Japan is a ceramic lover’s paradise, where there are countless talented artists working in clay to create a vast and varied range of goods, from everyday dinnerware and tea ceremony utensils to sculptures and decorative objets.
Yet, many of these works, despite commanding a high level of technical expertise and aesthetic sensibility, can only be found at some random pottery fair or a small specialist shop in a remote provincial town.
So, it was a delight to receive a postcard from Akito Katsumura, a young ceramic artist based in Saitama prefecture to the west of Tokyo, announcing a solo show at the Keio Department Store in Shinjuku.
I was already acquainted with Katsumura’s work, which I had seen for the first time about three years ago at the Mashiko Pottery Fair, a three-hour drive from Tokyo, in Tochigi prefecture.
Katsumura had set up his stall in a hidden corner of the expansive fair grounds where we had wandered aimlessly as we made our way from the center of Mashiko town, happy to leave the throngs of visitors who had descended, like us, upon this small community for its famous, twice-yearly market of ceramic ware.
When we chanced upon his stall, we were immediately struck by the simple yet compelling shapes and designs of the cups, bowls, plates and other ceramic ware on display.
Katsumura works in porcelain, which is smooth and polished but can also seem rather cold and brittle. Strolling around Mashiko, which is best known for the earthy pottery of Shoji Hamada, a pioneer of the mingei folk-art movement in Japan, porcelain was the last thing we had expected to buy.
But Katsumura’s porcelain pieces had such a delicate softness to them, while their patterns of squiggly fine lines gave them both a warm hand-made feel as well as a contemporary sharpness.
We immediately bought ten of his large curry or stew bowls, prompting Katsumura to ask if we happened to be in the restaurant business. Japanese dinner sets are generally five to a set, so it is rather unusual for a customer to buy a 10-piece set for home use.
Ever since we discovered Katsumura and his bowls, which have served us very well, I had wanted to see and possibly buy more of his work. But it was not until his show at Keio Department Store that I had the chance.
In striking contrast to his simple stall at Mashiko, the exhibition at Keio was in an elegant gallery closed off from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the store. It was also much more spacious than the tables he had at Mashiko, enabling Katsumura to give each piece ample space for visitors to admire them individually.
As soon as I approached the gallery, I noticed a conspicuous difference in the work on display. While his work at Mashiko had been mostly a monotone navy against a white background, many of the pieces here were designed with a range of colors – red, green, mustard, black and brown, in addition to his signature navy.
Nevertheless, the designs were readily recognizable as distinctively Katsumura’s.
“It’s a style, which I started developing about seven to eight years ago,” he told me. In his early career, Katsumura had made pottery rather than porcelain, firing his pieces in a wood-fired kiln.
What distinguishes his porcelain is that it has a matte finish so it feels softer to the touch than most porcelain, which is shiny and therefore looks more polished and brittle.
The lines that create the patterns on his wares are all hand-drawn by using a technique known as ‘senzogan.’ After forming the shape of the utensil, Katsumura coats it with a material known as a resist and draws the pattern with a needle. The parts that are etched by the needle absorb the glaze while the remainder is protected from absorbing any color by the resist.
Although his designs give his work a clean, contemporary look, he uses many traditional Japanese patterns, such as the combination of concentric half-circles known as seigaiha which represents ocean waves, asanoha or a hemp-leaf pattern and a tortoise-shell pattern, known as kikko.
By giving his porcelain work a soft surface and using traditional patterns in a contemporary manner, Katsumura has managed to combine the best of the old and the new to create a style distinctly his own.
1981 Born in Tokyo
1999 Graduated Jiyu-no-Mori Gakuen High School
2002 Graduated Bunka Gakuin Arts College
2003 Sets up studio in Maoka, Tochigi Prefecture
2008 Moves to Saitama Prefecture
Katsumura’s work will be on display from Sept. 27 until Oct. 31 at Seihin Seikatsu Nihonbashi in the Coredo Muromachi Terrace, which opens Sept 27.