Masayuki Miyajima: Innovation from Tradition

1 Miyajima applying and drying layers of slip on a large vase.

Innovation in art, as in all practices, may be perceptible only against the backdrop of convention, but convention need not be synonymous with the status quo: a current state of thought or practices against which the innovator reacts. This narrow perspective of innovation emerged in art discourse only relatively recently with the concept of the avant-garde, which asserted that modern art, like science, could be advanced as a discipline by analyzing the present state of knowledge and responding, through experimentation, to its deficiencies. From this perspective, convention is a set of current conditions against which the future can be defined and behind which the past lies obsolete and irrelevant.

In contrast, crafts discourse and practice have more often construed convention as the entirety of a living history, a tradition that remains vital and potentially accessible anywhere along its venerable extent. Adopting this perspective, Japanese potter Masayuki Miyajima has drawn inspiration from historical ceramics—above all Korean Joseon-period buncheong slipware and Song dynasty longquan ware—while modifying their characteristic traits through the subtle innovation that comes with interpretation rather than imitation. While his pottery conjures aspects of famous precedents, it just as readily asserts its uniqueness, its own contributions to the long history of human ingenuity in the working of clay.

2 View of the studio and kiln buildings.

3 Interior of Miyajima’s traditional Japanese studio. The compacted earth floor keeps moisture in the studio, allowing work to dry evenly, and helps to regulate the temperature. The wheel deck holds four wheels (three kick and one electric) and runs the length of the studio.

4 Hanagata (flower-shaped) bowl, 9 in. (23 cm) in height, thrown and carved stoneware, iron-saturated glaze, iron-oxide and clear-glaze washes. Miyajima overlaps the glaze and washes to build a surface with visual depth and variety.

This is not to say that Miyajima has ever made innovation a priority. Innovation, especially in the aesthetic context, will always rank below functional efficacy as a goal of his pottery; consistency and quality of workmanship will always have the upper hand over the variation of personal expression. These hierarchies are consequences of Miyajima’s training in the apprentice system, still thriving in Mashiko and at other historic pottery centers in Japan, and of the career as a production potter to which he has dedicated himself for the past 36 years. Just as important, they reflect an embrace of Mingei principles passed down to him from the generation of Soetsu Yanagi and Shoji Hamada through the intermediary of his teacher, the Mashiko master potter Tatsuzo Shimaoka.

5 Small carved pitcher, iron-saturated glaze, iron oxide, and clear glaze over washes. Interactions between the base glaze and the washes create visual change and depth.

6 Tea set (normally includes six cups), iron-rich clay, carved free hand, inlaid white slip, cup interiors have hakeme brushed slip, clear glaze.

Shimaoka, declared a National Living Treasure in 1996, instilled in Miyajima a fascination for ceramics in the late 1970s while the latter, then a photographer, was traveling frequently to Mashiko, at first out of curiosity and later on assignment. Although at Hosei University Miyajima majored in economics rather than art, he was captivated both by the pottery of Mashiko and by the lifestyle of those who carried on its ceramic traditions. Despite his lack of experience handling clay, he impressed Shimaoka as a serious young man, dedicated to and diligent in his work in photography. Consequently, in 1980 Shimaoka invited Miyajima to serve as his fourth apprentice, over the next five years teaching him the skills requisite to a career as a production potter but also introducing him to the beliefs about functional pottery that have served as his guiding principles ever since.

7 Katakuchi (spouted serving bowl), 9 in. (24 cm) in length, iron-rich stoneware, carved free hand, inlaid slip, clear glaze, fired to cone 9.

Establishing a home and workshop in Motegi, a small agricultural town just outside of Mashiko, in the mid-1980s, Miyajima began producing the wide array of functional forms that still constitute the bulk of his repertoire. At that time working exclusively in gas-fired stoneware, he created tableware with relatively simple surfaces, sometimes adding texture through tobigana (chattering) or hakeme, (applying slip to a wheel-turned pot to create streaky brush strokes). While he occasionally returns to these methods today, his signature work since the mid-1990s has relied on a slip-inlay technique inspired by sanggam pottery of the period, a variety of the Korean slipwares revered by Yanagi, Hamada, and Shimaoka.

While the general appearance of this sanggam (or zogan/zougan, in Japanese) inlay technique in Miyajima’s work is evocative of an estuary where a river sends its milky waters in slow, spiraling eddies into the dark plane of a placid sea, the motifs to which Miyajima gravitates are floral arabesques derived from the karakusa pattern that has animated Japanese decorative arts for centuries. Rather than creating a static figure-and-ground effect, the dark in his surfaces seems to unfurl into the light, or vice versa. In part this is a consequence of the curling lines that compose the karakusa motifs, but it is also an effect of the transitions between the tonal extremes: the contours where dark yields to light and light gives way to darkness. A faint blurring of the slip softens these contours, giving the impression of a flowing of liquid, slow and viscous, or the almost imperceptible fluttering along the edges of leaves in a stirring of air.

This impression of motion is a key factor in the reciprocity and dynamism between Miyajima’s relatively plain vessel forms and their elaborate surfaces. Three-dimensional shape complements rather than competes with two-dimensional decoration. Bottles generally have clean contours, often with the square shoulders of Momoyama-period chaire (tea caddies); pedestal bowls tend to have smooth wells and relatively plain rims; and pitchers usually sport simple strap handles and pinched spouts. These vessel shapes and their components, succinct and effective in fulfilling their utilitarian purpose, epitomize elegance as a mathematician or scientist would understand the word. At the same time, their surfaces make effective sites for the staging of elegance in its aesthetic sense: a graceful disposition of two-dimensional form in the contrasting tones of vessel body and inlaid slip.

8 Incense burner, 5 in. (13 cm) in height, porcelain, carved Japanese karakusa mon (Japanese arabesque pattern), pale celadon glaze.

9 Tall vase, white stoneware, karakusa mon (Japanese arabesque) carved freehand through iron slip, opaque glaze.

If Miyajima’s inlaid slipwares forge uniqueness from unprecedented combinations of historical techniques, vessels forms, and surface patterns, the other important line that he has pursued in his work—vessels with bas-relief surfaces—involves experimentation with textures and glazes. Among the vessels exploiting three-dimensional properties of surface are those in which a black slip has been applied thickly and worked to create an effect of loose, linear carving, like the gouges in a woodcut printing block, and the whole has been covered in viscous-looking rivulets of ash glaze. The properties of translucency and mobility—the tendency of liquid glaze to flow into glassy pools before vitrifying—pique Miyajima’s interest, and experimenting with these qualities constitutes his most important concession to expressiveness in his work. Using traditional Mashiko nuka, tenmoku, oribe, and ameyu glazes, he deliberately seeks serendipitous effects.

10 Large bowl,17 in. (43 cm) in diameter, white stoneware, karakusa mon carved freehand through iron slip, opaque glaze.

11 Miyajima throwing a small bottle form off the hump. Miyajima throws off the hump to make all forms in his repertoire that are smaller than 9 inches.

Many of Miyajima’s relief-surfaced pieces begin as indistinguishable from the slip-inlaid wares. For the stoneware pieces, the decision to leave the concavities as receptacles for a flowing ash glaze or fill them with slip shaved flush with the surface is made only after the carving is complete and Miyajima has had the opportunity to reflect on which technique might best enhance the patterns on each piece. In the case of his porcelain vessels, the incisions are generally left to accumulate a celadon glaze, which lies thin and pale over the smooth planes of the surface but deepens in tone as it builds up in the recessed areas. The effect of this subtle gradation and linear patterning—serenely rhythmic, especially when Miyajima invokes a motif of spreading peony leaves—is reminiscent of that conveyed by many Song-dynasty longquan wares. Some of his celadon vessels, set on tall foot rings, are equally evocative of Korean pedestal dishes of the Joseon period.

While Miyajima cultivates historical references in the forms of his vessels as much as in the materials and techniques used to decorate their surfaces, not all of these forms are derived from the history of ceramics. The molded hanagata, or flower-shaped, bowl that has recurred in his repertoire for many years derives from a popular and long-lived shape in traditional Japanese lacquer ware. This lobed form, generally set on a tapering foot ring, might be textured with a black slip and coated in an ash glaze, or it could be carved on its exterior to create craggy details that draw saturated iron glaze, iron oxide, and clear glaze into streaky veils of black, ochre, and rust that coincidentally recall the hare’s-fur effect

on Seto  teabowls. One of Miyajima’s favorite shapes, the katakuchi, or spouted serving bowl, is another traditional lacquer-ware vessel form that has proved to be a versatile stage for effects of texture and glazing. Thrown on the wheel then fitted with foot rings and gutter spouts, his katakuchi might be decorated with karakusa patterns of inlaid white slip against a gray stoneware ground or of inlaid iron slip against a black stoneware body. Another form that he favors particularly for the possibilities presented by its handle, the English pitcher, has an interesting lineage in Japan, having been frequently produced by Shimaoka under the inspiration of Hamada who made such pitchers during his close association with Bernard Leach.

Regardless of the specific form he is producing, Miyajima is dedicated to functional elegance, to design that naturally and efficiently contributes to a vessel’s ability to perform its designated task. If he departs from convention, he does so traditionally—that is, his innovations adhere to the long tradition of orienting pottery toward optimal function. The most consistent evaluator of his work, he uses his own vessels daily, over time modifying shapes to improve their effectiveness. Uniqueness cannot help but emerge in the process, just as aesthetic innovation is bound to occur even when one closely follows precedents in historical pottery. Though it has never been his explicit aim, Miyajima has, through the nuance of interpreting tradition and a masterful understanding of the elegance that vessels can embody, added his own distinctive contributions to the great aesthetic and functional repository that is the history of pottery.






A Prior to carving for inlay, Miyajima paints a wash of black ink over the piece. The contrast created when carving through the black ink helps when creating complex patterns. Directional lines are also drawn on with black ink. Carving is done free hand for both inlay and sgrafitto work. B Cleaning up the surface after carving. C Initial application of slip inlay. D Shaving the inlaid surface. The slip is scraped off incrementally. This allows the pattern to reveal itself and to remain intact. Too much shaving and the pattern is lost; too little and the pattern isn’t clear. It is important to Miyajima that the inlaid surface and the original clay surface unite, creating one flat surface. E Shaving the inlaid surface on a series of small noodle cups.

Miyajima’s work will be on view in a solo exhibition “Black, White, Grey” at the Dublin Arts Center Gallery ( in Dublin, Ohio from November 17–December 15, 2016. A solo exhibition of his work will also be on view in January 2017 at Schaller Gallery ( in Saint Joseph, Michigan.

the author Glen R. Brown, a frequent contributor to Ceramics Monthly, is a professor of art history at Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas.


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Click here to read Tatsuzo Shimaoka by Mason Riddle.


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