AIKAWA, Niigata Pref. – Award-winning potter Ito Sekisui V, one of 10 Japanese named “Living National Treasures” in July, brings modern aesthetic touches to his work while preserving the craftsmanship associated with Mumyoi ware.
Through skillful use of his original techniques, called “neriage” and “yohen,” the 62-year-old ceramist has created Mumyoi ware with colorful floral, mosaic, striped and gradated patterns that often give the impression of painted pottery.
Mumyoi ware is made from special reddish brown clay extracted from gold mines on Sado Island.
“To create things is to bring forth what has never existed, something new and attractive. That’s a creator’s destiny,” said the successor to the Sekisui-kama family kiln, whose real name is Yoichi Ito.
Neriage ware, characterized by beautiful delicate patterns, is produced by patching together many pieces, after making multiple layers of clay with different tones of reddish brown using Mumyoi ferric oxide clay.
Yohen ware is created by the use of different flame streams inside a wood-fired poriform kiln, with the portions directly hit by the flames turning blackish.
Explaining these unique techniques, Sekisui appears indifferent to protecting this kind of intellectual property by patent. But he thinks his recent accreditation as holder of an intangible cultural heritage may encourage other artists to model their own techniques on his.
“It would be rather delightful if people copy me. Being imitated would mean I’ve become competent enough,” he said.
“Each of my works has a different look. As a creator, I produce what satisfies me. The concept of a patent may not apply to what is not mass-produced,” he said.
Born in the town of Aikawa on Sado Island, Ito ascended to the title of fifth heir of Ito Sekisui in 1977 after graduating from the Kyoto Institute of Technology, where he studied the ceramics industry from 1962 to 1966.
His family kiln’s history began when Ito Tomisaburo founded the kiln during the Tempo Era (1830-1843) of the Edo Period. Sekisui is the name of the type of ceramic pottery made by his family.
Sekisui pottery has been highly praised, and royal families have purchased some of the Mumyoi ware from the Sekisui-kama kiln.
The colorful unglazed Mumyoi ware in which the present heir specializes has been praised not only at home but also abroad. Some pieces have been displayed at the Smithsonian Museum in the U.S. and in Britain’s National Victorian and Albert Museum, among other places.
The National Victorian and Albert Museum in London and the Berk Collection in the U.S. own some of his works, and Sekisui said he was told that a king from a Middle East country is thought to have bought one or two of his pieces.
Many public facilities own his works, including the Foreign Ministry, the National Museum of Modern Art and the Niigata Prefectural Government.
Sekisui presented a Mumyoi Yohen Tsubo vase as a wedding gift to the house of former Ambassador to the U.N. Hisashi Owada, a native of Niigata Prefecture, in 1993, when Owada’s daughter, Masako, became the Crown Princess.
Mumyoi ware by the earlier generations is also displayed at his exhibition house in Aikawa, together with his own works as well as products by his employees. Five or six employees produce Mumyoi ware tea sets, coffee cups, pots, vases and other items under Sekisui’s instructions, using the Sekisui-kama kiln.
As for the father-to-son transfer of the family kiln and the name Sekisui, he said he did not resist it. “I grew up thinking it natural for the eldest son to succeed. I just found myself doing this job.”
But Sekisui said he can’t tell whether his 25-year-old son, Hidetake, will assume the title of the sixth heir of Ito Sekisui.
“Children of the present day have less concern about family lines or succession. They are more individualist.”
But he happily related that his only son, after studying philosophy in college for four years, has learned the practical skills of pottery-making at other kilns — Shigaraki ware for two years in Shiga Prefecture and now Kutani ware in Ishikawa Prefecture.
As a tip for aspiring ceramists, Sekisui said that creating things requires comprehensive strengths — technique plus other human qualities beyond such skills.
“In that sense, I say, ‘Do play. Take pleasure.’ Speaking with wonderful people will be advantageous to creating works,” he said.
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