King of Clay
Words by Brent Searle Photographs by Hiroyuki Seo Translated by Tina Minami Dhingra
Ceramicist Ryota Aoki isn’t content to just be an amazing potter. He also has a personal mission to help improve the pottery industry and ensure a place in the canon for his own work.
Pottery in Japan is as much a visual art as it is functional in purpose. And it’s ancient—century upon century of experimenting has been done with earthen materials to shape products of beauty, purpose and decoration. Dynasties rose and fell, and pottery was at the center of disputes on more than one occasion.
From clay, porcelain and glazes come hot-fired teaware, rice bowls, jars, dishes, vases and ornamental creations. The eyes that envision and the hands that create these works of art are greatly honored in Japan. The culture is imbued with it.
A new set of eyes and hands that are shaping the future of pottery belong to Ryota Aoki, who blends historic and modern in his pottery. His works range from delicate and gentle soft, white porcelain dishes and teaware to Manganese vases and even Gothic-looking crowns and skulls. We chatted with him about his creative process, organizations, events and influences.
Tell us how you got started in pottery. What interested you in this type of work and art form?
When I was in college, I realized that a person’s day is divided into three parts: eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours of doing what you love. It was then when I thought, Why not do what you love for your work? After realizing this, I started to look for a job that I love.
First, I started to make clothes and accessories. I had tried working at so many different types of part-time jobs to find something that most resonated with me, but I hadn’t had the “this is it” kind of feeling. But one day, I attended a pottery class. The moment I touched the soil for my first piece of work, it left such a powerful impression on me. That’s when I decided I would be a potter.
What’s amazing about pottery is that it can last for 3,000 years. Pottery dating back to B.C. still exists, even if it wasn’t baked properly. Because my ambition is to become Japan’s representative, I have a Japanese flag hanging in front of my potter’s wheel. It would make me so happy to know that if someone 1,000 or 2,000 years later were to inquire about past Japanese artists, Ryota Aoki would be mentioned. I would like to leave my work for that reason.
Pottery is highly revered in Japan and often the skills and techniques are handed down in family traditions. Has pottery been in your family, or are you the first?
There are no direct family members who do what I do—none of my relatives either. I would be the first generation. It’s definitely true that skills and techniques from a potter are handed down in the house and are not shared. I first studied the basics, and then I moved on to researching the techniques and creating a glaze. Through this process, I’m confident that I can be the only one to create this kind of work and glaze as you can see in much of my work—like my wine glass.
Who are some of the people or what are some time periods that influence your work? Are you attempting to re-create the past in your work, energize the future, or both?
The past: There is a traditional saying that has two meanings: One is to inherit (pass on) the “shape.” Another is to inherit (pass on) the “spirit.”
The most prosperous time in Japanese pottery history was from 400 years ago, during the Momoyama period [1573–1615]. This period’s influence can be seen in today’s work—modern potters have appropriated the Shino chawan (Shino tea bowl) and Oribe chawan (Oribe tea bowl) from this era. Although I do think this is important, the idea reminds me of karaoke. It’s kind of like a singer who is trying really hard to re-create a song from the Beatles. Isn’t that just a cover band? It’s important to inherit the “spirit” of the past (instead of the “shape”). This means to learn and inherit the spirit, the kind of mind-set potters had in the past. Potters from 400 years ago must have had a feeling that left them wanting to create something new for the world. That’s the kind of spirit I’d like to inherit and keep alive.
An English potter named Lucie Rie has influenced me the most. I love her work, but I also respect her for committing herself to researching and producing a new type of glaze. I’ve been influenced by her spirit and would like to carry that on for myself. Koie Ryoji, Kitaoji Rosanjin and countless other Japanese potters have also influenced me.
The future: By the time I was in my mid-20s, I was able to earn a living through my work. I was very content and at peace with becoming a professional potter. Since then I decided that I wanted to give back and pay respect to the art of pottery. I strongly believe that I could give back to this art form by being active in the ceramics industry. Currently, I am working toward the goal of creating more opportunities so that the next generation of potters is able to earn a living through the craft.
Every summer I am involved with an event called Ikeyan where many young potters and students gather around the theme of “how to make a living in ceramics.” This is not traditionally a topic that is spoken about in schools, and every year, about 150 to 200 people participate. Each participant brings two cups they have made themselves: one to use to introduce themselves to the group—this is a great tool for people to connect based around their work—and another to use for critique and feedback. We gather 10 of the most relevant and famous gallery curators and ask them to choose the top 10 pieces to be eligible for a solo or group exhibition. My intention is to take part in creating the next generation of potters. I also want to address how potters can make a living all over the world. With this ambition, I recently announced a social network platform for ceramics called Potter.
Your pottery spans an eclectic mix, from very elegant porcelain tableware to darker materials in vases and even what appears to be clay and metals in crowns and skulls. What inspires your work, and how do you choose your materials?
I want to create something that’s never been seen in the history of ceramics in Japan and worldwide. In order to achieve my goal, I produce and study up to 15,000 glazes a year. I make a decision based on the test piece. It’s all very intuitive, and I know when a certain glaze is it.
This must be long and hot work at times being around a kiln. How many hours do you work each day? What do you like to do when you aren’t working?
Every day out of the year is like a holiday, because I don’t consider this to be work—I am doing what I love to do. My production time is from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. I don’t use a kiln with fire; mine is an electric kiln, so what I do is press a button—it’s kind of like a big oven. I usually bake it for 16 hours.
When I am not producing work, I travel around the world to look at pottery. I meet different potters from around the world. Last year I was traveling one-third of the year. This year I gathered potters from all over the world at my studio in Gifu, Japan, to bring back knowledge to their home countries. This spring I hired staff members from Indonesia and Chile. I made sure to have everyone get a one-year visa so that they can take their time to take in the techniques and knowledge.