Bridged by the Love of Clay

Trace the connection between artists in Japan, England, and the U.S. Midwest

Square Dish, Shōji Hamada, 1961-1964, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
Kanzan from "The Laughing Monk" series, Akio Takamori, 2006, From the collection of: The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art
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Shōji Hamada (1894–1978) and Akio Takamori (1950–2017) are two ceramic artists from Japan. Their works may look radically different, but they are connected by deep friendships between American, British, and Japanese artists who shared a love of clay.

Square Dish (1961-1964) by Shōji HamadaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Shōji Hamada made pottery for daily use, like plates, bowls, and jars.

This plate with a sugarcane motif embodies his style: unpretentious form and decoration, quickly applied glaze, and appreciation of undulation and irregularity.

He moved his hands quickly. You can see the traces of how fast he moved in these diagonal lines

and the droplets of light-brownish glaze.

Hamada had a total control over clay. As the potter’s wheel turned and clay moved on it, his hands were in sync with the twirling clay.  

In the early 1920s, Hamada spent three years with his dear British friend Bernard Leach (1887–1979) in St. Ives, U.K. They made useful pottery together. They experimented with local clays and glazes, putting on big rubber boots and exploring the countryside with a shovel. Hamada said that after living “in the British countryside, my body and soul learned the beauty of living in rural area.” When he returned to Japan, he decided to settle in the ceramic town of Mashiko and open a workshop.

Stoneware Jar (1961-1964) by Shōji HamadaThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

 When Hamada moved to Mashiko, he continued harvesting his clays and glazes from land nearby. 

You can see the bare clay around this foot. It's dark brown and grainy. 

This orange-brown “persimmon” glaze on the black-glazed body was one of Hamada’s favorites.

Hamada and other potters in his circle were inspired by traditional ceramics across the globe, especially from Korea and China. Hamada's lifelong friend Yanagi Muneyoshi (also Sōestu, 1889–1961) was the foremost advocate for handmade works, as opposed to machine-made objects. He wrote about his philosophy Mingei (people’s art), which emphasized the beauty of utilitarian objects with a simple design, made of local materials.

Leach and Hamada’s works conveyed Yanagi’s ideas beyond their immediate circle. The Potter’s Book (1940) by Leach inspired emerging artists, including a Kansas City-born American potter named Warren MacKenzie (1924–2018). MacKenzie and his wife Alix moved to St. Ives to apprentice under Leach. They soon met Hamada and Yanagi.

Bottle (2002) by Warren MacKenzieThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Warren MacKenzie’s works were made for use. He explained, “the sensuous, tactile qualities of clay and glaze can be understood in a manner which is different from the more distantly observed appreciation of a painting or piece of sculpture.”

Bottle (2002) by Warren MacKenzieThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Like Hamada, MacKenzie believed in the significance of affordable, unpretentious, well-made ceramics that enrich daily lives.

This bottle's rich, soft white glaze closely resembles Japanese Shino glaze, which has been used in Japan since the 1500s.

But its transparency and sleek texture displays the artist’s modern twist on the traditional style.

The MacKenzies devoted themselves to creating and promoting functional ceramics in the U.S. They invited Hamada, Leach, and Yanagi to visit the United States in 1952. The tour Alix MacKenzie organized provided American artists with first-hand exposure to the philosophy and practice the trio advocated. It inspired a new generation of U.S. potters—like the MacKenzies' friend Ken Ferguson (1928-2004).

Slump Jar (1982) by Kenneth FergusonThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Ken Ferguson appreciated masterful skill and material knowledge—the essential technical proficiency Hamada, Leach, and MacKenzie advocated. 

Slump Jar (1982) by Kenneth FergusonThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Ferguson adopted various visual vocabularies, including the ranging texture and sense of spontaneity often seen on Japanese ceramics.

Although Ferguson made useful pottery, he also created non-functional pieces as he “enjoy[ed] the versatility” of clay. Ferguson was an influential teacher at the Kansas City Art Institute. The school was an incubator for emerging ceramic artists, including Akio Takamori. When he apprenticed in Japan, Takamori was trained to be a highly productive, efficient potter. But he was looking for a “creative training.” With Ferguson’s support, he made a leap from Japan to “open up my area to be creative” in Kansas City.

Kanzan from "The Laughing Monk" series (2006) by Akio TakamoriThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Takamori searched for his own identity as he manipulated clay. He created sculptures that embody Japan’s “broader, collective cultural memory.”  This widely smiling sculpture of Kanzan (Hanshan in Chinese) is a good example.

Kanzan was a Chinese poet-recluse who may have lived sometime around the early 800s.  Takamori grew up seeing paintings of Kanzan and his friend Jittoku (Shide in Chinese). Here, his Kanzan looks animated with his open mouth and blushing cheeks.

Takamori had full knowledge and control over his materials, just as Hamada and his friends advocated through their works and on their tour of the U.S. 

These layers of multiple colors result from a slow process, which involved repeated adjustments and firing. 

Takamori turned his technical mastery away from practical ceramics and towards experiments in self-expression. 

He said, “I get satisfaction out of using my hand and creating something,” embracing his love of clay just as much as his predecessors.

Though they may never have met, Shōji Hamada and Akio Takamori are bound by a series of friendships and a love of clay.

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