Swede brings two views to Hagi pottery

HAGI, Yamaguchi Pref. — Few have ventured outside the borders defined by tradition in the more than 400 years this town has been producing its famous pottery, renowned as among the best for use in the Japanese tea ceremony.

In fact, it took a Swede to attempt the first use of colored paints on the brown, rough-textured Hagi pottery, striking a subtle balance between tradition and his own cultural background. His efforts met with success and Bertil Persson is now one of the most popular artists of Hagi ware.

“I can’t forget when I first saw the town of Hagi, getting off a train and onto the station platform,” said Persson, who has spent nearly three decades of his 57 years in the small town. Before settling in Hagi, Persson worked in Copenhagen as an artisan specializing in colorful miniature illustrations on European porcelain.

When he first visited Hagi during a tour of Japan in 1969, he was fascinated by the charm of the town — among the most quiet and beautiful of those still retaining the samurai atmosphere of the Edo Period. Persson returned to Hagi the following year and started working at a local kiln in 1970. Since then, he has been working to produce pottery in the famous style of his adopted hometown.

The most important element of traditional Hagi pottery is its texture and form, considered a typical expression of “wabi sabi,” or austerely refined, natural, aged beauty. Persson likes the Japanese tradition a great deal, but he gradually came to believe that he should not continue to make pottery in exactly the same style local potters have used for centuries.

The color illustrations on Persson’s Hagi pottery are subtle and sensitive, complementing the forms and textures of the Hagi-style pottery pieces. Persson said that tradition and originality can coexist. If people seek only what they like, he said, they may be unable to communicate with others.