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Sunday, June 11, 2006


Explore the beauty of stoneware

JAPANESE WOOD-FIRED CERAMICS by Masakazu Kusakabe & Marc Lancet. Iola, Wisconsin: Krause publications, 2005, 320 pp., $44.99 (paper)

The art of making ceramics originated in Japan during prehistoric times, and over recent centuries has evolved to rank higher even than painting in the eyes of this country's connoisseurs. Most celebrated are the stonewares of ancient centers -- such as Tamba, Shigaraki, Bizen, Seto, Tokoname and Echizen -- that are prized for their robust shapes and the evocative, abstract quality of their surfaces. Fired in wood-burning kilns, the unexpected and seemingly haphazard quality of these majestic pots is often credited to the god of the kiln, who alone can make order from the crucible of white-hot flames and clouds of ash.

In practice it's not quite so simple, and even though benevolence is properly invoked with prayers and offerings, there is plenty of calculated tweaking -- the opening and closing of apertures to control oxygen levels, and adroit stoking for regulating temperature -- to help the deity work his magic. Clays and glazes, too, have to be carefully considered. Successful potters are known for keeping their formulas secret, handing them on only to a trusted successor. Brave is the foreign ceramic artist who comes here to study, and one can only admire those few who can navigate through this world of arcane tradition to the level of achieving their own independence and success.

For the first time in English, much has been de-mystified in this new book that explains in exhaustive detail the practical steps of making wood-fired ceramics. Readers can "learn the secrets of the masters!" claim the authors, and this is certainly accomplished. Written in collaboration by an experienced Japanese ceramic artist and an American professor of sculpture, the book combines a deep affection for the aesthetics of wood-fired ceramics with a common-sense, practical analysis of what is involved. Numerous specialist terms, such as kamazume (loading the kiln) and yohen (wood-fired surface effects), which once sent one scurrying for a dictionary, are not only clearly explained but illustrated in numerous color photographs. After reading only a few pages, this reviewer soon realized just how little he knew.

The introduction proposes that after developing over thousands of years, and being refined for another thousand, "wood-firing perhaps is entering the age of its greatest transformation to date. It is now being rediscovered across the globe, not only as an ancient tradition but also as an expressive tool for contemporary art. To the artist, wood-firing offers a unique beauty and opens new lines of exploration."

Such a process involves much time and arduous work, so why not choose modern kilns fired by gas or electricity, which are cleaner and more easily controlled? The answer given is: "an extraordinary beauty -- a heart-achingly arresting beauty, a beauty of epic proportions, a beauty worth working for, a beauty only achievable by way of wood-firing. What else could motivate artists to dedicate so much time and effort?"

The first chapter elaborates the author's passion for stoneware by explaining this unique beauty in Japanese aesthetic terms of wabi and sabi, and the Zen spirit behind them. The abstract surface effects of wood-fired stoneware are likened to the works of modern artists such as Mark Rothko, William de Kooning and Franz Kline, who are said to have been inspired by the same principles.

The second chapter continues the aesthetic discussion by focusing on yohen and explains how these can occur naturally -- depending upon the amount of ash swirling around in the kiln, and the distance of pots from the flame source -- or be induced by techniques such as burying pots in rice husk, stoking the kiln with wet wood, or simply re-firing them. The details of each of these natural, or induced effects are illustrated in high-resolution color photographs, together with explanations of just how such results can be achieved.

The second part of "Japanese wood-fired ceramics" describes how to build two types of wood-burning kilns, starting with the selection of suitable sites and building materials. Every stage of construction is shown in photographs with detailed, practical instructions.

The last, and longest, part of the book teaches how to work the kiln once it has been built. Wood, and its varieties and chemical qualities, are discussed with an eye to the ash it will generate and the effects it will create. Pine and oak are cited as being highest in iron, which, when reduced in the kiln, produces an attractive green-colored glaze, while spruce and white fir, being rich in manganese, yield pale violet, beige and pink effects.

Clays give stoneware its distinctive character, and the famous ancient centers mentioned at the beginning evolved precisely because they had ample deposits of the material at hand. Clays can be fine or coarse, and will fire to reveal a wide palette of colors depending upon the content of iron compounds. Also, the presence of quartz or feldspar crystals can generate little "stars" of glassy spots that are much prized in Shigarakai and Igaraki-type wares. Much attention is given to applied glazes and slips, and several pages are devoted to listing various recipes of mineral combinations calculated to produce certain effects. Some are named after their inventors: "Ann's Cream Ash," "Fred Olsen's Seto," and "Val Cushing's Orange Flash Shino" sound good enough to eat. Finally, the whole procedure of stacking and firing the kiln is explained step by step, including many tricks of the trade that would only normally be discovered by laborious trial and error.

Just as traditional arts such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, sushi, judo, sumo and haiku composition have already flourished in the West (and there to be preserved for posterity if Japan continues to lose yet more of its culture), so the difficult craft of wood-fired ceramic making will surely follow. Clearly-written and comprehensive -- and mercifully free of academic art-speak -- this book will become an essential and much-needed reference for years to come, not only for craftsmen, but also for collectors and other enthusiasts who want to learn more about Japanese ceramics.

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