffering the consequences, you truly come to understand commitment and gratitude on a whole new level. I was working day and night, without a single day off for the first three years. I’m fortunate that I had many opportunities from the beginning, likely more than many other young artists, perhaps because of my family name. But my name presented a different challenge, to define myself and build my own reputation. For the first few years I was just working frantically to keep up, but later I began to consider how to reach a new audience. I started to pay attention to what kind of people were buying my work, and why. I realized many people are interested not only in the object itself, but in who is making it. Since I work in the countryside, I don’t interact with customers on a daily basis, so I started to put more effort into using social media to communicate my processes, aesthetics, and philosophy. In 2010, I established a second studio in Union, Maine. Obviously there are financial and logistical challenges in maintaining two studios, but I get a lot of creative energy and good perspective from shifting between the two cultures.

I make pottery for daily use, so it has to be affordable and I need to sell a large volume. I don’t like to fuss around in making pottery. My training allows me to work fast. Through speed, I can get out of my own way and make pottery that reveals the natural beauty of clay and contains some sense of my spirit, but not much ego. I make between 6000 and 8000 pieces a year and I sell my work mostly through solo exhibitions at galleries and boutiques. I used to take every opportunity that came my way but I am becoming more selective about where to show my work. Over the years I have realized that working with people who have similar tastes, principles, and philosophies is the most effective way to present and sell work.

Regulating a Daily Routine

I’ve been a production potter for almost 20 years now and I’m in my 11th year running my own studios. My current challenge is to pace myself and regulate my daily routine in order to take care of myself. I swim regularly, and I try to carve out times when I can switch off completely from studio work. Physical and mental maintenance is extremely important if you want to do something for the long run. In the beginning, I did everything on my own. Now I work with my partner who oversees my website and social media promotion, the studio showroom, and bookkeeping. I also have a studio assistant who takes care of packing work and studio maintenance. With their help, I can focus on production and have some time off, like a normal person. I feel very grateful.

6 Nakazato throwing off the hump.

Gaining Efficiency

Organize, don’t agonize—that is the most basic work philosophy that I follow. During busy production times (pretty much all the time in Japan) every minute and second counts, so I cannot afford to waste any time. I usually count backwards from my deadlines (exhibitions and orders) and designate a certain amount of time for each stage: packing, cooling, firing, glazing, loading, drying, trimming, and throwing. I add some extra days as a cushion to account for unexpected events. Usually my production cycle is 20–30 days in order to have 2 glaze firings: generally 2 weeks of wet-clay workdays and 2 more weeks for finishing, firing, packing, and shipping.

My kiln holds about 500–700 pieces in one bisque, which allows me to have two glaze firings. I make sure to have various shapes in different diameters and heights so they all fit nicely together in the tightly packed kiln.

I have a blackboard in front of my wheel, with illustrations of what I am making for the month’s production, so it is clear what I will be making each day. I start with making bigger pieces that require more time for drying, so I can meet the deadline. My ware boards are 6 feet long and I’ve calculated that I need to produce 60–70 boards full of pots to fill the bisque kiln.

As a production potter, efficiency is very important, I created a damp room with a built-in pipe rack for drying pots slowly and evenly and I also have large indoor and outdoor racks that hold many ware boards at once for quick drying. I designed my studio in three units, based on my workflow. On one end is the throwing room, which also has clay bins and the damp room. The center room houses the kiln, pipe racks, and open space for glazing. On the other end is a showroom that also serves as an office and packing space. I keep the studio pretty clean and organized to keep everything running smoothly.

7 Honeycomb plate, 6¼ in. (16 cm) in diameter, stoneware, blue-gray glaze, fired in an electric kiln, 2015.

8 Nakazato stacking Chakra plates after trimming them.

Brain, Heart, and Muscle

My advice to those interested in working as potters would be to have a good balance of brain, heart, and muscle. Seek good training because even if you have an excellent idea, if you lack technical skills, you won’t be able to execute it well. Identify your motivations because even if you have great skills, without a passionate heart you will fail to convince your audience. And pay attention to business, because without a promotion strategy, your work won’t get noticed.

If you have a dream, you have to get up and start walking toward it. You never know who might open a door for you or what life will bring. Don’t think that you stand alone in the world.


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