OKAYAMA – Beads of sweat form on the forehead of Chizuru Akiya, 34, as she loads pine into a kiln under the watchful eye of her teacher, American potter Donna Gilliss.
“That was good timing,” Gilliss said, remarking on the pace of the fire being stoked.
“High temperatures increase the burning speed. . . . You can hear the flames give a kind of pulling sound right in front of you due to the air circulating inside the kiln,” the 56-year-old Bizen potter tells her student.
Another lesson learned — use the sound of the kiln’s fire to determine the amount of wood to burn.
This was in May last year, at Gilliss’ kiln in Kamogawa, Okayama Prefecture, adjacent to her house set among oaks and bamboo thickets.
Within the following year, Akiya decided to wind up her studies and make pottery at a kiln shared with her husband, Masao, 34, who also decided on a career as a potter after studying under Jun Isezaki, 66, a Bizen ceramist and Gilliss’ former teacher.
Disillusioned with the uniform styles of traditional ceramics, the Akiyas relocated to Bizen, the Okayama home of unglazed earthenware, from Saitama Prefecture five years ago.
Asked by Akiya what the most important thing in pottery is, Gilliss once answered, “To be a philosopher rather than an artist.” Akiya was first mesmerized by Gilliss’ pottery and later by her personality.
As a student, Akiya once put too much wood in the kiln, preventing the heat inside from rising to a level high enough to make Bizen ware.
Noticing the problem, Gilliss proposed they “study wood-firing together.” Gilliss’ approach made Akiya see her more as a friend than a teacher.
She was also an admirer of Gilliss’ “mentori,” or chamfered style, which includes vases with the corners planed off — unbound by tradition.
Chisako Yabuki, 55, a gallery operator who has hosted Gilliss exhibitions, describes the style as “sharp.”
Gilliss, born in Ohio, became interested in Japanese architecture during her university years. She went to Stockholm, well-known for urban planning studies, to study at an arts school.
There she experimented with pottery on a “rokuro” wheel and read “A Potter’s Book” by British studio potter Bernard Leach.
The book made her realize pottery was a serious art, not merely for amusement. She came to Japan, where ceramics are used for everything from serving tea and sake to ikebana, in 1968.
After seeing an exhibition by potter Kanjiro Kawai (1890-1966), a leader in the folk craft movement, she decided to focus on Japanese ceramic products.
She is primarily interested in practical tableware, rather than purely aesthetic pieces.
“Tableware and architecture exist for daily use. The name of the game is how to give pleasure to people, so they can use the items with pleasure,” she said.
Plates and cups line the shelves of her cottage.
Gilliss likes the simplicity found in Japanese “wabi sabi” — an appreciation of the beauty of imperfection and impermanence. That is what attracted her to Bizen ware, with its unglazed, case-hardening surfaces and lack of ornamentation.
Some people were surprised when Gilliss made Bizen ware to serve spaghetti. Her response: “Why be surprised? Bizen pottery is for the common people.”
Her latest challenge is to slice vases into plates.
Gilliss is contemplating a move back to the U.S., but she is uncertain whether her products would be accepted.
Other prominent foreign potters in Japan include American John Wells, based in Okayama Prefecture, German Gerd Knapper in Ibaraki Prefecture and American Richard Milgrim in Kyoto Prefecture.
In early April, Gilliss and Akiya were preparing plates to be given to guests at a wedding ceremony.
“In Japan, potters can live solely on the demand for presents at wedding ceremonies,” she said with a laugh.
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