Several years ago, I came across an image of a plate that moved me. The plate had stamp marks and lines inlayed with white slip on a rich, dark clay background.
The plate had a restrained and earthy beauty with powerful appeal. I initially thought that it must be old, but it was new and even more surprising was that the plate was made by Inoue Shigeru, who at the time was an office worker living near the city of Nagoya and was making pottery in his spare time.
“People said to me, you are crazy,” said Inoue-san, a slight man with gentle manners as he showed me the clay making area in his apartment’s back yard on a visit this past November. “I wanted to make pots like the beautiful Korean Kohiki (Buncheong) wares, but only by using natural materials, and it was horribly difficult,” he laughed. Some professional potters told him such efforts were stupid because it made no significant difference to the results which he disagreed with.
Most Kohiki potters adjust the slip with refined chemicals because a slight incompatibility with the underlying clay can cause the slip to peel off or crack. But Inoue-san was adamant about using natural feldspar, because he believed that pure chemicals, although they are much more stable, “wouldn’t give the same effect as natural slip.” He is also particular about using weathered feldspar that are naturally exposed to rain and sun and harvested in nearby Gifu prefecture.
The red clay body that Inoue-san is infatuated with comes from a clay shop from the nearby pottery town of Tokoname. The shop owners tell him that “you and the brickmakers are the only people who wants this crude clay.”
Predictably, Inoue-san’s Kohiki work failed miserably in the beginning. “Sometimes my pots all collapsed. Then I got a little better and managed to slip the wares, but the slip peeled off or cracked in the firing.” Inoue-san shook his head as he recalled these tough testing years.
After many failures, Inoue-san decided to regroup and instead of completely coating the surface, he started brushing a thin layer of white slip onto the stamped or carved surface of the dark clay and scraping off the excess that made the slip adhere to the clay better. These slip decoration styles are called Mishima because, according to one theory, Japanese tea masters who prized the original 15th Century Korean Buncheong ware in this style thought the patterns resembled the famous Mishima calendars published in Izunokuni (Shizuoka prefecture today) from the Kamakura period (1192-1333).
Inoue-san’s work slowly became more successful, and as he shared his progress on social media, his work started to receive plenty of support from followers. Inoue-san never thought at the time that he would be a full-time potter. But after several acclaimed receptions at gallery shows around Japan, he decided to quit his office job 2 years ago.
Inoue-san now is creating a truly original body of work unlike anything I have ever seen. No two pots are the same, but each one is a perfect background for serving food. You can see his enthusiastic fans serving up on his vessels through social media.
On his decision to become a full-time potter, Inoue-san says that “I’m happy if I can earn enough to continue making more pottery. I’m the sort of person that can’t try very hard if it was just for myself, but I get motivated and energized when people tell me they enjoy using my pots.”
Before leaving his studio, I asked Inoue-san why he thinks people have reacted so positively and emotionally to his rather unobtrusive work. He said, “I guess it’s because my pots are born from clay that is usually overlooked and I put them through lots of challenges, like not giving them support by adding chemicals and by firing them in prolonged strong reduction (when oxygen is deprived in the process) for almost 12 hours in a gas kiln. I think clay is just like people. The ones that survive the tough circumstances eventually show their deepest strength and shine.”