Harvey Young, a ceramic artist for over 40 years who has spent nearly three decades in Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture, knows a thing or two about shaping beauty out of chaos — and about the sudden misfires life can bring. Even his early love for pottery warped and melded with other interests until it finally shaped into his vocation.
“I have had my hands in clay for almost my entire life,” says Young, who was introduced to pottery through a childhood visit to a workshop in the mountains behind Los Angeles, where he grew up. “When I was in first grade, my teacher, after our academic studies like spelling or math, would bring out these little balls of clay wrapped in oil cloths to give our brains a rest. It was instant gratification; I loved the smell, and I had this ball I could stick my finger in and instantly see the hole.”
Young soon discovered a plastic mold maker’s workshop in his neighborhood, and he would ride his bicycle there often to “hang out and learn.”
His early aspiration to be a sculptor was gradually pushed aside by “parental pressure,” and by the time Young entered the University of California at Santa Barbara, he was resigned to pursue a major in psychology. “I didn’t really enjoy my psychology classes,” he recalls. “I was always falling asleep in class. Finally I took a few art classes and thought, this is back where I belong.”
Young stayed at the university another two years to complete a Bachelor of Arts, graduating in 1969 in both psychology and art, but it was a chance meeting with his ceramics professor in a parking lot that cemented his artistic future.
“I didn’t have much to say to him, but I felt I had to say something. So I asked him how much his airline ticket to Japan had cost.” The professor had studied pottery six years previously at two different kilns in Kyushu, and Young’s polite question opened a floodgate of memories: “He started talking about his life in Japan and studying ceramics at a traditional pottery kiln, and I just stood there, slack-jawed for two hours, listening to his story. Suddenly, my path became very clear to me. I decided I would do the same thing and study pottery making in Japan.”
Young’s journey to Japan was full of initial setbacks. Although his professor had promised to help him make connections in Japan, nothing concrete materialized, and Young moved to Colorado, working for a block mason to save money for his expenses.
“Finally I got fed up with waiting for my professor’s help, and I started writing letters to anyone I could think of to help me get to Japan. I wrote to art museums and to famous artists, all kinds of people, until finally I was sent a list of addresses of potters. I sent a letter of introduction I wrote myself, plus some slides of some pots I had made at school to everyone on the list. Finally, one person replied, ‘Please come.’ People ask me how I chose Mashiko, but my stock answer is, ‘I didn’t. Mashiko chose me.’ “
At 24, he came to Mashiko, known worldwide as a center for pottery with over 900 kilns in a small town surrounded by mountains and hills. His 17-month stay there permanently formed his ideas on beauty and art, and solidified his desire to be a ceramic artist.
Mashiko also connected him with the renowned Danish ceramic artist Gutte Eriksen, who visited the area and befriended Young during her stay. “The first time she showed me her works, they were so beautiful I started to weep. Talk about impact, her miniatures were so full of emotion.” Young later spent a year traveling in Europe and three months training under Eriksen after leaving Japan.
Finally, unable to find new work, Young flew back to the United States in 1973 with $5 in his pocket but determined to open a studio in the U.S. Young moved back in with his mother in Los Angeles for a few months to save money before establishing his first pottery workshop in Point Reyes Station, California. He married his Japanese sweetheart, a woman he had met in Mashiko, and the two began their life in America.
Cracks in this new life soon appeared, widened by the financial uncertainty of an artist’s existence: “It was always a tremendous financial struggle, and although I was constantly working and improving, we have a different culture in America of valuing pottery and I could not make any headway, connecting with people. Any experience I had paled in comparison to my time in Mashiko.”
After 10 years, in 1984, Young and his wife moved back to Mashiko and welcomed their son the following year. Young has no regrets, although establishing himself in Japan proved difficult. “The worst of times for a potter in Japan is much better than the best of times for a potter in America,” he says.
Young exhibited widely throughout Japan in the 1980s and ’90s, sometimes as many as four exhibitions a year. The constant work and travel wore down his already fractured marriage to divorce.
“It wore me out, too,” he recalls. He worked harder than ever to create: “It was a difficult time. Although our relationship had become catastrophic for both of us, like a head-on car crash in slow motion, I felt so much gratitude for her support over the years, and of course, we share our son.”
Young regrouped to repair his splintered life. “Gradually, I changed my focus to bringing people to me. Many people love pottery in Japan, and it is fascinating to share what potters do with others, fascinating for me, too. I try to be honest with people: Here is where I live and work, and this is what I do.”
By the 2000s, Young’s efforts gradually turned into the artist’s life he had dreamed of — a successful, respected potter working among other devoted potters in Mashiko. In a new relationship with his current wife, Yukie, Young regularly accepted visitors to his studio, often combining other Japanese cultural events, like a 2010 shamisen concert with Okayasu Kiyohachi in the garden of his workshop. Young opened an online store but still occasionally exhibited work to “maintain some visibility.”
March 11, 2011, crashed those dreams in minutes. Shaping plates at 2:46 p.m. on that day in his workshop, Young moved outside to the garden when the temblors intensified, soon joined by Yukie. “We feel a lot of earthquakes in this part of Japan, once a week or so, but you learn to accept them and you just wait for the shaking to calm down. It never did. Right in front of our eyes, my workshop and home started twisting and warping, roof tiles started falling, the corners of the building splayed out and shattered. And I could hear hideous crashing noises from inside as wares fell from the shelves or entire shelves crashed down. The trees in the garden starting doing a grotesque dance, as if they wanted to pull themselves out of the ground and run away.”
Over 70 percent of his inventory was destroyed, 95 percent of works in progress were reduced to powder. His home was rendered unlivable and almost condemned. Young’s kiln was destroyed, his workshop a ruined wasteland of rubble.
“We were lucky,” Young insists. “Even though I have not been able to touch clay for 14 months, I am determined this earthquake is not going to defeat me. We are making progress with the repairs, but it is a long and complicated process.”
Young credits customers and friends, the community he had slowly shaped in Japan, with their assistance. “We have received a lot of support from people, in many forms, all kinds of positive energy. I don’t look on what we are receiving as a gift. It is a loan, and it must be repaid some day. The only way I can repay right now is by passing on and helping others in any way I can.”
One way Young helped recently: he advertised on his blog the efforts of fishermen in Kesennuma, Miyagi Prefecture. Unable to work since the disaster, some fishermen began selling hand-made hammocks. Young received one as a gift. “All I did was introduce the hammock to people who follow my blog. I just wanted to pass on the positive energy and help in any way I can.”
Young spent six months designing his new kiln, and construction is set to begin in the next few weeks. With the help of Yukie, their home is almost completely restored: “Yukie is a mainstay in regard to my professional and personal life. I think she deserves credit because without her I would have crashed and burned 10 years ago. With all the support we’ve received, from so many sources, I expect I will live until 120 years old, creating pottery and passing on all this positive energy.”
Young’s hands clench as he smiles. He can’t wait to get hands back on his favorite medium: clay.
For more information on Young’s pottery, see www.harveyyoungpottery.com in English or Japanese.