When Ken Mihara signed up to join a pottery club, he had no idea that this decision would change the course of his life.
The ceramic artist, whose work can be found at top museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, entered university to study civil engineering with a view to becoming a bureaucrat.
It was 1970s Japan, when the economy was growing rapidly and the then prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka was plastering the country with concrete, laying roads and building tunnels in what he called the “remodelling of the Japanese archipelago.”
“I thought that if I studied civil engineering and got a job as a civil servant I’d be able to support myself,” Mihara told me at the opening reception of his show in Tokyo’s Yufuku Gallery this spring.
But like many a first-year college student, Mihara was approached by the student extra-curricular activity clubs at his university in Osaka, which were soliciting new members, and the one he happened to join was the pottery club.
That decision opened up a completely different world to Mihara and determined his future career.
Abandoning his initial plans for a steady career, he dropped out of university to devote himself wholeheartedly to the art of pottery-making.
Mihara’s works are distinguished by their earthy hues of grey, smoky blue, purple and light brown, as well as their simplicity of form.
When I first saw his pottery, I was struck by the beauty of the subtle colors, which intermingle and complement each other and are unlike anything I had seen in stoneware, whether traditional or contemporary.
What is remarkable about the colors he brings out in his work is that they are all achieved by multi-firing the clay rather than through the use of glazes.
Mihara first coats his pieces with silica, which is fire-resistant clay, to protect them from ash glaze that results from the fire in the kiln.
He then washes the silica off to reveal the colours that have emerged from the clay.
The pieces are then returned to the kiln and fired at a high temperature for many hours to achieve deeper hues.
By carefully calibrating the intensity of the firing, Mihara is able to achieve, “with scientific precision,” the exact hues he wants, according to Wahei Aoyama, director of Yufuku Gallery, which represents Mihara in Japan.
However, Mihara has not stopped at this remarkable achievement but is constantly changing the way he fires his pottery, in order to feel the excitement and passion of discovery.
His work is also distinguished by their minimalist forms, which combine delicate curves with sharp edges and are often likened to origami paper foldings.
The simplicity of their forms gives them a lightness that contrasts starkly with the solidity of the clay with which they are made.
Rather than start out with a specific shape in mind, Mihara lets the clay determine what the final product will look like.
“I consider it my job to help the clay express its beauty. Clay leads and my hands follow,” he has said.