Art | CERAMIC SCENE

TOMOO HAMADA

In the footsteps of a genius grandfather

by Robert Yellin

The perks and pressures of being the child of someone famous can be enormous — doubly so if following in the family footsteps. In Japan, with its grand artistic traditions, this is not an uncommon phenomenon. The results, though, range across a broad spectrum, from glory (not always deserved — think of political dynasties), to competency (often bringing wealth and fame anyway), or derivation (mere imitation that finds a market only thanks to the family’s “brand name”).

More often than not, the latter case is the sad reality, and a family’s tradition can stagnate while awaiting a savior. It can take a generation or two’s distance from genius for a vital voice to be heard again.

Such is the case for the great folk-craft pottery center of Mashiko, Tochigi Prefecture. When any Japanese ceramics buff hears “Mashiko,” one name inevitably springs to mind: Hamada.

Shoji Hamada (1894-1978) was a founding member of the Mingei movement, a living national treasure and the person who saved Mashiko pottery from extinction when he settled there in 1924. It’s even been said that much of what gets produced in Mashiko these days shouldn’t be called Mashiko-yaki, but Hamada-yaki!

That may be pushing it too far, but it certainly shows the tremendous and unending influence this sophisticated “country” potter had on Mashiko. His son Shinsaku followed in the family trade and became a solid, gracious potter, yet never had the smack of genius that dad possessed. Hamada’s top apprentice, the living national treasure Tatsuzo Shimaoka, found fame with a simple rope pattern that really had nothing to do with Mashiko, though he is a wonderful Mashiko-based potter.

Now, though, the winds of fortune are shifting. A new Hamada, Shoji’s grandson and Shinsaku’s second son, Tomoo (1967-), is creating a new style of Mashiko. An exhibition celebrating Tomoo’s first 10 years as a professional potter is showing in Mashiko’s Kanoya Gallery until June 13.

Although the 10-year mark is surely a turning point for Tomoo, he got his real start in clay much earlier than a decade ago.

“I decided to be a potter when I was 3,” Tomoo writes in the exhibition catalog. “My family allowed me to choose of my own free will. I was interested in art in general, so I often spent time in my grandfather’s and father’s studio.”

In art, this kind of “learning” is one in which a working knowledge seeps into the bones simply by being and doing, and not through schooling the intellect. Artistic mastery becomes part of one’s movement and soul.

While Shoji was glazing pots, Tomoo would borrow the brush and decorate pots of his own — his style was free and natural. Shoji praised the lad, saying, “He’s quite an artist because he’s a child! No one can do better than children.”

Though that’s a simplistic explanation, it holds more than a kernel of truth. Look at Picasso, and Japanese ceramics artists Rosanjin and Koie Ryoji — they all “played” with their art. Tomoo, too, writes of his desire to “pursue my career, no matter what my age, with the fresh sensitivity of a child.”

“Fresh” is the key word here, as Tomoo’s pots are bursting with a vitality that Mashiko badly needs. The qualities characteristic of a Mashiko pot became greatly diluted after Shoji’s passing, and among the many pots made in Mashiko there are few that possess them.

So what, then, are these defining qualities?

Local clay, for one, onto which various ancestral glazes are applied, including rich persimmon, earthy rice husk, starry iron, and snowy white tones, among others. Tomoo adds to the blend his youthful sense of form, with some works resembling terraced rice paddies, violins or rainbows. It is joyful to see his inner child at play as he wields his dancing brush to create spirals, checked patterns, diamonds and reed motifs that add character, depth and life to his clay creations.

Of course, Tomoo also makes such sturdy folk wares as large platters, pitchers, serving bowls, tea bowls, teacups and sake vessels. Even within these everyday wares, though, we can find great joy and the spirit of a sensitive artist. Tomoo knows the grand tradition he has inherited, and he is not afraid to take Mashiko forward (or is it backward?) just as in the glory days of his grandfather.

The Kanoya Gallery is located at Mashiko 3169-1, Oaza, Mashiko-cho; (0285) 72-8717; open 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

An outsider’s view of Mashiko in the early 1970s can be glimpsed in Ann Holmes’ lovely book of poems, titled “Shards: Mashiko Poetry.” The volume is split into two sections: the first is a “pottery-poetry memoir” of Holmes’ life and reflections (the writer studied pottery in Mashiko), while the second is a lyrical look at Mashiko potters based on interviews, including with Shoji Hamada’s apprentices.

The book can be ordered from amazon.com or by e-mailing Holmes directly at Holmesa8@aol.com

Another exhibition of great interest is the work of Tamba, Hyogo Prefecture-based ceramic artist Masayuki Ichino, showing on the sixth-floor gallery of Nihonbashi Takashimaya, June 15-21. Ichino’s work is modern in form and design and has won him a wide national and international following. He’s collected umpteen awards, including the Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition Grand Prix in 1995.

To end, a poem from Holmes’ book, titled “Mantra”:

Each time
I lift
a board
of pots
I pray to the Buddha
and to every other god I can think of
SAVE THESE POTS!