Kuriya Masakatsu thrives on the notion that opposites attract. From traditional to modern and mainstream to fringe, he relishes going against conventional wisdom. Who else in Japan would have the audacity to turn traditional green glazed Oribe ceramics into stylish speakers or coffee pour-overs?
This duality and taking the road less traveled is the hallmark of Kuriya-san and his journey as a potter. He started out by learning Japanese painting at Akita University and ended up working at a cutting edge media broadcasting company in Akita. While Kuriya-san enjoyed his job as a TV production staffer, he yearned to be able to create something by himself from beginning to end.
So on the sidelines of his day job, Kuriya-san started learning ceramics under the instruction of potter Kurata Tetsuya in Akita. “I loved the fact that a potter has the ability to make decisions not just in the creative process but also how their items are presented, marketed, sold and used.” Throwing convention aside, he decided to leave his stable company job to become a potter and moved to the famous pottery town of Mashiko to apprentice under Okuma Toshiaki.
When I first met Kuriya-san at one of his solo exhibitions, he greeted me by pouring a cup of coffee from one of his handmade drippers. “I like to make coffee for guests and play music in the background on my speakers. My show is interactive where guests can see my work in action”, he explained.
Kuriya-san’s creations are designed and tested to fully serve their intended purpose. They are also direct manifestations of his passion: music, coffee, food and drink. “My principle is to make things that I enjoy making. It is hard to imagine that any work will resonate with users if I did not enjoy creating them in the first place”, he says.
What is most exciting about Kuriya-san’s work is that he is not limited by the preconceived idea of utilitarian handmade ceramics that is especially hard for young Japanese potters to break free from. His trademark green glaze, Oribe, is one of the oldest colored glazes, and when he uses it on some of his carved contemporary forms, the combination brings out a truly unique effect.
Another aspect of Kuriya-san’s contrasting approach is his efforts to build a sense of community within the scattered pottery circles in Mashiko. One would think that someone who became a potter to be able to strike out on his own is something of a lone wolf. But I discovered Kuriya-san through his role as an organizer for the creation of an online database of Mashiko potters and as director of the Mashiko Ceramics and Art Association. Both are efforts to build resources for the town’s potters, and for supporting collaborations between these potters and overseas.
Kuriya-san explains why he is willing to invest so much time and effort into a non-paying position. “There are some 450 potters living in Mashiko, and the reality is that not everyone can succeed without a little help from the others. The need for collaboration and cooperation really became apparent when the earthquake happened in 2011, which destroyed many potters’ studios and kilns.”
It is refreshing to see that while many artists are absorbed in their own work, Kuriya-san volunteers his time and web-designing skills for the community of artists in Mashiko and beyond.
When I asked him why he devotes so much time in the community, he said, “I am a maverick inside, but I know that I can’t survive alone.” He joked that being a potter makes him a little philosophical and explained his faith in the power of cooperation in relation to pottery making. “Clay is natural, so it might be interpreted as man facing nature. But we are also part of that nature, which is much larger and grander.” To this contemplative potter, ceramic making is much more than simply about himself.