Finding wisdom in fire and earth

World of ceramics give Mishima's expat American an extended moment of Zen


Mishima, nestled at the foot of Mount Fuji, is certainly not a center for yakimono (ceramics), one of the most revered arts in Asia. But it is home to Robert Yellin, one of the foremost English-speaking experts on the craft.

Living in the now, Yellin looks to the past for the future, and the Shizuoka Prefecture city brings all aspects of time together for him. It was the first place he lived in Japan, over two decades ago as a university exchange student.

Japan beckoned Yellin from early in his life. His father, Jerry, flew fighter planes in World War II and carried home with him feelings of ambiguity toward the Japanese. Still, Yellin remembers his childhood home, decorated with Japanese antiques.

“My parents had Japanese art in the house; nothing major, just small aspects, starting from when I was in high school, block prints, ukiyo-e, wood chests. They weren’t very knowledgeable, they just liked Japanese art.”

More than the physical surroundings, Eastern philosophy shaped the young Yellin. As the youngest of four sons, Yellin followed the interests of his brothers. “My parents and my three older brothers were very into Eastern philosophies and meditation, transcendental meditation. I grew up in a house that had a different way of thinking, in a lot of ways, not so much attuned to the West as attuned to the East.”

Far away from the typical football-loving, mall-rat adolescent, Yellin tuned into Zen. Tuning in, focusing, a quiet awareness of the other. These attributes would assist Yellin as he settled into life in Japan.

In his gallery today, works of primal beauty line the walls and nestle in the silences of the backroom. Books on ceramic art wait patiently on every shelf, overflowing to the table top in quiet disarray.

Yellin started as a collector, intent on developing an appreciative eye. He looks around at his gallery and asserts, “the pieces themselves were my teachers.”

As a young college student, enjoying a home-stay with a Japanese family in Mishima, the dinner table introduced him to the world of yakimono.

“Everything was so different, even the chopstick rests or the soy sauce pourer. It was all ceramics and it was all different. Interesting shapes. This curiosity led me into the ceramic world. I would look at a piece and try to discover the style name, and then go try to find books on the style.”

His interest in ceramics deepened, and Yellin realized his Western eye needed training to appreciate certain aspects of traditional Eastern beauty.

“I had to really look at the pieces, particularly the ones which are chipped and warped and cracked, yet still national treasures . . . and I realized, there are connections in yakimono not only with beauty but also with your own ability to view nature as a living entity, as a living embodiment of spirit.”

Yellin’s fascination with this peaceful aspect of Japan would open the way for his father to make peace with his own nightmares from war, and accept his son’s new life and eventual marriage to a Japanese woman.

Uniting two families across the seas once at war; a universe in a grain of sand — to Yellin, Japanese ceramics transcends any definition of art and becomes a way of life.

Even after developing his eye to appreciate Japanese aesthetics, Yellin felt himself drawn to more than just superficial beauty. “If you look at everything only through your knowledge, you have blinders. You are not looking directly at the piece. There’s a lot of intelligence in the silence of a piece, a lot of energy in their stillness, but if your mind is too busy asking questions, you lose something. You should look at a piece with a silent mind and see how you can have a dialogue with it.”

This interest in what is behind each piece, as Yellin calls it, “the stories of the stone wares, their keshiki or landscapes,” led him from being an enthusiast into opening his own gallery and shop.

“I loved the aspect of Japanese functionality; there are great sculptural pieces, but the basis of Japanese ceramic culture is functionality, whether it be for flowers or for sake or for tea. Ceramics brings a seasonal and natural beauty into the daily natural rhythms of life, and that was very profound to me, that you could live in rhythm with nature the way you align yourself with objects in your life. It was like being an active participant in the grand drama of life.”

Yellin’s movement from collector to gallery owner was gradual and unplanned. He built on the knowledge gained from his own study and experience, writing for English publications, including The Japan Times, and broadening his awareness. It was a natural step to help others find these pieces for their own use.

In addition to the gallery online — — Yellin provides — — a free information site on Japanese pottery. The two Web sites boast the largest free online information source on Japanese pottery with over 400 articles and 2,000 images. Yellin admits: “I love Japan and I love this art form, and there was nothing much available in English 10 years ago. I wanted to enrich the lives of others who loved ceramics, share this profound connection for me, growing as a person.”

Yellin’s understanding of yo-no-bi, or beauty from use, also connected him to the potter’s world. Since the potter strives to create a piece of both beauty and individual form, Yellin discovered a deeper philosophy. “The beauty in the stone wares is in the letting go. Because these are wood-fired pieces, the potter will load them into the kiln and have no idea how it will come out; it is like making a kid, without all the fun part.”

Some potters deliberately leave some imperfection, Yellin attests, so that the future owner will have individuality for each piece. “The potter knows a piece may get a smattering of this sesame covering, or this area will produce vitrified glass, or this area will produce different blues, but he has no exact way of knowing how it will all play out on the surface . . . a potter must believe, trusting their experience, their intuition, and the powers of nature. Those elements coming together produce some profound work, devoid of intention . . . each piece wood-fired, you can never create again.”

Yellin’s devotion to Japanese ceramics provides a glimpse of the universe itself. “Ceramic art is comprised of those great elements that give us life, basically just fire and clay and water and air, and then you have the human spirit. To take such primitive elements and create something of amazing beauty, taking the basic elements of life, fire, water, earth . . . that I can drink from a 12th century sake cup and it still has functionality, it still has power to move the human spirit, even though it is 800 years old.”

Living in Japan, Yellin relishes the chance to support local artists, and his efforts have amassed a loyal following around the world. His customers live in Sweden, Ecuador, California. He spends time every day searching for new connections and kilns within Japan.

“The greatest joys in life are the little ones, often much more important than the big, dramatic entrances or exits of existence,” Yellin says. “At the end of a long day, it’s so nice to come home and touch something which retains an elemental power, even if it’s only a teacup or beer mug. You don’t feel a machine; you feel a human touch.”