Story and Photos
by Aoyama Wahei at EY-NET
Tamba potter Ichino Masahiko
We often search for heroes. As fans of pottery, we long for great pots. Yet even if quality pots are first on our list of wishes, we also long for potters with charisma and personality, for characters who not only make extraordinary works, but are larger-than-life. Why? Simply because such special persons spark our imaginations and help us dream.
Yet poor Tamba, one of the original Rokkoyo (Six Old Kilns of Japan) had been left behind, without a hero to jump-start its popularity or status within the ceramic arts scene. Yet no longer must Tamba wait. Ceramist Ichino Masahiko has single-handedly become the New Wave of Tamba, and it is not exaggeration to say that he has become the impetus for a renewed interest in this ancient kiln site.
Kiln sites wax and wane with the emergence of heroes. Kaneshige Toyo, a man with not only exceptional talent, but amazing flair and character (this is a man who literally ate mud to test the quality of clay before use), jump-started Bizen's unparalleled popularity in the 20th century: just go to a Kakurezaki Ryuichi exhibition and one can see the cult of Bizen drooling at the door. Shigaraki wares have virtuosos in Tsuji Seimei or Tsujimura Shiro. Echizen has Kumano Kurouemon, while Mino wares have Suzuki Goro. Even aside from the Six Kilns, Hagi has the Miwa family (now somewhat infamous due to the recent experiments of Miwa Kyusetsu XII), while Karatsu has the Nakazato clan and a new hero in Nakagawa Jinenbo. Mashiko had Living National Treasure Hamada Shoji and Kamoda Shoji, the epitome of rock star fame, with that tragic blend of imaginative pots, cult following, and premature death. For more on all these styles, please see our Guidebook.
Ichino Masahiko, in the words of talented young ceramist Kako Katsumi, is "the potter who will carry the weight of Japanese pottery on his shoulders." That's quite a statement. When I first heard Kako speak such praise for Ichino, I did not give it much thought. Kako is a humble man, and finds it imperative at times to send gratuitous accolades to his elder contemporaries. I was not familiar with Ichino's work, yet had heard he had received the Grand Prize at the Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition in 1995 at the young age of 34. That is no small feat, as the biennial event pits hundreds of potters against one another in its competition division. To come out on top, one's work (only one can be entered) must catch the eye and recognition of a panel of judges comprised of the top ceramic potters and experts in the country. In other words, the Grand Prize at the Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition is one of the highest awards a potter can receive. Quite simply, the award makes careers.
Yet this, in no way, means that all potters who receive the award can pierce the heart with moving works. Rather, such potters are few. Perhaps this is why I was skeptical upon hearing Kako's high mention of Ichino. Upon meeting Ichino and his work on a brisk November day, I changed my mind. Ichino's rising popularity is not on behalf of awards or accolades, but on what truly matters -- his work. Ichino Masahiko makes Tamba with an unique urban sensibility, a sensibility that has taken old-fashioned Tamba into the modern age.
What immediately strikes the viewer upon seeing Ichino's work is his unconventional, post-modern style that calls to mind the revolutionary works of the Sodeisha, Suzuki Goro, and most recognizably, Kamoda Shoji. Tamba originated as an everyday peasant's ware and has never been on the cutting edge of fashion. Ichino's works, however, are exactly that -- fashionable. This could be a petty thing, meaning a work of art that is simply a trend or fad, easily forgotten and perhaps at best, forgotten. Ichino's works eschew such criticism.
The reasons for this are many. Observing Ichino's Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition award-winning pot, titled "Kai", is evidence of this. As regards form, "Kai" has a sleek, seductive shape. Its streaming silhouette, at once striking, even sexy, is formed by hand pinching, whereas only the base is formed on a potter's wheel. The aerodynamic, delicate touch can surely put a smile on NASA's face. Yet Ichino's prowess is even more evident in the fact that this modern silhouette is uncontrived; its form is at once simple and flows naturally, whereas some other potters' attempts at a similar style will fail from being blatantly intentional.
Not only this, Ichino's color scheme is also simple, yet vivid. The contrasts he uses between a charcoal black and an orange red catch the eye and leave a certain freshness in the mind. It is even more impressive in the fact that this palette is not created by glaze, but by a meticulous, pain-staking process of etching tiny crevices into the surface of the base clay, rubbing certain colored clay into the crevices, then firing, then rubbing another color clay over the piece again, and then firing once more, while applying salt water to areas where he wants red. This technique is both sublime and ingenious, for he achieves colors that do not kill the texture of the base clay by suffocating it with over glaze. "Kai" embodies Ichino's care for form and color, and at the same time, fully illustrates his respect for the clay of Tamba.
Ichino Masahiko was born the 2nd son of Ichino Shinsui, a Tamba potter who makes traditional tea wares. His elder brother, who recently became Ichino Shinsui II, was predestined to take over the family kiln. Due to the existence of an elder sibling, Ichino was free to do as he liked. "I think this is a major reason why I was able to become independent and start my own kiln, as well as freeing my imagination with ideas that are different from traditional ones."
After finishing high school, Ichino entered the Saga Institute of Art, wherein he learned simple pottery techniques from the same teacher as Kako. "All I did during those two years was to go out every night and have as much fun as I could. I did no work!" laughs Ichino. "But when I was nearing graduation, I looked around to see that all my peers had figured out where to go after college, be it to apprentice under a master, or to return home to their family kiln. I had no place to go, so for a while I just sat in the library all day and read books on pottery to pass time. As I was flipping through pages, I encountered Imai Masayuki-sensei's works for the very first time. I thought to myself, 'I'm going to study under Imai-sensei.'"
It was also during the idle times in the library wherein Ichino was initiated with Kamoda Shoji and Suzuki Goro's work, which undoubtedly left an enormous impression on the young man. This is most probably why the modern styles of Ichino's works exhibit a respectful, loving ode to these huge figures in pottery. "I'm just a fan, like everybody else," says Ichino. To Ichino, Kamoda and Suzuki are his very own rock stars.
For five years, Ichino learned from Kyoto-based Imai what he calls the most fundamental requirement of being a potter: heart. "For those five years, Imai-sensei didn't teach me a thing about spinning a wheel and so forth. What Imai-sensei did teach me was on how to be a good human being. His lessons are still with me today."
After his apprenticeship under Imai, Ichino returned to the Ichino family kiln, wherein he learned the actual techniques and traditions of Tamba from his father Shinsui. Two years after returning to Tamba, he left home to build his own kiln as an independent ceramist. Seven years after building his kiln, Ichino was awarded the above-mentioned Grand Prize.
Months before the actual exhibition, however, the Great Hanshin Earthquake shook Kobe, a city in the Tamba region, ultimately taking nearly 5,000 lives. This catastrophe hit Ichino hard, both physically and psychologically. Day in and day out, Ichino volunteered in relief efforts in Kobe, and couldn't afford to spend time preparing a piece to send to the Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition. Yet with what little time he had to give, Ichino formed and fired the piece that would eventually take the Grand Prize.
"Winning the Grand Prize was something I never expected, and the aftermath of receiving the award was an enormous feeling of pressure that I did not expect as well. The attention I began to receive was tremendous, so tremendous in fact that I began to feel as though the whole art world was watching my every move as a potter. At that moment, the flow of creativity that had been pouring out of me with great momentum stopped. When making a piece, all the experiences that I had accumulated in my life are compressed within my body, and they pour out of me into the clay I mold. But to be honest, for several years after winning, the things that I had built up seemed to have left me. In reality, my mind was suffocating my own creativity."
It is hard to believe that a talented ceramist like Ichino could have bouts of potter's block. But at that point in life where he was constantly watched, he could no longer have fun and do as he pleased. "What is the point of making pottery if I don't derive pleasure from it," Ichino asks.
"The earth of Tamba had been used for 800 years. I feel the presence of those that came before me in the clay I choose to use. There's history to Tamba. And with the personality of the clay underneath my feet, combined with the experiences I've had, all allow me to have conversations with Tamba clay. This is part of the fun. And no pleasure means that there is no meaning. After winning the Grand Prize, such was the predicament I found myself in. The clay would no longer talk to me."
Ichino sounds dead serious as he talks of 'talking' to clay, yet quickly lets out a chuckle and says, "what I just said sounds a bit funny, doesn't it." Perhaps, but with Ichino, it sounds just as convincing.
"When I was younger, I was selfish and wanted to manipulate the clay and control it. I wanted it to turn into what I envisioned in my mind, let it be with glaze or through a certain shape. Yet when you really think about the history of Tamba and the beautiful clay it produces, one must understand that you cannot be selfish with such clay. You have to communicate with it and work together. A person cannot try to control the clay, or it will stop talking."
Ichino talks to his pieces for quite a while at a time, as he spends hours, sometimes days, on a single piece, a single detail. "Yes, to achieve the right form might take a while, as well as getting the color scheme the way I want it is also time-consuming, as I have to fire the piece a number of times to get it right. But these are things that are, in a way, on the surface and are easily apparent. What I enjoy doing is spending hours on parts of pots that many would not bother looking at."
If one flips over an Ichino pot, one might think the base looks like any other base. Yet the tiny etchings on Ichino's bases have been made through extensive labor. Not only this, the inside of vases, for example, are also areas where Ichino loves to slave on, as well as the insides of his petite boxes and kogo. This care towards detail exhibits a side of Ichino's personality that most might pass by upon meeting the man, as he can be boisterous and very sociable. A side that many do not see, however, is his careful, almost neurotic attention to tiny details and human emotion.
Ichino loves urban life, and it shows in his work. Ichino's tokkuri are like gentlemen wearing suits, while his vases are urban skyscrapers in an animated, make-believe Bauhaus world. His chawan have etched pictures of motor vehicles as landscapes, almost reminiscent of Suzuki Goro's Los Angeles-style Oribe. Ichino's world is undeniably urban, cosmopolitan, and far removed from the quiet Tamba countryside; this is because the metropolis is where Ichino gets both his inspiration and his comfort when stressed-out or out of ideas. Such is why he relishes every opportunity to visit Tokyo and dreams of firing works in New York. But upon closer observation, one gets the impression that Ichino fires pots to sing odes to a lifestyle he wishes he could lead; perhaps one can call it an innocent romanticism. This concept is vastly different from the functionality and practicality of pottery to the lives of past potters of Tamba, who potted and fired the necessities of everyday life, with no thought as to materialize an idolization of a certain lifestyle. In other words, one might call such designs a representation of a country boy's fascination with city life.
"City life is fun. Tamba is quiet, small, and that is wonderful. But in the city, I find inspiration in its many sights and sounds. It is a fun place, an inspirational place, and call me young at heart, but I still dream of living in a big city, even outside of Japan."
Ichino Masahiko is a dreamer, a romanticist of urban life and a potter of post-modern sensibilities. Yet at the same time, he holds a pure and loyal heart towards the land of Tamba and the potters that came before him. He feels the weight of history on his shoulders as he converses with the Tamba clay in his hands. Ichino is a special potter. Both the man and his work exemplify a youthful playfulness that is at the same time, fascinatingly intelligent and chic. Tamba no longer must look for a savior. Ichino Masahiko is it.
by Aoyama Wahei 1/12/04
PROFILE OF ARTIST ICHINO MASAHIKO
- 1961 - Born in Tachikui, Hyogo Prefecture
- 1981 - Graduates from Saga Institute of Art
- 1981 - Apprentices under Imai Masayuki
- 1986 - Returns to family kiln, apprentices under father Shinsui I
- 1988 - Builds own kiln in Tachikui.
PRIZES RECEIVED BY ICHINO MASAHIKO
- 1986 - Prize, International Ceramic Art Festival
- 1986 - Prize, Kansai Art Exhibition
- 1987 - Prize, Hyogo Modern Museum of Art
- 1988 - Prize, Hyogo Arts and Crafts Exhibition
- 1988 - Prize, Kansai Art Exhibition
- 1989 - Governor's Prize, Osaka Crafts Exhibition
- 1989 - Prize, Ceramic Art Biennial
- 1989 - Prize, International Ceramic Art Festival
- 1989 - Prize, Asahi Ceramic Art Exhibition (has won four times in row)
- 1989 - Prize, Hyogo Modern Museum of Art
- 1990 - Prize, Hyogo Modern Museum of Art
- 1990 - Prize, Kobe Newspaper Prize
- 1991 - Prize, Osaka Crafts Exhibition
- 1992 - Mayor's Prize, Osaka Crafts Exhibition
- 1993 - Prize, Forms of the Tea Ceremony Exhibition
- 1994 - Prize, Kansai Art Festival, Yomiuri Newspaper Prize
- 1995 - Grand Prize, Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition
- 1996 - Prize, Forms of the Tea Ceremony Exhibition
- 1997 - Becomes Panel Member of the Osaka Crafts Exhibition
- 1998 - Selected,Collection of Works in "Searcb of Yakimono" NHK
- 1999 - Selected, Japan Int'l Charity Organization
Selection of Japanese Arts and Crafts
- 2000- Prize, Hyogo Art Festival
- 2001- Selected, Japan Ceramic Art Festival Collection of Works
- 2002 - Selected, Asian Int'l Contemporary Ceramics Exhibition, Taipei
- 2003 - Selected, Hyundai Japan-Korea Ceramic Arts Exhibition, Seoul
EXHIBITIONS OF ICHINO MASAHIKO
- Takashimaya Department Store, Osaka ('92, '94, '96, '98, '02)
- Takashimaya Department Store, Kyoto ('03)
- Mitsukoshi Department Store, Fukuoka ('03)
- Mitsukoshi Department Store, Tokyo ('98, '00)
- Daimaru Department Store, Tokyo ('95)
- Daimaru Department Store, Osaka ('95)
- Daimaru Department Store, Kobe ('02)
- Inoue Department Store, Nagano ('01, '03)
- Kuroda Touen Gallery, Tokyo ('03)
- Kizan Gallery, Tokyo ('01, '03)
- Gallery Eikosha, Tottori ('97, '00)