Just over a century ago, Yanagi Muneyoshi, the father of the Mingei movement, and potter Tomimoto Kenkichi discovered the fittingly titled book, “Quaint Old English Pottery” written by Charles Lomax. They were, to use an elegant English term, flabbergasted by the beautiful slipware of Thomas Toft that was featured in the book and this sparked considerable interest within the Mingei movement as to what the English had to offer.
Subsequently, English slipware made for daily use by anonymous craftsmen in the 18th and 19th centuries was introduced into Japan by the English potter Bernard Leach and mingei potter Hamada Shoji. These wares had a profound influence on Japanese makers and the Japanese crafts world.
That influence continues to be felt among Japanese potters today, and none more so than Kubota Kenji who makes slipware for daily use in the famous pottery town of Mashiko. I first encountered Kubota-san’s work while walking through Mashiko’s high street.
I was instantly attracted to the bright and sophisticated air that his work radiated, despite the traditional cream and brown colors that sometimes has the tendency to give a dark feeling to the pottery. “I want to create wares that are cheerful on the table as well as fun to touch and look at,” Kubota-san says. His slipware pots are full of warmth and delightful to hold.
This unassuming potter claims that he decided to become a maker while walking through Mashiko as an art theory student. “There were so many young potters and they seemed to be having great fun”, he recalls. He jumped in and a decade flew by while he learnt to enjoy the challenges of creating pots.
Kubota-san’s pots are rigorously designed to be functional. Once this deep thinker decides on a design, he is able to master and repeat this design skillfully. The skill comes from his seven years of training as an apprentice at large pottery kilns in Mashiko before he established his own studio and kiln in 2011.
Kubota-san’s work involves a slipware technique called slip trailing, which uses clay diluted with water to a creamy consistency to make surface decorations by using a dispenser. It is a technique that requires extensive practice because once a line is drawn it cannot be erased. The seemingly easy and pleasantly flowing contours are a result of a rhythm achieved through constant repetition.
The most notable aspect of Kubota-san’s work is that at first glance it appears Western, yet a closer look shows there is a distinct Asian flair. Kubota-san likes to look at textiles and paintings to get inspiration and indeed his work is a unique combination of traditional slipware technique with sensibilities that are reminiscent of Japanese stencil textile designs and patterns.
Kubota-san’s contemporary work is also symbolic of the unique influence that English slipware has had on Japanese craft, which was absorbed and reabsorbed by Japanese makers over the years and continuously brought into the daily lives of people.
I am pretty sure that the Georgian era English slipware craftsmen never imagined that their legacy would be alive and thriving in East Asia today, but if they knew I think that they’d be pleased and celebrate with a cuppa or more likely a pint.