During the 20th century, Japanese studio pottery made by individuals came to the fore. Up until then, many potters worked for large kilns or were artisans involved in a production-line method; one man molded the pots, while another decorated and so on.

The first real studio potter in Japan was Itaya Hazan (1872-1963), opening the door for others to follow. Of course, not all studio potters became as successful as Hazan — they were often overshadowed by the greatness of their teachers. This was so for one of the greatest Mashiko yaki potters ever, Gen Murata (1904-84). To celebrate the centenary of Murata’s birth, the Mashiko Ceramic Art Museum in Tochigi Prefecture is hosting “The Art of Gen Murata: The Strength that Resides in Clay” until Sept. 26.

I’ll never forget the first time I encountered his work. It was in a small coffee-shop gallery hosting a Mashiko-yaki yunomi (teacup) exhibition. Murata’s yunomi had nothing fancy about it: It had a traditional shape; sturdy and honest with powerful iron-brush strokes over the creamy nuka (rice husk) glaze. Yet in that simplicity was a depth I’d never encountered in such a common form. It was as if the cup was breathing.

Gen Murata was born the second son of Tasaburo and Retsu Murata in 1904, who were farmers in Ishikawa Prefecture. Murata was not blessed with a happy childhood, having been separated from his mother after his parents divorced. His grandmother Yoko raised him. From an early age Murata was fond of art and wanted to pursue it as a career.

He dropped out of junior high school, studied painting in Kyoto (delivering newspapers to support himself) before entering the Kansai Art Academy (Kansai Bijutsu Gakuin) in 1922. After graduating, he married and moved to Tokyo to work as an editor, illustrator and designer of magazines. This experience led him to become the editor of Senki (War Flag), the journal for the Japan Proletarian Artists’ Association.

He first came across pottery when visiting a folk craft exhibition in 1934 at Matsuzakaya in Ueno, Tokyo. It was a Mashiko-yaki yunomi by Totaro Sakuma. Yearning to be a potter, especially after seeing Shoji Hamada’s work in 1943, he made the move to Mashiko in 1944. A well-connected friend said that he could write to the already famous Shoji Hamada (later designated a living national treasure) and ask him to take Murata on as an apprentice. Murata would have nothing of that and introduced himself.

Mashiko, like the rest of Japan, was feeling the ravages of war, and Hamada had no place for an apprentice to stay. Food was scarce, as were supplies for the pottery. Nevertheless, being impressed by the young potter’s determination, Hamada told Murata that if he could find a place to stay, he would offer to take him on. Murata worked with Hamada for four years — always in his shadow — and became an independent studio potter thereafter, even though he had no kiln. (At that time potters often rented space in others’ kilns.)

Murata lived in an old decrepit house (one person described it as a “chicken shed”). In the winter the cold winds made his shack an ice zone and some unfired pots would freeze and crack. Yet, not even that broke Murata’s will and he was able to build his first kiln, a climbing chambered noborigama in 1954, when he was 50.

He had his first exhibition at long last in 1955 at Izumi Kogei craft shop in Tokyo. Gen Murata had finally arrived. Murata was a consummate Mashiko potter, using only local materials. For Mashiko pottery that includes local clay as well as traditional glazes such as nuka, kaki-yu (persimmon) and iron tinge.

In his later years, Murata created his own style by layering these glazes, giving his sturdy jars a painterly quality. There is a great intelligence and sensitivity in Murata’s work that draws upon his dreams of becoming a painter, his literary experiences and his extremely impoverished life. The severity and need for simplicity in poverty also came out in the line and form of his work.

However, Murata was quite a dogmatic personality and this led to him falling out with Mingei founder Yanagi Soetsu. This is one reason you don’t find Murata’s work in the Mingeikan (Japan Folks Craft Museum) in Tokyo, although most other major Mashiko potters are there. Why is this so? Yanagi told Murata, “You sign your work, and so it really isn’t Mingei; you’re off the Mingei path.”

But, unlike other Mingei potters such as Hamada, Murata was adamant that the public should be able to know who made what and went on stamping his work with “mu” or signing “mu” within a diamond.

After two decades creating his own distinctive style in Mashiko, he was able to build a house in 1967. He never stopped refining his art and even built a new kiln when he was 71. In 1985, Tochigi Prefecture honored Murata with its highest award for artistic contribution, the Cultural Merit Award.

Murata’s “simple,” deep and passionate ceramic art deserves to be seen by all who hold Mashiko close to their hearts. In my book he is the finest traditional Mashiko studio potter the world has ever known.

The Mashiko Ceramic Museum (formerly known as Togei Messe Mashiko) is open 9:30 a.m-5 p.m, closed Wednesday. Mashiko is an hour’s bus ride from Utsunomiya Station (from stop no. 14). Admission is 600 yen. Tel. (0285) 72-7555.

Another current exhibition of note is by one of Japan’s “hidden” masters, only known to chawan (tea bowl) enthusiasts. His name is Hiro Ajiki and he is the “Picasso” of the chawan, and in fact, only makes chawan these days in modern Raku ware, checkered salt-firing, and a number of other styles that are always sublime and perfect vessels for matcha. His exhibition is July 22-28 at Shinjuku Keio department store’s sixth-floor gallery.

I will be guiding a group from Esprit Travel this autumn on a tour of a few of Japan’s better known kilns.

More information on that can be found on the Esprit Travel web site at www.esprittravel.com/tours/ ceramics.html

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