Sensual curves and serendipitous color

by Catherine Pawasarat

KOBE — What do the ancient ceramics center of Shigaraki and suburban New Jersey have in common?

Probably nothing, except for ceramics artist Tacy Apostolik. This month, after 14 years of ceramics work in Japan, the New Jerseyite potter Apostolik is having her final show here before she sets up base on the East Coast of the United States.

Shigaraki-style ceramics by Tacy Apostolik

Apostolik is known for her pieces inspired by Shigaraki traditions — often visually solid, functional works in quartzy clay, with whimsical effects of cracks, warps, handles and curves. She is also one of the few Western women to have braved the traditional Japanese apprenticeship system for ceramics, having spent two full years with Shigaraki master Kiyotsugu Sawa before moving her base to Kyoto.

She continued firing her works at Sawa’s ana-gama (tunnel) kiln, a back-breaking effort. After a day loading, more than 250 bundles of pine logs have to be fed into the front of the kiln several times an hour for five days straight. The potters typically go without sleep for the last 36 hours, a crucial time for fine-tuning the heat of the kiln and pulling out a limited number of pieces for special coloration effects.

Shigaraki pieces are known for their serendipitous coloration, which ranges from white and ash-gray to fiery oranges, shiny olive greens, glassy aquas and even a rare lavender.

“It’s almost impossible to control a wood firing, there are so many unknowns,” Apostolik explains.

A Shigaraki vessel combines the forces of nature — the blazing fire, the earthen kiln, the flow of oxygen inside the kiln — with the ceramicist’s knowledge and skill. The potter must judge where and how to place each piece in the kiln. Works in the back of the kiln are colored only with the movement of oxygen and heat throughout the kiln; despite their hiiro (literally “fire-colored”) coloration, these pieces are beyond the reach of the flames from the front-loaded pine.

Works from the middle of the kiln are typically orange-green or sienna brown, a combination of the hiiro and some of the greenish melted fly ash. The pieces at the very front of the kiln, closest to the burning wood, will be colored with the dripping green-gray and brown molten fly ash. These pieces are also eligible for the prized hikidashi coloration, produced when the potter pulls them out of the kiln during the firing process.

On the last day of a firing last month Apostolik strained with the effort of hikidashi. The stacked pots were red-hot from the five days of constantly stoked fire (the temperature exceeds 1,250 C), and actually stuck together: When Apostolik put an iron rod inside them and levered her body against it to pull them apart, they stretched like taffy.

“If the ash is exposed to the air, it melts at a higher heat, creating a shiny surface that turns into a beautiful, transparent, glasslike sea green,” she explains.

Many of Apostolik’s forms also look as though they were as much the result of natural phenomena as of her skilled hands and inspiration. One of her pieces, a medium-size cylindrical vase, is torn down the middle, the top two-thirds open like a blooming flower. Others are perfectly shaped, though not necessarily symmetrical. The artist is fond of sensual curves.

The need for space beckons Apostolik back to America. In the U.S. it will be easier for the potter to build her own kiln and run a large studio, with space to accommodate visiting artists for collaborative work. “I want to work large and I need the space and the facilities. And I want to be able to do more testing, try out more ideas,” she says excitedly.

Apostolik’s last show is actually a special duo exhibit, also featuring award-winning Tanba potter Ichino Masakino. The two together make for a rare treat.