Kyoto ceramic artist Shin Fujihira creates works imbued with a childlike glee and an overflow of intelligent — rather than intellectual — energy that it’s impossible not to fall in love with. The man, as a favorite singer of mine says, “has sharpened his sense of wonder” to the point of supreme refinement.
Fujihira has been compared with the great wandering poets of the past such as Saigyo or Basho. Find out why at a Fujihira mini-retrospective comprising 82 pieces from the 1970s until the present that is running until Feb. 27 at the wonderful Musee Tomo in Tokyo.
Fujihira, who was born in 1922, hails from one of Japan’s most famous pottery areas, the Gojozaka district in Kyoto. As a young boy he would follow his big brother over to the house of the legendary late mingei giant Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966) to watch him at work — as well as to enjoy the snacks laid out for the brothers.
It was actually Kawai who gave Fujihira his first name. Shin’s family also had a studio in the area, established in 1916, and many potters there shared communal kilns; the Fujihiras rented space in Kawai’s kiln. Shin studied hard and entered vocational school in 1940.
However, two years later he became seriously ill and spent the next four years in hospital. It was there that he took up a brush and sketched away the days. Fujihira’s intense inner journey had begun, and on that silent, deep road he found artistic enlightenment, which awakened him to the preciousness and joy found in whatever caught his eye: the shape of a leaf, a cup of tea, a child on a swing. It all plays out with crystal clarity in his magical ceramics.
After regaining his health, Fujihara worked as a copper-print engraver for a while before joining his father at the pottery in 1951. Although clay was always at his fingertips, it wasn’t until he was in his early 30s that it became a way of life. Fujihira, as you will have realized by now, is not your average potter; in fact he almost never uses a throwing wheel, another factor that sets him apart from the clay pack.
His manual pinching and forming method allows him the freedom to explore forms that bubble up from the artistic well. Many are angular, sweeping jars with low-swung hips; while others are tower facades, boxes that resemble castles; or squat-legged forms that look like pianos.
On almost all of his works you can find applied haritsuke, etched-on designs of birds, children, horses, flowers or abstract designs. His years as an engraver come into play here in an animated and cheerful way. In the exhibition there are tiny figures that Fujihira has placed in various scenarios — for example, in a captivating piece titled “Parade for the Birth of Buddha” (1989), six turquoise-glazed figures march with an elephant, hands in motion, as they celebrate with frozen gestures.
Another touchingly contemplative work has a long flight of stairs balanced atop a single column. At the top of the stairs stands a figure in shinsha (red glaze), arms stretched out as if to embrace the world and say: “Yes, I did it!”
However, one of my favorite figurative pieces in the exhibition consists of a ceramic slab mounted by a tall white boat from which two shinsha figures scan the horizon. Fujihira aptly titled this “A Captain and his Mate.” The captain, with his military hat and beady eyes, flails his hands high while his mate seems to be embracing a ghost, the wind or simply showing a willingness to welcome whatever fate the elements have in store.
In its 2003 edition, Honoho Geijutsu (a leading Japanese ceramic publication) paid tribute to Fujihira, saying: “If life is a journey, Fujihira is the eternal traveler. What magical ceramic snapshots he has given the world.”