Iowa potter Shumpei Yamaki takes a very long time to load his single-chamber anagama kiln. “People used to mock me in school because I was so slow”, he chuckles. “But to me, kiln loading is like completing a beautiful 300-piece, three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle that has infinite picture variations”, Shumpei says in explaining why he takes about six times longer than other potters for the loading process.
“I love kiln-loading” Shumpei says passionately. “In ceramics school, we are taught that 80 per cent of the end result depends on how the kiln is loaded, but I’m surprised how little time people spend to load the kiln.”
Unlike many potters that load similar sized items in groups inside the kiln, Shumpei arranges vessels of various sizes and shapes all mixed together. It takes much longer to load pieces this way, but to Shumpei the utmost advantage of firing unglazed wares in a wood-firing kiln is the freedom in the way the pieces can be arranged inside it.
To place each piece, Shumpei considers how the fire will flow between the pieces and how the ashes may fall onto their surfaces: by stacking, putting the pieces on their sides, and placing them diagonally or upside-down. Shumpei takes his time because he simply does not want to ‘waste’ the space by lining up similar pieces.
All of this attention to kiln loading and pottery making in general was implausible to Shumpei back in the late 1990s when he arrived in the U.S. to learn street and house dance. He then went on to study archaeology at the University of Wisconsin, but was still unsure if this topic was what he wanted to pursue as a career.
Behind Shumpei’s move to the U.S., there were complex tales of brilliantly talented family members and self-imposed expectations in life as the eldest son, together with perhaps a desire to run away from it all.
Then in 1999, Shumpei almost lost his life and his right arm in a car accident, which completely changed his life. “I woke up thinking, wow I had a great sleep” he said. “Then when I opened my eyes I was surrounded by people and that’s when I realized I was in an accident.”
Traumatic as this accident may have been, Shumpei speaks openly about it because he realizes that if it was not for this event, the club-dancing, fashion-conscious young man would have never learned pottery that was recommended as physical therapy for his damaged arm. Shumpei’s natural gift was quickly recognized by Karen Terpstra, Professor of Art at the University of Wisconsin who recommended Shumpei to continue with his ceramics studies. He went on to apprentice under Richard Bresnahan of St. John’s Pottery at the College of St. Benedict and St. John’s University, and eventually received a MFA from the University of Iowa.
The hallmark of Shumpei’s works are their refreshingly modern and sharp lines, a welcome diversion from wood-fired works that often have a rustic and clunky image. Shumpei’s care to pull out the maximum effects of fire in the kiln are evident in every one of his pieces.
“I started with the presumption that true vessels are made unintentionally” Shumpei says, “so I wanted to learn the skill to be able to throw speedily, eventually without thought. But then I discovered that this style did not work for me. When I make pots, I want to put feelings into each piece and I always aim to create each vessel with sincerity.”
Until Shumpei started making ceramics, he assumed that he would end up living in the city, similar to where he grew up in Japan. After all, nature and earth were the furthest away from his interests. But now rural Iowa is his home, where all he can see around him is the horizon and his kiln.
Shumpei contemplates the path that he has traveled. “I was sent to nature camps when I was growing up and I couldn’t adapt so I thought it wasn’t for me. But now that I live here [in the countryside], I’m surprised how much I enjoy it”. He is making elegant pots and also continuing to dance, and he’s so good at both because of his extraordinary ability to feel, improvise, and be free.