Ken Matsuzaki: Looking for Shapes The Clay Deserves

Jack Troy Ceramics Art + Perception 109 2018 Home

In my walks, every man I meet is my superior in some way, and in that I learn from him.
Ralph Waldo Emerson1

Two years ago I was sent a list of participants for an upcoming workshop, and was surprised to see the name of a friend, Mitch Lyons. “How wonderful,” I thought. “We’ll be team-teaching,” then realized he and Meredith Wakefield signed on as class members. When we greeted one another the first day, he said shyly, “Yea, Jack, we just wanted to be in your class.” I was humbled and grateful to share daily studio time with them and we all benefited from his occasional demos.

When Mitch passed away this past spring, being part of his memorial gathering made me realize I couldn’t remember taking a workshop after teaching so many, and vowed, in Mitch’s spirit, to sign up for some in the future. When Ken Matsuzaki’s workshop coincided with the cooling of our summer firing, I enlisted, along with my partner, Carolanne Currier, and Elena Renker, a New Zealand potter we were hosting.

Mr. Matsuzaki, who was born in 1950, came to Alison Palmer’s studio, in South Kent, Connecticut, from an anagama firing at the New Hampshire Institute of Art, following an exhibition opening, Seeking the Invisible, at Pucker Gallery in Boston. His father was a painter, and he grew up among artists, becoming attracted to ceramics at age 16. He authenticates the head-start/privilege any young person imbibes from a family in which aesthetic concerns are part of everyday life. (For many of us, the newness of art engagement can impede our early development as we struggle to justify so foreign an impulse in the company of those whose understanding of art may be limited to its correct spelling).

Mr. Matsuzaki has more hair than any six of the male participants in the workshop – silvery, abundant, thick, long and wavy, it is his most outstanding physical characteristic. Slight and wiry, he wears jeans and a pullover indigo shirt, with a contrasting white insert, open at the collar. Presenting a vague nervousness before being introduced, he sorts his tools, many of which are wooden and appear to have been inherited or gleaned from a beach. None are shiny. He seems shy, and like all teachers meeting a new class of 40+ who speak a different language, he may be justly unsure of our collective savvy.

He thanks us for attending the two-day demonstration, to be followed by two more days of hands-on practice, and gets right to work, building a rectangular bottle from coils the size of a fountain pen, rolled out by Will Talbot, his temporary gaijin deishi. His method of coiling is distinct from what most of us have learned and taught: instead of stacking coils one on the other, he adds them parallel to the inner side of the one below it, squinching the new one in and up, creating a strong, integrated wall, lightly stippled with fingerprints. The form gains strength from smeared compression and paddling, as opposed to being made from a slab-rolled sheet of splayed-out particles.

At 68, Mr. Matsuzaki is at the top of his game.

Will Talbot has wedged nearly 40% sand into the commercial stoneware body. In Mashiko, Mr. Matsuzaki uses clay from all over Japan in his firings.

… What kind of clay is best? That started me looking for clays, clays with strong fire-resistance, clays with little fire-resistance, clays with great plasticity, clays with little plasticity – anyway I look for clays with great personality. As I explore the characteristics of these natural raw clays, I must knead them not only with each other, but with my own personality as well. The quality of my pieces depends sixty percent on the choice of clay, with the other forty percent being determined by the firing and the form.2

As the walls gain height, he wraps a pair of girdles from newsprint two fingers wide and about four fingers apart, securing them with narrow masking tape barely the width of a pencil to keep the form from bellying out. Overnight it will stiffen, becoming, in potter-lingo, cheese-hard. First thing next morning he removes the paper and takes up a flat chisel the width of two fingers, by its short handle and, standing behind the form, gently hews decisive, bacon-thin strips downward, parallel to one another, some extending to the base, others shorter and more abrupt, that he flicks away, tearing the coarse sandy clay, like grainy bread. Watching this process for anyone but an experienced potter might signal a time to check email, but many of us are rapt with anticipation: the wall can’t be much thicker than the shavings, yet the 14” bottle has uncanny structural integrity.

We know from seeing images of his work he may apply an oribe-type, copper-bearing glaze to the neck and shoulder that will yield to gravity at a high temperature, in what John Updike, describing Vermeer’s use of paint in A View of Delft, refers to as “an instant of flux forever held.”3 Mr. Matsuzaki’s use of oribe reveals a masterful intimacy: he courts the glaze, rendering it semi-opaque on vertical surfaces, while gathering into opaque cerulean pools tinged with green on platters and bowls. There is something about Japanese oribes — is it the finely washed pine ash? — that makes US versions, by comparison, look like melted lime popsicles.

To a question from the audience, “Do you make forms the way composers create hit songs and then keep performing them year after year, or do you keep adding new verses?” He pauses for the translator, Hiroko Onoda — herself a potter — murmurs, and she relates, “Always making new from old ones. I look for the shapes the clay deserves.”4

His use of at least one opaque, fatty shino, we learn, incorporates feldspar from India; another glaze owes its unctuous quality to proprietary soda feldspar that must be earned by one’s reputation and isn’t sold to the hoi polloi. Using some 11 clays in his twice-annual eight-day firings attests to his keen understanding of atmospheric variables and fire weather, zones appropriate for natural ash or applied glazes. His precise kiln placement of several types of work is an intricate cat and mouse game between intention and happenstance. Even so, he acknowledges that a typical firing yields equal-parts mix of keepers, pieces to be re-fired, and losers to be destroyed.

Of firing, Mr. Matsuzaki has said, “… although I can envision … what I think will occur in the kiln, it is impossible to see inside it, therefore I must strive beyond to find what I am seeking. Yohen (unpredictable change) occurs within the limit of the clay, the communication between me and the kiln, and the collaboration of the pots and flame within. When Yohen occurs naturally within the anagama, it is accidental, but I work to make it intentionally. I am always firing for something invisible.”5

His attitude toward this hands-off, mind’s-on approach to the creative process closely parallels that of Australian film director Fred Schepisi:

I'll tell you why I talk about technique and structure and all that stuff. Arthur Koestler once asked if our great scientific discoveries were accidents or the product of work and preparation. And his own answer was that maybe they were accidents, but they wouldn't happen unless you first did the work. Because otherwise, when you come across something great, you won't recognize it. You can't cynically calculate what you want to get across. You just create the situation where it can happen, and then it just appears. I believe that's why I go on about all the technical stuff. Because if you do all that stuff right, the spirit bubbles up through it.6

Following the bottle form, Mr. Matsuzaki made a tapering epigraphy sculpture (a kind of torqued triangular obelisk) as tall as his forearm, elbow to fingertips, and a hand’s-span long at the farthest reach across its base. Next morning he began shaving the walls with an angular strap – one of the few metal tools in his cache – listening to the nuanced tonal shift that those of us in the front row could hear, as the wall thinned. Watching him at this work was gratifying to experienced potters who vicariously felt the wall’s pulse: giving and resisting like a thinning vertical drumhead, in the service of a form that will beg to be picked up after firing, so ambiguous is its visual weight. This delicate caressing away of the unnecessary was clearly meditative, even pleasurable for him; at one point he wryly volunteered, “this could go on a very long time. Maybe forever.”

During the course of scraping the epigraphy form, which was eventually opened at the top for ikebana, Mr. Matsuzaki gave a little stream of consciousness riff about how tea-bowls have earned a specific cultural identity:

If you don’t understand the concept of what the tea-bowl is, then don’t even attempt it. If we name the chawan, we are also acknowledging and defining its brand, function, and purpose. To know its identity is to understand its purpose. There is a difference between replicating a tea-bowl and making tea-bowls as tea-bowls. So sure, make a tea-bowl; just don’t call it a tea-bowl.” [laughs gleefully]7

We are free to call any 14-line poem a sonnet, but for it to be a true sonnet, it needs to present more than the appearance of a poem with the requisite number of lines.

We are free to call any 14-line poem a sonnet, but for it to be a true sonnet, it needs to present more than the appearance of a poem with the requisite number of lines. It must also have a metric configuration and comply with the rules of sonnets, so when he suggests not to call what I've made a tea-bowl, he's acknowledging my not having studied tea. "Just call it a wan [bowl] and let the user determine its identity and function."

The most radical shift in Mr. Matsuzaki’s repertoire is the kurinuki (hollowed out) ware – a departure from traditional pottery vessels that comprise most of his output. Kurinuki ware, at least as he practices it, might be described as clay being itself, with minimal apparent human intervention. Carved and manipulated from a solid block, they occupy an aesthetic niche all their own, often exemplifying the maker’s willingness to showcase materiality and firepower as aesthetic ends. Certain pieces intended for flower arrangements may have been fired many times, as if to test the clay’s capacity to document stressful survival. “Attacking the tough raw clay head on…firing…firing…firing…wanting to fire it to death!”8 Some surfaces reveal periodic burial in embers over time, producing an affect known as koge – a bristly texture suitable for shredding ginger. Direct from the kiln, kurinuki vessels for ikebana look particularly incomplete, virtually desperate to hold a transforming branch or flower. Some exemplify geological, non-human origins, representing makers committed to pushing the aesthetic envelope; refusing to reinforce conventional values about what ceramics should be. For some beholders, kurinuki aesthetics may be the 3D equivalent of music composed in a 12-tone scale.

Ken Matsuzaki’s and Tsujimura Shiro’s work speak to these values, whereas New Zealand potter Elena Renker seeks a more refined end to the same approach. We rightfully wonder about the origins of this work, about which so little is written. Is it correct to assume only Japan could create and nurture such guileless work? We are put in mind of Robert Frost’s comparison of two potato farmers: one holds up a potato taken directly from the earth, with soil clinging to the roots. “Now here’s a real potato,” he says. His companion offers one brushed clean – Frost identified his poems with the refined offering. Mr. Matsuzaki’s kurinuki are sometimes glazed, while others wear the scars of their birth firing, and may represent the furthest reaches of his stretch from an apprenticeship grounded in mingei values.

In videos and still images, Mr. Matsuzaki reveals his intense preoccupation with process, stoking nearly 1,000 pounds of pine charcoal at the apex temperature. If the kiln were a pipe organ, this phase would represent adding an entirely new keyboard to affect the molecular susceptibility of the clay and glaze, and ultimately, on a good day, their beauty. During intense yet gentle atmospheric fluxions, he inveigles hues and surfaces into visual/tactile relationships he knows better than to predict with certainty, but such is the kingdom of discovery. In the final grueling hours of an eight-day cycle, the six-person crew orchestrates a scenario from Dante: swathed in protective gear, spritzed in sparks, they make a conventional wood firing look like a Boy Scout wiener roast. Science has yet to invent a yohenmeter, yet yohen is doing its work. Only exquisite, unique, golden shinos can quantify the charcoal-induced atmosphere. Day by day, hour-by-hour, the crew has been upgrading geology. In long wood firings time is another way to spell quality. There are worse obsessions.

At 68, Mr. Matsuzaki is at the top of his game. We want to think his fortuitous conjunction of spirit, physicality, and achievement will go on forever, or at least manifest as a spark he can pass to other capable hands.
Thank you, Mitch.
Jack Troy
Huntingdon, PA


1. Think, Vol. 4-5 (1938), p. 32.
2. Matsuzuki, Ken, “Expressing the Heart.” Burning Tradition, Translation by Andrew L. Maske. Syracuse University Press, p 14. 114, p14p2008. pp. 14-16.
3. On May 22, 2008, writer John Updike presented the 37th annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities at the Warner Theatre in Washington, DC. His topic, “The Clarity of Things: What Is American about American Art?” — adapted from an essay written for the occasion, John Updike Biography by Steve Moyer.
4.Matsuzuki, Ken, “Expressing the Heart.” Burning Tradition, Translation by Andrew L. Maske. Syracuse University Press, p 14. 114, p14p2008. pp. 14-16.
5. Matsuzaki, Ken, ibid.
6. Schepisi, Fred, Australian film-director, quoted in "A Cinematic Gallant," by Stephen Schiff, in The New Yorker, December 20, 1993, p. 76.
7. Weddell, Judy, video from Ken Matsuzaki’s workshop at Alison Palmer’s studio, South Kent, CT June 24, 2018.
8. Matsuzuki, Ken, “Expressing the Heart.” Burning Tradition, Translation by Andrew L. Maske. Syracuse University Press, p16.

Image Captions

All works by Ken Matsuzuki.
All images © Jay Goldmark.

by Jack Troy

Jack Troy, teacher, potter, and writer, retired from Juniata College in 2006, where he taught for 39 years. He has led over 230 workshops for potters at colleges, universities, and art centers in the U. S. and abroad. His career has taken him to 13 countries, and his work is in many private and public collections, including the Smithsonian Institution, Shigaraki Ceramic Cultural Park (Japan), Auckland (NZ) Museum of Art and the Kalamazoo Institute of Art.