Japanese ceramics artist Tatsuzo Shimaoka died a few weeks ago of a stroke. He was a proponent of utilitarian pieces, or mingei (a term derived from minshuteki kogei, “craft of the people”). He was designated a “living national treasure” by the Japanese government in 1996.
In an article in Clay Times (November 2001), Richard Busch reports Shimaoka’s recollections of his developing interest in mingei and the apprenticeship process.
One day, at the age of 19 and a freshman at the Tokyo Industrial College, he wandered into the Nihon Mingeikan (Japanese Folk Crafts Museum), which had been started by Soetsu Yanagi and several friends, including potters Kanjiro Kawai, and Shoji Hamada, and was struck by the simple, unpretentious pots and other historical items that had been made by anonymous craftspeople for everyday use. It was a turning point in his life.
“Yanagi called these items the people’s craft or Mingei,” explains Shimaoka, “and he believed that they represent what is truly beautiful — not the highly refined work made by top artisans only for the wealthy few. He claimed that good craft must be convenient and comfortable to use because they are necessary every day. Mingei works must be durable, made in quantity, and affordable. Materials used must be natural and indigenous. At the basis of the Mingei philosophy lies the supposition that the craftsperson lives a healthy life, has a healthy mind, and is always sincere in the pursuit of utility.”
The philosophy hit the young Shimaoka hard. “When I was lost at what to do in the future,” he recalls, “Yanagi’s theory was like fertile rain on barren soil. With my mind decided, I went to Mashiko to visit Hamada, an alumnus of my college, and he agreed to accept me as an apprentice after I graduated. He told me that the basis of ceramics is the wheel, and advised me to learn how to throw pots on the wheel while in school. I did as I was told.”
After graduating from college, and following a stint in the Army during World War II (during which he spent time as a prisoner of war), he apprenticed with Hamada for three years. “In retrospect, those years studying under a great teacher were the basis for my career as a potter,” he says. “He would tell us apprentices to leave aside all that we had studied — as he had done when he left school — and to start with a new slate. Handmade work, he explained, is not to be learned by intellect, but with the body. Technique is not to be taught, but to ambitiously acquire.
“This is the traditional way master artisans always treated their apprentices, and how apprentices gained good craftmanship. I now understand that that was the most effective method for acquiring potting techniques. Today I always have a few apprentices in my house, including students from abroad. I teach them just the way Hamada tought me.”
The image is the main page from one of the artist’s exhibitions at Galerie Besson in London’s West End.
- Left: Pot, 2005, stoneware with rope-inlay pattern 22.7 cm (h) x 18 cm x 13.9 cm
- Right: Pot, 2005, stoneware with rope-inlay pattern, 26.4 (h) x 23.3 x 22.5 cm