At the very end of the main street in Mashiko there is a three-way junction. To the right is the road to Kasama, a neighbouring town also known for its pottery; to the left, the Town Hall and the bus stop for the (very early) bus to Tokyo. Straight ahead is a quiet country lane that climbs gently round a wooded hill with views over the town of Mashiko. On the right one can see large and elegant thatched houses nestling amongst the trees. An archway underneath one such building leads to the compound of the renowned Japanese potter Shoji Hamada, now the workplace of his son, Shinsaku, and grandson, Tomoo. A little further along the road is the pottery that, until his passing in 2007, was the workplace of Tatsuzo Shimaoka, Hamada’s favoured pupil. Then, as if to complete the ‘family tree’, one comes to the home of Shimaoka’s own favoured apprentice: Ken Matsuzaki.

Apprenticeship is an important feature of ceramics in Japan. Students are required to regard the master with enormous respect and, at first, the life of the apprentice can be laborious, repetitive and subservient. During their residency, however, the student can absorb a great deal of whatever it is that makes the master a great potter. Often, it is a case of watching and digesting rather than being taught, and apprentices are expected to see their time with the master as both a privilege and an opportunity to hone a deeply ingrained discipline that will last a whole career. It is a relationship that could barely exist here in the West. The dynamics of the liaison are steeped in tradition in a country where traditions are seriously maintained and self-discipline is seen as a virtue above almost all others.

Matsuzaki 656 1 Bending the Rules of Tradition

As Matsuzaki writes (I have paraphrased a little):

‘As Shimaoka’s apprentice I had the responsibility of doing small tasks around his work space: cleaning the studio, acting as his driver, and even giving him massages three times a week…Because of my skill as a masseur, I always accompanied Shimaoka-sensei when he travelled away from his workplace for exhibitions in major Japanese cities or when he gave workshops overseas.

More than ceramic technique, from Shimaoka-sensei I learned philosophy, the necessary mental attitude when making art, and how to think about ceramics. The ability to do massage provided me with invaluable time to discuss these things with him since Shimaoka-sensei never allowed apprentices to ask questions while he was working.’

It is well-known amongst potters that those who apprentice often struggle to find their own voice. Sometimes they never quite succeed in breaking away and their work is tethered stylistically to the master forever. I can think of another apprentice to Shimaoka who, even after many years away from the hot flame, still limps along making weak pastiche and earning a living by association.

Matsuzaki wrote about just this dilemma – and again I have paraphrased just a little:

‘During the last two years of my apprenticeship I worked on creating ceramics for food and researched decorative motifs. By the time I finished my apprenticeship, I was able to make my own shapes with their own unique decoration.

About thirteen years after I became independent, a specialist from a foreign country saw my cobalt blue glaze and egret motif and commented that, to him, it looked like a copy of Shimaoka’s work.’

How that comment must have stung! I know very well that such criticism can wound deeply; but what marks out the courageous man from another is the reaction to a comment like that. For Matsuzaki, it triggered a long and self-searching period of thought about exactly what was his role in this ceramic world:

‘…Even if the motif on my jars was original, the similarities of shape and glaze proved that the degree of originality was minimal. For several years afterwards I spent all my time thinking about how to create a new way of working for myself and, in my fifteenth year of working independently, I decided to completely abandon everything in ceramics I had done thus far…’

Matsuzaki 760 1 copy Bending the Rules of Tradition

In 2004 I wrote that, ‘Matsuzaki’s lineage is as straightforward as the road that takes you to his home – from Hamada Shoji via Shimaoka Tatsuzo. Yet his pots display little that is obvious in the way of direct influence from either of his illustrious forebears.’ For over twenty years now Matsuzaki has trodden his own path, forged his own style, and has done what Bernard Leach said we must do in quoting William Blake, ‘to drive our wagons over the bones of the dead’ –to find one’s own way, one’s own voice. We potters have a responsibility to do just that. There is, in fact, little else as potters that we have left to do. People do not need our pots any more: there are many other purely functional alternatives. Pots are bought because people see and appreciate an artistic expression. They understand the contemplative role that a pot can play in their lives and view it in the same way that one might a painting or a sculpture.

On this subject Matsuzaki maintains a refreshingly modern and, some Japanese commentators might even say, slightly revolutionary stance. Ken is concerned first and foremost with beauty. He sees his role as a potter to make works that satisfy the eye first and the hand second. If a tea bowl functions as a tea bowl – if it meets all the exacting aesthetic and tactile requirements of the tea master – that’s important of course; but the bowl is also a stand-alone object that, aside of its function, should work as a visual composition.

In conversations with Ken the word ‘natural’ crops up rather a lot. In his work he is at pains to create objects that have an unpretentious, genuine quality. Yes, many of the underlying themes are driven by traditional forms: tea ceremony wares –Chawan, Mizusashi, Koro, Kogo – pots for Ikebana, pots for the presentation of food. But while he has taken function as his framework, he has, with utmost respect, bent the rules of tradition, loosened the bonds of convention, defied what might perhaps have been expected of him and created an oeuvre that is immediately recognisable as his own. That alone is a considerable achievement: to come through a five-year apprenticeship and then to take the courageous decision fifteen years into his career to abandon what was familiar and safe and surmount a whole new approach with such power, skill and subtlety is the mark of a great artist.

It is easy to find geological analogies to the natural world in Ken’s pieces: water reflecting on the surface of a rock, lichen, mosses, snow-capped peaks and volcanic fusion. What is also to be appreciated is that, as part of the daring and tumultuous change that took place all those years ago, he began to work far less at the potter’s wheel. Instead he chose to hand build many of his pieces – a much slower process, but one that gives the maker more time to think and to consider.

Much of what happens in nature happens slowly; so it is with Matsuzaki’s pots. First of all, the making is often a lengthy process. He has developed a coiling technique which allows him to coil build spiralling, somewhat eccentric closed form vases and even his square bottles. The large jars are also coiled with great similarity to the methods of the Ongii potters of Korea – only at the very end does he throw the neck and lip. Whilst in essence this method is slower than throwing on the wheel, Matsuzaki has become highly adept at this skill and works at speed to produce enough work to fire an enormous four-chamber wood-fired climbing kiln twice a year.

Here again the rhythm of his work cycle is evident. The firing takes place over seven days. Nothing is rushed, nothing forced. Where some might cheat by throwing into the hot kiln handfuls of fine wood ash, Matsuzaki prefers to build the surface of his pots with time and patience. I have fired with Ken in Mashiko, a privilege bestowed upon few, and can testify to the painstaking control that he brings to the firing.

Matsuzaki 726 1 copy Bending the Rules of Tradition

Ken is, in effect, painting with fire. He uses the alkaline vapours released by the heat of the fire together with the wood ash and carefully selected clays and slips to create surfaces with immense depth and colour. The firing of a four-chamber climbing kiln is a complicated modus operandi. Because of the extended length of the firing, the peak temperatures need not be as high as a shorter firing and for Ken it is important not to overfire. The atmosphere within the kiln is held in reduction for more than five days and the temperature kept static throughout the same period. At the end of the firing, Ken will introduce forty sacks of charcoal to bring about an extra strong reduction that turns the Shino glazes to a variegated, golden metallic surface and ensures that the rivulets of ash-induced glass are emerald green.

Matsuzaki is an experienced wood firer and to watch him make minor adjustments to the air intake to the kiln, the damper in the chimney, or making judgements about reduction or temperature balance is to watch a man totally self-possessed. Outwardly he is relaxed and manages the team of shift-working journeymen firers with a calm but authoritative air. He immediately knows if something is amiss and will intervene, but for the most part is content to watch and to gently steer until, on the sixth day, he is required to introduce the mounds of charcoal.

The fiery, constantly surging maelstrom which is the firebox of this large kiln creates zones of differing temperatures and atmosphere. Each chamber has its own character and produces pots of a very different nature. The last chamber, for instance, contains pots with an ash glaze all of which are later refired in oxidation to produce a form of yellow Seto glaze. The long firing uses two-and-a-half thousand bundles of wood, each one costing almost two pounds each. However, the length – and therefore the expense – of the firing is crucial to its success. Without this extreme and arduous timescale, the feldspars would lack the softness, the alabaster-like surface he requires. There would not be sufficient time for the movement of molten glass, or for the layers of colour and patina to develop on the surfaces of the various clay bodies. The firing is as near to geological action as one can get – thousands of years of heat and pressure encapsulated in seven days.

On 11th March 2011 Japan was devastated by its own geological catastrophe – an earthquake and resulting tsunami. Mashiko was badly affected and most of the climbing kilns, in a town whose lifeblood is pottery, were reduced to rubble. Workshops too were hit, and many precious artefacts, particularly at the Hamada Reference Museum, were smashed or badly damaged. Matsuzaki’s workshop was no exception: both wood-firing kilns were destroyed and had to be rebuilt. In the seven years hence, Mashiko has risen from this disaster, lives have resumed, and production has continued undiminished. Now we can see once more in the UK ceramics that are, in every way, world class from a man who is, in every sense of the word, a master of this craft of ours.

Phil Rogers