Ken Matsuzaki: Looking for Shapes The Clay Deserves

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.