A visit to Fukawa Sonose is strangely calming. How does ceramic artist Takao Tahara, who was born and raised in the production area of Fukawa-Hagi and has inherited the historic kiln there, perceive and approach the world of Hagi ware? We delve into Takao’s personality and thoughts on ceramic making as reflected in his works.
Interview by Kyoko Tsutsumi
Takao Tahara Ceramic Artist
A cearmic artist living in Nagato City, Yamaguchi Prefecture, he was born and grew up in one of the Fukawa kilns of Hagi ware which has a long history. Based on the traditional style using daidotsuchi (clay that is produced in Daido, Yamaguchi Prefecture), he pursues his new way of glazing expressions.PROFILE
How did the Ryuhaku glaze, which has become synonymous with your work, come about?
There are three historic kiln sites in Sonose, and one can still find many pieces of ceramics scattered at the foot of the kilns. The fragments from that time often have a different texture than the current image of Hagi ware, and can evoke surprisingly new and different feelings as well. One of them had a coloring similar to that of Ryuhaku glaze.
The glaze that became the basis for the Ryuhaku glaze was originally one of the various glaze formulations that I was experimenting with to achieve a different glaze tone. But it didn’t work very well at the time, so I gave up halfway through and left that glaze unused for a while. Then, when I was working on something completely different, I tried firing it with that glaze partially applied, and it happened to produce a good coloring, and a number of people told me, “This is very good.” Pursuing it further on my own, I noticed that the glaze tone was similar to an old piece of ceramics that I had seen before, and eventually I ended up with the current Ryuhaku glaze. Following that unexpected discovery, things rolled out smoothly to where it is today.
Please tell us about the history of Fukawa-Hagi and Tahara Tohbe Studio.
Around the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868), the then lord of the Hagi domain invited the brothers Yi Chak-kwang and Yi Kyong, who were potters from Korea, to make pottery in his domain. This was the beginning of Hagi ware. About 50 years later, many craftsmen moved to Sonose, culminating in the founding of a new branch kiln when the grandson of Yi Chak-kwang moved to Sonose and established the Sonose Yakimono Studio in 1657. This is said to mark the beginning of the Hagi-Fukawa kiln.
Tahara Tohbe Studio was founded by Akagawa Sukezaemon, who moved to Sonose from a family of disciples of Yi Chak-kwang. At the end of the Edo period, one of Akagawa’s descendants took the family name of the Tahara family, a samurai family in the area. In the Meiji period (1868-1912), he took the name “Tohbe” and began his career as a ceramic artist. Everyone in this district was like that, making ceramics for the clan throughout the Edo period, but shifting to work as individual artists after the clan’s patronage ceased in the Meiji period.
How have you been dealing with the idea of taking over a kiln with such a long history of Hagi ware?
I have never been very good at expressing myself, so I used to think that maybe I wasn’t suited for taking over the kiln, but after I decided to go on to art school, I started to think that I would have to give it a more serious attempt. However, I also felt that if I was going to devote my long term career to ceramics, I wanted to do something that I could only do now. So, when I was in college, I also made sculptures out of metal. At the time, I didn’t think it would lead to anything at all, but now I think it was not a detour. The tool motif series was born from this experience, and I came to realize my own preferences for linear, architectural, and sharply contoured forms through the use of other materials.
My grandfather Tohbe Tahara, the 12th generation head of the family died when I was in elementary school, so I have not been able to see much of his work. So, what I have seen a lot is my father’s work. But I feel like if I keep doing the same thing I will end up copying my father, so I have a desire to move away from that. On the other hand, when I look at the works I have completed so far, I still feel that I am influenced by my father in some ways. In both good and bad ways, I think my father’s work has become my standard.
My father went to Karatsu for training, and he said, “It was a good opportunity for me to take a closer look at the work of people other than my own father.” Similarly, I went to Mino for training, but when I actually started work here, there were some times when the way of doing things in Mino gave me hints of how to approach things, and there were also times when various values were reversed. So I think that it is indeed an interesting experience to see work in other production areas and at other artists’ places.
In Mino, you studied under Seiya Toyoba. Did that have any influence on you?
Master Toyoba, who creates in Seto-guro and Shino styles, is the last disciple of Toyozo Arakawa. His way of doing things is totally different from that in Hagi, and his sense of value and his way of expression are also different. The other day I saw his solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Ceramic Art, Gifu, for the first time in a while, and I thought, yes, I knew this was really good. I tend to make things very precise, but his work is rather rough. It’s cool to see how beautifully that slightly broken-up look is executed. Doing that is difficult for me – although I admire it, I can’t quite achieve it. He is a ceramic artist, but he also likes to work with wood, making wooden lids for vessels he has made, and making tea scoops for his own use out of old wood that he has around him. He is playful and has an ideal style for being a ceramic artist. I tend to be influenced by various things around me, but he is not like that at all. He is always creating what he is interested in. I think that is really fun.
Please tell us about any noteworthy experiences you have had at exhibitions abroad.
2018 was a year when various events were being held to celebrate the 160th anniversary of the establishment of Japanese-France relations, including an exhibition of Jakuchu Ito in Paris and a Kabuki performance. Right around that time, we had the opportunity to hold a tea ceremony and exhibit some of my works inside the Eiffel Tower. I also gave lectures at the City Hall of Lyon and the Université Grenoble Alpes. Although Hagi ware has a history of 400 years, it is not unusual to find things of that age in France. I did not just say that Hagi ware is great because it is old, but because it is a cultural pottery that has grown up together with the culture of tea, I could tell how it has been used, and they accepted it well. I felt that French people are very interested in culture.
What do you think is the charm of Hagi ware?
I think people often have a general image of Hagi ware, but surprisingly, while Hagi ware may seem to be set in stone, in fact it is not. Various new styles of Hagi ware are being created now, and all are accepted. I think this is the foundation on which Hagi ware is established. I think that the people who make Hagi ware and the people who use it are all very kind-hearted. I think it is very good that Hagi ware is built on such a spirit that is accepting of new things.
There are both good and bad aspects to this, but right now there are no new young artists coming from outside to begin a career in Hagi ware. We have always been involved in the family business of ceramic making, but these are the only people who are making Hagi ware. I think that Hagi ware made by people who come to Hagi from outside because they are attracted to it will be a work that is uniquely Hagi. However, the current image of Hagi ware is that which had been created by our parents’ generation, so we have to think about how to create something new from there. Therefore, while what the younger generation creates is still Hagi ware, it is not quite the typical Hagi ware of the past. But again, I hope that this will also become a new draw for Hagi ware.