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SUEHARA FUKAMI

Porcelain horizons, modern monoliths

by Robert Yellin

There are works of art that, maybe only once in our lifetime, may define an era and capture life’s boundless spirit with a beauty that both moves the heart and deepens the experience of existence.

A few years back at the inaugural exhibition of the Musee Tomo in Tokyo, a sculpture by ceramic artist Suehara Fukami (b. 1947) was the first artwork to greet visitors as they descended the spiral, glass-lined staircase. In a darkened recess, a shimmering sword-like monolith with a pale-blue seihakuji glaze sliced through the air and stood alone like a “noble knight” — a fitting description as well for this humble artist who is loved the world over.

Fukami’s work is awe-inspiring to such a degree that it transcends thought and guides the viewer to a wordless truth. Standing before his majestic porcelain creations, we sense a shining spiritual light that allows us to touch a divine place in the soul. Fukami is an artist who defines his medium, defines that loftier consciousness through a kind of beauty that transcends borders. He is a once-in-a-lifetime artist.

As regular readers of this column will be aware, Japanese ceramic art is extremely well regarded internationally, with exhibitions showing now in Germany and more planned (watch this space next month).

In fact, to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Fukami receiving the Premio Faenza, the prestigious Grand Prize, at the Faenza International Competition of Contemporary Ceramic Art, a major one-man exhibition is showing until Dec. 31 at the International Museum of Ceramics in that Italian city. His other awards are too numerous to list, as are all the museums worldwide that own a Fukami.

What is it about local clay artists’ sensibilities that stand out among the world’s ceramicists?

A deeper sensitivity to materials? Cultural support? Maybe even a national identity? For Japan, it’s all of this and more, as the public has respected ceramic art for ages, and most urbane Japanese have an affinity with clay products in one form or another.

Growing up in Kyoto, one of Japan’s “clay capitals,” Fukami was exposed to clay from a tender age. His family produced blue-and-white porcelain daily ware near the Sennyu-ji Temple in eastern Kyoto. That said, it’s not always easy to follow in the family business, but luckily for Fukami, his older brother took over the kiln, and this proved to be the key to unlocking Fukami’s free expression. Over the years, as he’s matured, his work has grown from the crafting of abstract seihakuji under the influence of Sodeisha (profiled in last month’s column) to creating worlds more purely his own, where he brings “the horizon” into his works.

As he has told me in the past, “I first became interested in the horizon when I was in my early 30s. I was climbing Daiyozaki mountain pass in Mie Prefecture and the view just made my heart tremble. I was deeply moved and knew it was the feeling I wanted to capture in my work, a feeling of majestic awe.”

Another profound experience was feeling a bitter winter wind slice across his face. “I felt the pleasantly painful breeze while on the shore of a beach during winter. I had never felt such a sensation before, and have not since. All the senses in my body felt the pleasure of the strange wind as it stabbed my cheek. This tactile experience is at the heart of my creations.”

Another notable inspiration is the “beauty of sweeping temple rooflines” Fukami saw in his neighborhood when he played in the grounds of Tofuku Temple as a boy. Most of Fukami’s creations have sharp edges, rounded planes or conical forms that somehow mimic the elegant lines of those roofs.

How does Fukami create such grandeur? With great difficulty — for his seihakuji pieces, he had to invent his own slip-casting process. He started from an original, large-scale process for manufacturing mass-produced porcelain items and streamlined it to make one-of-a-kind sculptures. Two of his innovations involve the use of air pressure to perfect his final product. For one he developed a way to inject the slip (liquid clay) through a custom-built compressor, pushing it firmly into the mold to prevent firing flaws. For the second, he pumps air into the mold, ingeniously using a bicycle pump, to make the piece hollow. To finish off the shape, he uses special extra-hard, tungsten-alloy tools to smooth the surfaces. And that’s just part of the molding, firing and inner and outer glazing required to create his works.

All this makes me think of an alchemist in some medieval dungeon, yet Fukami’s workshop is so clean and orderly that it looks more like a modern lab than a dirt-floored potter’s studio. Each piece is a one-off, or is produced in only very limited numbers.

Like architect Tadao Ando or fashion designer Issey Miyake, Fukami has taken his particular field into a new world, for which history will surely be grateful.


Special note: This year’s Grand Prize at Faenza went to Japanese ceramics artist Tomoko Kawakami for work that, as one judge noted, deserves the award equally for the “ability to condense an expression of extreme simplicity into a material of great delicacy and thinness and for the new effect of depth expressed by the successful contrast between the outer surface and the inner void.”