The Art of Japanese Ceramics

Ceramic artists shape their emotions with clay, fire, and paintings

by Nobi Oda

There are many ceramic artists based in Japan. They make numerous works, some of which gain popularity in foreign countries. However, in reality, few people know how ceramic artists master their craft and how they come up with their works of art. In this world of modern ceramic art, rich in diversity from traditional art to abstract sculpture, we talked to well respected ceramic artist Shu Mochizuki about what he thinks about and what he feels when he creates his art.

The combination of painting, clay, and fire is create the appeal of ceramics

The way of becoming a ceramic artist is different for everyone. Some artists grow up in famous Japanese ceramic regions, some are born into a family of ceramic artists and end up taking on the family business, while others just fall in love with ceramic art and decide they want to pursue a career in the field. Shu Mochizuki fits into the third category. He was born and grew up in Tokyo without any particular connection to ceramic art.

As a high school student, as is the case for most high school students, Mochizuki’s interests changed frequently, so his goals and dreams for the future constantly fluctuated.
“ I was interested in cultural anthropology, then I became attracted to architecture. But in the end, I decided to follow my father’s footsteps and work in the design industry.”

Mochizuki’s father was a landscape designer, so they share the same interest in creating beauty. However, once Mochizuki entered university, he became enamoured with lacquer art. He was particularly influenced by Makieshi(gold and silver lacquer artist)* Gonroku Matsuda’s book, Urushi no Hanashi.

*Gold and silver lacquer art is an art form unique to Japan, and refers to lacquer art that uses gold and silver to paint pictures.

Mochizuki attended Tokyo University of the Arts and studied crafts. While studying at school, he also assisted at a lacquer artist’s workshop.

“One day, I realized that the production rhythm of lacquer work was something that didn’t fit me. Not only it takes 6 months to a year just to complete one work, the daily rhythm just didn’t resonate with me.”

At this time, Mochizuki tried out a ceramic class and immediately became fascinated by the art.

“Not only you get to play around with clay, but you get to paint, as well as play with fire. I thought it incredibly interesting.”

In addition, the professors of ceramic art at Tokyo University of the Arts included Yoshimichi Fujimoto, Koichi Tamura, and Akira Asano, the artists considered as crown jewels of the ceramic art industry.

“The professors didn’t teach me any specific techniques used for ceramic art. However the masters at the peak of their careers were so striking, and just listening to their stories was both educational and inspiring.”

Expressing the natural atmosphere through ceramics

In particular, Asano made a huge impact on Mochizuki. Asano would take Mochizuki, who was not so confident in his painting ability compared to his sculpting, out on sketchbook excursions, which led Mochizuki to consider his artistic ability much more seriously.

“Professor Asano taught me that, when it came to painting, it was not about physical ability, but instead was about expressing the atmosphere around you and your emotions on a canvas. One autumn day, we were at the skirts of Mt. Fuji, and I saw a Japanese silver grass just starting to open up its ears, shining backlit by the sun. Its beauty and vitality took my breath away. My perception of the world changed at that moment.”

Of course, Mochizuki had always painted and sketched, but in lack of a sense of urgency, hoping he would discover something while he was painting. However once he saw the shining Japanese silver grass, Mochizuki wanted to express that moment through his art more than anything.

“I would portray this through my art by making a pattern out of the object. For a while, all I did was paint pictures of Japanese silver grass. It’s still strange for me to find myself known for my paintings now even though I never thought of myself as a skilled painter.”

In general, ceramic artists create own characteristic works by combining materials, techniques, and ideas. Since this combination is so broad, the artist’s uniqueness and artistic personality can be easily portrayed in their work. As spending time working at his alma mater as an assistant, then a teacher, Mochizuki was trying to find his own way to an artist and eventually came upon to the materials and techniques that matched his artistic sense.

“My favorite color is the red that is often used in Kakiemon and Imaemon ceramics (traditional Japanese pottery houses that have been passed through generations since the 17th century). My method is to spread this type of red lightly over a wide area. However I couldn’t find a satisfactory natural white color to paint on.”

One day, at an exhibition of department store, Mochizuki found a teapot created by Osamu Suzuki. Suzuki is a ceramic artist known for his use of the Shinoyaki technique to create a soft white color. Mochizuki thought that his red painting would look best on this soft white color, so he pursued the compounding technique of the feldspathic glaze (a glaze that is made mostly from feldspar), which is what accounts for the unique white color.

“Unlike today, it was hard to find any guide book with detailed informations on techniques back then, so I had to order documentation, ask people, and try out various compositions. It took me many years to achieve a glaze that I was satisfied with.”

Similarly, the red he painted with would change the color depending on how many times it was heated and at what temperature, so he repeated trial and error to get just the right shade.

On the other hand, Mochizuki is well aware of the dangers of placing too much emphasis on one’s unique style. Because it could simply pursue for eccentric art.

“Our current age is full of individuality and people who strive to be able to call their work ‘completely original’ through colors and shapes not found anywhere else. But through mainstream techniques, when you are trying to portray a simple flower found on a mountain path, putting your heart and emotion into the work is all you need to create something completely original.”

Another turning point for Mochizuki came when his perception of “practical use” changed. When it comes to craftwork, beauty and practicality can be obstructive or complementary to each other.

“Especially for traditional craftwork industry, most people put a lot of importance on practicality. For example, bowls and plates should be solid colors so they don’t interfere with the color of the food on them. But when I first saw Professor Koichi Tamura’s ceramic box, I was so enthralled by it. I didn’t know what I would use it for, but I knew I wanted it. That’s when I understood that if you thought about practicality in a broader sense, you could say that being able to bring happiness to someone by just the existing is a perfect practical use for a piece of art.”

In other words, practicality can also be attributed to the ability to make an emotional impression on somebody.

“Once I started thinking that way, I stopped worrying about what it means to be an artist. It was a very relieving.”

That relief affected his works in a very positive way. His new pieces impressed critics, including those that considered Mochizuki just a follower of Akira Asano. His work was featured at various exhibitions, including the Exhibition for New Traditional Crafts (currently known East Japan Traditional KOGEI Exhibition) in 1985, and the Japan Exhibition of Traditional KOGEI Exhibition in 1990. Since then, he has continued to win awards at numerous ceramic exhibitions (in 2014 he won the Encouragement Prize at the Ceramic Art Exhibition).

Shu Mochizuki Works

By putting his works online, he gained attention from overseas audiences

In 2000, Mochizuki relocated both his home and his kiln to Izu (located in Shizuoka prefecture in Japan). He also kept a workshop in Nakano district Tokyo, where he hold classes. Currently, about 30 students attend his ceramic art classes.

“My current lifestyle consists of teaching classes in Tokyo on Friday and Saturday, then returning to Izu on Sunday morning. Once I moved to Izu, I have become more connected to nature and the changing seasons.”

In recent years, Mochizuki has had various opportunities to present his work in overseas markets. His work was featured in the Japanese ceramic galleries held during Asia Fair in N.Y. and Cherry Blossom Festival, in Washington DC.

“I want foreign people to learn more about Japanese culture beyond, not only anime and manga, and I’m also very interested in how non-Japanese people view my work. I also hope there will be more opportunities to introduce mid-career ceramic artists the works to overseas.”

The Japanese government’s budget for cultural promotion is mostly spent on highly established national treasure level artists and Mochizuki believes this may not well represent to the Japanese ceramic art world as a whole.

Following the advice of students, Mochizuki opened a Facebook page and his blog, then found them useful to build recognition of his works.

“At first, I planned to use those services as a way to record my work only, but they turned out to be very useful for promoting my galleries and exhibitions. I started from writing a blog. In addition to putting up photographs of my work, I also talked about my private life and thoughts as an artist, and I think this has made people further interested in ceramic art. I’m really happy that ceramic art fans from all over the world can access and discover my works through my Facebook page and my blog.”

As with most artists, Mochizuki is never satisfied with his work.

“Even though I’ve been walking this path for over 30 years, I really feel, there are still many things that I haven’t been able to accomplish. But it is depending on how I move forward. Slowly but surely, I hope I can continue releasing new art into the world by improving and accomplishing what seems impossible.”

(Photo: Daisuke Hayata, Translation: Nelson Babin-Coy)

Originally published at

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