People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Akira Satake: From handmade banjos to vases

by J.J. O'Donoghue

If you were to wander into Akira Satake Ceramics — a light-filled studio housed in a century-old tannery-turned-artists’ complex in Asheville, North Carolina — you’d pick up on the Japanese essence of the artisan’s style.

Satake’s pottery works showcase the minimalist aesthetic of Japanese ceramics with dark clays beautifully overlaid with fragile layers of white porcelain, a quintessential character seen in his Japanese teapots and chawan (Japanese tea bowls). But, other than the broad strokes and assumptions some of us make when appraising art, how much can we divine about an artist from his or her art?

Satake, it turns out, spent much of life working in a very different profession: music, both as a musician, a producer and a record label owner.

As a teenager in Osaka, he and his older brother cobbled together a homemade banjo, which, he says, sounded “terrible.” But he persisted and later, on his first night alone in America, he says, he was called up on stage in a theater in Los Angeles and played three impromptu pieces.

Music, though, he reminisces was tough. When the pressure of running his own music business in New York got so bad, he found it impossible to sleep. So, to save himself, he sold the business and, at age 42, he began transitioning from producing music to making pottery — a move that eventually led to him leaving New York for North Carolina, where he set up shop in Asheville as a ceramicist.

Satake currently teaches the techniques of Japanese pottery, exhibits his handiwork around the world and runs Gallery Mugen.

Now 60, he looks back fondly on his childhood as the youngest of four boys. “I had the most freedom,” he says, laughing on the phone from his home in North Carolina, which he shares with his wife and baker Cynthia Pierce. “By the time I was born, my parents were more relaxed.”

Satake’s father was a painter and one of his grandmothers practiced sumi-e (Japanese ink painting).

“I grew up surrounded by art, but from middle school I really began to focus on music,” he says.

He started playing guitar around the age of 11, quickly progressing to mandolin, and by 13 he had moved on to the banjo. “I played quite seriously,” he remembers, “and was gigging all through high school.”

Realizing he probably wouldn’t make a living as a professional banjo player, at least not in Osaka in the late 1970s, Satake decided to study photography and, after graduating, he picked up work at a studio in Osaka.

For a few years in his early 20s he worked every hour his bosses gave him — and the schedule was relentless. While he managed to save a lot money, he remembers, he knew it was not the life he wanted, so at the age of 25 he made the leap to move to America.

The plan was to head from the West Coast to the East Coast, armed with his banjo and his camera and to document his trip.

“I thought playing an instrument would help me relate to people,” Satake says, explaining that at the time he spoke very little English. Music, however, became a stronger influence on his life and career in America, and his long road trip never happened.

Instead, on landing in Los Angeles — his first ever time in America — he went directly from the airport to a bluegrass gig.

“There was a band playing on the stage. I was eating a hamburger, with my duffle bag and my banjo next to me, when the guy on stage looked down at me and said, ‘Why don’t you play a song?,'” he says. “I said, ‘Sure.’ One song let to another, and another. And they even paid me. So from my first night in America I was playing.”

Satake even secured temporary lodgings on the couch of the bass player of the band who invited him on stage.

That friendship — that sense of fraternity — from the music community that Satake encountered over three decades of living in America is something he is grateful for to this day. “I have been surrounded by artists and they’ve been very interesting and interested in me, and kind,” he says. “I never really felt discrimination.”

At the peak of his music career, Satake was running Damfino Productions and Alula Records. He had around 50 employees in his charge and was based in the Ed Sullivan Theater, one floor below the studio where The David Letterman show was being filmed. But the workload was taking a toll on his mental health.

“Every night I was sitting up in bed, breathing hard, unable to sleep,” he says. “I said to my wife, ‘What should I do, I’m going to kill myself if I can’t sleep?'”

After ruling out yoga, Buddhism and meditation, he decided he needed to do something that would help him relax, and he settled on pottery lessons, which his wife had been doing. “From the first night I did it,” he says, “I realized this is what I’m going to do (from now on).”

True to his word, he exited the business side of music and poured himself into working with clay. He’s still a prolific musician, but there’s a sense that with Satake, he will always be prolific in whatever he chooses to do.

Satake’s pottery now sells all over the world, and he runs workshops in locations as far flung from America as Hong Kong and Tuscany. He puts his success down to being flexible and not being afraid to try something new.

“Once I (decide to) do something I’ll do my best and I try to make myself happy and satisfied by doing it. But at the same time, I’m easy going and I try to be open as possible,” he reflects. “Things could go wrong and they probably have, but I don’t remember the things that didn’t go well.

“Overall, I’m very happy how things turned out.”

And that, he says, also goes too for his hybrid banjo made many years ago with his brother in Osaka.

Profile

Name: Akira Satake

Profession: Ceramicist and musician

Hometown: Osaka

Age: 60

Key moments in career:

1983 — Moves to the U.S., works at Saga Musical Instruments in California

1985 — Moves to New York

1989 — Sets up Damfino Productions, a music production company

1994 — Sets up Alula Records, a world music label

2003 — Moves to Asheville, North Carolina and sets up Akira Satake Ceramics

2013 — Sets up Gallery Mugen

Things I miss about Japan: “Family, friends and the food.”

Words to live by: “Make the most of every opportunity.”

Best advice I ever got: “If you’ve got passion, it’s worthwhile.” Jack Lemmon, speaking at The Actors Studio, New York