Takeshi Yasuda has established a remarkable and enduring reputation across the world as a potter and teacher of great imagination and integrity.
Fifty years of making and still ‘I love the clay’ – his enthusiasm is infectious. Many people have been influenced by his inventive, thoughtful approach, with his words of encouragement and innovation remaining fresh in their minds for decades.
I have been fortunate over the years to hear Yasuda speak many times about his thinking and making and have often wondered about the source of such ability. How did it start –this imagination, engagement, dedication, this nurturing of a remarkable talent?
Born in 1943 and raised in Japan, Yasuda recognises clear moments in his childhood where important learning occurred, serendipitously and unconsciously. ‘Like a first love’, from a treasured but faded photograph peers the soft round face of his kindergarten teacher Midori. The kindergarten director, Kobayashi Munesaku, was the initiator of Eurythmics education in Japan. Based on the work of Swiss educator Emile Jaques-Dalcroze, this method combined rhythmic bodily movements, aural training, and vocal or instrumental improvisation and was accompanied also by progressive ideas in art education. Later, in primary school, a unique and influential teacher encouraged creative writing about any subject. How fortunate to take first steps into learning governed by such free thinking.
Yasuda’s elderly father came from a working-class and not particularly intellectual background – employed as a pioneering photographer and then, during the Second World War, a recording engineer. Though more technician than artist, his photography magazines supplied Yasuda with the opportunity to observe the work of many great practitioners such as Edward Weston, and through this experience to recognise the essence of personality, timing, and imagination in particular images: a kind of magic. Photographic equipment lay around the home – along with easy access to dark rooms – and as a young man, Yasuda always carried a camera. Mechanically minded and bored at school, he picked them up in the search for ‘something interesting to do and just because they were there’. Complex and manual, these cameras provoked experiments with light, aperture speeds and composition. Thus developed an unconscious recognition – unusual in such a young man – that although technique was essential, there was more to art than skill alone.
Takeshi Yasuda is ‘a hammer and plier kind of person’ –always interested in the mechanical world and known fondly by some as ‘the handyman’ because of his many invented machines – so it was a natural step to assume that he would study engineering. An unsuccessful attempt to enter Mechanical Engineering, one of the most difficult courses in Japan, led to suggestions of art and industrial product design. Interested, but lacking in the necessary preparation, Yasuda joined an introductory high school art class. ‘It was alarming and difficult – I didn’t have the background or belong to the art community…I had to catch up quickly and learn to understand this new language of drawing.’ Gradually academic drawing gave way to more profound realisations about the objects he was tasked with describing: ‘It was the understanding of 3D volume that was the most moving experience, and which permanently changed my view of the world.’
After eight months of study, Yasuda travelled with a group of friends around Northern Japan, finishing almost by chance with a visit to the pottery village of Mashiko. It was an exciting time for the community. Through the influence of Shoji Hamada, and in the wake of post-war societal change, the town was enjoying a period of expansion, moving from the production of traditional kitchenware to more experimental pots for Tokyo restaurants and craft shops. Intrigued particularly by kick wheel throwing and determined to experience this himself, Yasuda returned later to work for two weeks in a family studio: ‘I knew after that, that I would be a potter…’ Several short visits followed until eventually the family agreed to take him on as an apprentice. Yasuda was nineteen.
Apprenticeships in Japan rarely encompass lesson-based teaching, so clarity of intent and a drive to learn was paramount. For Yasuda, a clear understanding governed this time: that in throwing, though skill is essential, the wheel is ultimately a tool of expression, not just production. After two years he was provided a free studio and multi-chambered wood kiln. Working alone led gradually to a more managerial role, with assistants making production and one-off pieces. There followed the eventual realisation of a need, personally, to focus on one type of work, and at this juncture Yasuda moved to England.
Shifting between cultures is a dynamic experience, presenting a confronting focus on assumed understandings of the familiar in life. For Takeshi, being surrounded now by engineering history – the entire chronicles of British mechanisation – was fascinating in itself, but also accompanied by an anthropological awareness that fundamentally affected his pottery making. Immersed in European rituals about the preparation, presentation, and consumption of food, his attention turned towards the customs of the table top: eating as the basis of family structure, relationships, and social communication.
Functional ceramic objects are some of the most centrally placed possessions in our lives. They lie quietly, familiar, mute and often disregarded, until a particular need draws them suddenly and importantly to centre stage. Each one asks to be touched, embraced by hands, enfolded by fingers, enjoined in ritual and symbolism, all the while prompting imaginative travel across time and cultures. The making and use of functional wares has always been a key interest for Yasuda, where questions hover around their definition as objects and custom collides with the user’s imagination.
Japanese food is generally served as appetising but isolated morsels atop small dishes, with relationships between food and carrier carefully selected for their intersections of colour and texture. Here, the large serving dish is not important, and even not entirely understood. By contrast, the presentation of Western food entwines drama with sharing and eating. Large, purpose-made serving plates set the scene for ceremony and the theatrical rituals of carving and participation.
For Yasuda, these comparisons provoked the exploration of a world of experimental presentation dishes where even weight was of no concern – ‘so long as food could be placed and two hands could lift.’ Fantastic and unusual objects appeared with extraordinary handles and features. The most celebrated of the pots from this time were made in ‘Sansai’ stoneware with copper and manganese glazes flowing onto a cream surface. These are pots of great presence and ingenuity, beckoning to be treasured, touched, and inviting the imagination to fill them with bounteous feasts.
Life in the UK brought many important concerns – self-sufficiency; new materials; time for re-evaluation; even a sense of novelty as a Japanese potter in a foreign land – but always at the heart of Yasuda’s thinking lay a determination to avoid the pitfalls of fashion: ‘To try to please other people’s expectations, this is a dangerous thing…something that every artist faces. Pressure comes in all sorts of ways… You must assess if this is reality or a trap: you must not be afraid to experiment.’
Important opportunities to teach and research arrived that both provided essential income and facilitated learning and discovery. For Yasuda, teaching was an invigorating process, ‘working with and observing students’ as they developed. His own apprenticeship had presented an opportunity for intuitive learning in the absence of instruction; this teaching practice required a more conscious understanding of creative processes and the development of imaginative thought. The subversion of assumptions; the brainstorming of possibilities; the triggering of questions and ideas, plus the use of the wheel in an unconventional way: all rapidly became characteristic of both Takeshi Yasuda’s teaching and making practice.
From the moment of birth, repetition and practice leads to bodily learning – the training of muscles to unconsciously understand and absorb movement.
The standard scenario of making a cup and then adding a handle became the making of a handle first and then a cup to suit it. Unattached, the handle was, as if suspended in air, waiting to elicit new experiments and have its placement freshly examined. Gravity too – the controller of all of our lives – is investigated here, leading to new and unexpected possibilities. The usual formula is to allow the process of making on the wheel to dictate the order of construction –firstly the bowl and then the foot. Yasuda questions all such patterns. Finished objects are inverted, even actually thrown upside down with inventive techniques developed specifically to this end. A large bowl begins life initially as a flat dish, suspended over the wheel and thrown downwards in reverse, the final result emerging freshly sprung and full of life. A vase, expertly thrown, handsome, tall, and well controlled, reaches upwards like a dancer before being coaxed to fold and collapse softly downwards – the sort of movement feared by most potters. Removed on a bat from the wheel, the form is then hung upside down and gently shaken out like some favourite rumpled linen shirt and left to set and dry – such an innovative celebration of skill, expression, and understanding of this wonderful material.
From the moment of birth, repetition and practice leads to bodily learning – the training of muscles to unconsciously understand and absorb movement. A musician learns where to instinctively place fingers, a bow, even a breath. Just as in singing where the air is moved through the body to produce sound, so clay on the wheel is manipulated, moulded, caressed, driven and shaped in intimate connection to the body. With time and practice, the body discerns instinctively, even without vision, the thickness of a wall, the weight, the depth and quality of the material and the edges of possibility that lie in wait. The repetitive making of particular forms, so similar to the practice of a musician, enables the absorption of the object itself into muscular memory – appearing even as if to make itself – and facilitates a deeper exploration of its expression. Watching Yasuda, such a skilful, intimate, fluent and personally expressive connection to his work is immediately apparent.
A decade in China has presented Yasuda with new challenges. Jingdezhen porcelain, a clay of such breath-taking beauty, but ‘like a mistress’ – entrancing, difficult, secretive, always just out of reach – this material requires careful understanding, empathy, the emptying of previous knowing from the mind and an ability to merge and work from within. The fired material is soft, pure, luminous and translucent –almost like milky glass, and so evocative of the centuries old ‘white gold’ reputation – but is tricky, unpredictable, almost devious in character at the making stages. The work that has emerged here is as experimental as ever. Large bowls with edges formed upside down by the weight of falling clay play with fragile tearing: they are made by hands, and yet no finger mark remains. Rich gold fills their interior – perhaps hinting at past reputations – gently held within softly melting meringue-like boundaries. Long sweeping, suspended dishes ache for bounty to lay upon them, their material challenges, design, manipulation and firing practices all absorbed, dissolved and rendered invisible. Tall vases reach upwards with necks reversed – energetic, sensual, vigorous, and as if with outward reaching arms, their filaments activating and enlivening the surrounding space.
There is a relaxed confidence inherent in this work, the result of decades of innovative experimentation and dedicated work. Here now stands an exciting invitation – to wonder and to admire these miraculous, playful objects.
Prue Venables, Melbourne, Australia