Takeshi Imaizumi’s works are beautiful. Behind the one-of-a-kind, self-taught expression that he has mastered by jumping into the royal path of the Chinese ceramics known as Celadon and Tenmoku, which many ceramic artists have tried to follow, lies his earnest pursuit of beautiful ceramics.
We asked Takeshi, who is approaching maturity as an artist, about his thoughts on ceramics while looking back on his career to date.
Interview by Kyoko Tsutsumi
Takeshi Imaizumi Ceramic Artist
Takeshi Imaizumi is a ceramic artist based in Saitama Prefecture. He began making pottery while still a university student, and after graduating he went to Tajimi in Gifu Prefecture for further technical study before establishing his own studio. He has been working diligently to produce his own works, focusing on Tenmoku and Celadon. While learning from masterpieces such as those from the Song Dynasty in China, he continues to test new glaze formulations and firing techniques in pursuit of an expression uniquely his own.PROFILE
How did you spend your childhood and school age years? What were your interests and encounters with pottery?
I was a child who loved to draw. I drew pictures and cartoons. I had no experience with ceramics, but since my father was from Saga Prefecture, most of the tableware we used at home was simple Arita ware. My father would tell me, “This is good stuff.” One of my father’s relatives was a specialized painter for Arita ware, so I had the opportunity to try my hand at painting on ceramics. What I painted was not a traditional pattern, but a cartoon character, Bikkuri-man. (Laughs)
When I was in high school, I was often late to school, and when I was, they wouldn’t let me into the classroom until after first period. On those occasions, I would go to the library just inside the school gate and spend my time reading books until the end of first period. There was a magazine called Bessatsu Taiyo in the magazine section, and I used to read it a lot. There I saw some tea bowls, such as Chojiro’s Black Tea Bowl. Before then, the only image I had of ceramics was Arita ware, so I thought, “What is this pitch-black stuff? It’s so cool.” I guess this was the first time I became interested in ceramics.
You joined a ceramics club at university. Please tell us about the works you were making then and how you came to work with Celadon and Tenmoku, which are the main focus of your current production.
I started out with an interest in Black Raku, so when I was a freshman, I was making Black Oribe and other types of ceramics. The leader of the club at that time was Akio Niisato, who was a junior at the time. Niisato-san is now known for his white porcelain, but at that time he was working in Celadon. He was very stoic about it. We used a kerosene kiln in the club, and it was very difficult to successfully achieve reduction firing, which is best suited for Celadon, in a kerosene kiln. It was a tough process that often went wrong. So my admiration for Celadon was both for the work itself and for the stoic attitude in producing it.
When I was a sophomore at college, I went to see the “Masterpieces of Chinese Ceramics” exhibition at the Sezon Museum of Art in Ikebukuro, Tokyo. There, the “Yuteki Tenmoku” tea bowl from the collection of the Museum of Oriental Ceramics was on display. It was in a case and sparkling, and I thought to myself, “There’s an amazing piece!” Until then, I liked Raku and Oribe, and did not think Chinese ceramics were good, nor did I want to work with them. I saw it as something that my seniors were doing. You might say that it was at such a time that I actually saw “Yuteki Tenmoku” and was pulled in a different direction from Momoyama ware. That is why I still go to see this “Yuteki Tenmoku” every once in a while. When I see it I feel as if I want to say, “Hi, it’s been a long time,” or “I’m still working hard on my ceramics.” (Laughs) My impression of it hasn’t changed much. No matter how many times I see it, it always looks as sparkling as it did when I first saw it. There was also a slightly smaller Celadon tea bowl called “Mangetsu,” which means “Full Moon,” which was also great. After this exhibition, both Celadon and Tenmoku became much more a part of my ceramics. So I looked up how to make glazes in a glaze book and told myself, “Let’s give it a try.” That is how I started.
What do you find interesting about ceramics, and what do you think is important when making ceramics?
I believe that the transformation of clay and glaze through firing is the greatest charm and beauty of ceramics. The form is also important, as beauty can be achieved through a beautiful upright posture and even when viewed from the side. Recently, I have been conscious of loosening up. The most natural shape on the potter’s wheel is one that opens up. I think the most graceful shape comes from the part that opens up. That’s why I want to throw bowls and tea bowls with a sense of freedom so that the bowls have a sense of relaxed openness.
Is there anything that has left an impression on you as you continue to hold exhibitions?
In 2014, I had a two-person exhibition with Niisato-san in Fukuoka, and his porcelain hotaru-de or “firefly style” pieces were just simply beautiful. If there were ten people, all ten would recognize them as beautiful at first sight. So when we did the exhibition together, I thought that such “simple beauty” is very powerful. It’s not about having “flavor,” “depth,” “complexity,” or any of that. So I decided to make beautiful things in black if Akio was making them in white. Something beautiful in black that can compete with Akio Niisato’s white works. Something that can make you feel its beauty instantly and continue to appreciate it as you look at it over time. I wanted to achieve that kind of thing with Tenmoku.
Have the types of works that are sought after or appreciated in ceramics, as well as your own pursuit of the ideal piece, changed over time?
One thing that was clear was that when I held my solo exhibition in 2017, there were many visitors who had come after seeing the “Chanoyu – The Arts of Tea Ceremony, The Essence of Japan” exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum. The exhibition layout was well-designed to resonate with people who might be interested in Tenmoku, so it was easy to understand why people were interested in my Tenmoku pieces. At around that time, Tenmoku was also featured in magazines, and its popularity started to rise. So, I think I was lucky that the timing was right. I wasn’t doing Tenmoku just because it was popular or it seemed like it would become popular. I had been self-taught since my university days, so I had been able to develop my own style and create pieces with a story behind them. That’s why I’m still able to do it today, I think.
Do you have any memorable experiences from your interactions with customers or gallery owners?
I have many memories from the early 2010s when I started doing solo exhibitions at galleries such as Kakiden Gallery and the Nihonbashi Mitsukoshi department store in Tokyo. It was a time when people gave me a lot of feedback and opinions on my work, probably because I was young and inexperienced. For example, I remember when Seizo Hayashiya, an honorary curator of the Tokyo National Museum, visited my exhibition and gave me brief but meaningful praise. His simple phrase “This is good” made me think, “What is it about this piece that he likes?” When someone bought my work, it made me really happy because it meant they thought it was worth it. Gradually, I gained more confidence in my work. But I still couldn’t get the general public to pick up my works at all. Perhaps it was because all of my works were too conceptual. Even the award-winning black-glazed piece at the “Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition” in 2009 left me wondering, “It’s beautiful, but so what?” Looking back, I was probably trying to show off my skills by adding some tricks and techniques to my work like “Let’s add this one special thing.” It was probably because I was young back then. But I learned that it’s not necessary to add some kind of gimmick or trick. Maybe that’s where I changed, as I received feedback from people like Hayashiya-san, I gradually found the right balance between what I want to do, what I should do, and what others can appreciate. My Tenmoku pieces have improved over time, and at my third solo exhibition at Kakiden Gallery in 2015, I received a lot of positive feedback from customers. Since my first solo exhibition in 2011, the number of customers has gradually increased, and I was hoping to sell more. When I actually did, I remember driving back home feeling overjoyed.
Until then, my senior colleagues who were successfully working would say to me, “It’s your turn to sell yourself now, Imazumi.” And I would reply with a laugh, “I don’t think I can sell myself.” I used to think that if I won awards, I would become popular. But in reality, that’s not the case. Winning awards might give you opportunities for exhibitions, but from there on out, it’s up to your own ability and performance. Saying that something will “sell” is easy, but I really came to understand that it has nothing to do with awards and that what matters is something that people will pick up and think is “good.”
What do you think Kogei, craftsmanship, is?
I think it’s about the material, and taking an honest or straightforward approach in using it to its fullest potential. Don’t force anything. Each material is suited to its own shape and purpose, and if you try to force it, it will end up being awkward. Going with the flow of the materials is more correct or reasonable. This applies to lacquer and glass as well. There was a time when ceramic artists were trying to do everything themselves, and there were a lot of strange ceramics. Even though they were still ceramics, there were works that seemed to be forcing it. However, I think that’s not what it’s about. Craftsmanship is first about the material, and then about creating naturally or honestly with that material. I think that’s what it’s all about.