Karatsu potter Mike Martino has always been good with his hands. He believes that this natural talent combined with his exposure at a young age to early native American ceramics helped to set him onto a path of becoming a potter.
Mike grew up in New Mexico, where he frequently visited a native North American pueblo settlement adjacent to his town dating back to the 17th Century. “I remember going out with my parents hiking and coming home with pot shards, and walking home from school, stopping under a bridge to play with friends, and finding arrow heads,” he reminisces.
Mike has been living in Japan for almost 25 years now after meeting his Japanese wife when they both studied at Kyushu University. He has been making functional pottery in the city of Taku, Saga Prefecture, for the past 15 years.
Mike creates work following the Karatsu pottery tradition produced in and around Karatsu that has a history of over 400 years. Historically, Karatsu Port was one of the most important ancient ports for trading with China and Korea. And Karatsu pottery has been directly influenced by Korea because many Korean potters settled in Karatsu after being taken captive following two attempted invasions of Korea by General Toyotomi Hideyoshi between 1592 and 1598.
Karatsu pots are earthy, high-fire glazed stoneware boasting numerous styles such as picture Karatsu (e-karatsu), Korean style Karatsu (chosen karatsu), black Karatsu (kuro garatsu) mottled Karatsu (madara karatsu), and stamped inlay Karatsu (mishima karatsu), to name just a few. There are many more variants, and Mike avidly studies their history through old Karatsu pots and shards.
The most basic goal for Mike is to create something beautiful and useful. At first glance, his pots seem like traditional Karatsu ware, but upon closer inspection they carry distinct and sometimes playful flair that uniquely incorporates his American roots. I love that he experiments with traditional forms with a twist, like creating small rice bowls that are half way between a sake cup and a tea bowl. And his large and small pedestal cups (bajohai) with iron drawings are so unique and fun to use on the dining table.
As an American, Mike is also not afraid to defy convention. He uses cheaper Douglas fir to fire his kiln while most Japanese potters only use red pine, which is very expensive. This is despite plenty of warnings from fellow potters that Douglas fir would ruin his work. Mike later found out the reason for these dire warnings. When Douglas fir were first shipped from North America to Japan decades ago, the trees spent a lot of time floating in the ocean and were sometimes even dragged behind ships on their oceanic passage. It was the salt contamination that gave the Douglas fir a bad reputation.
When Mike creates his work, he pays most attention to using the material in a way that brings out the beauty of their unique characteristics. His view is that there is no such thing as ‘bad clay,’ just the limitations of the artist’s imagination and ability in its use. If you follow Mike’s blog, you will notice that in 90% of the posts, he talks about the clay, such as their body, texture, color, and behavior. He is a clay geek who is deeply and passionately devoted to its study and application.
Mike’s curiosity of the history of Karatsu ceramics is also due in part to the influence of his mentor and teacher Tsuruta Yoshihisa, a well-known maker of ceramics for tea ceremonies and a leading expert of Japanese ceramics. The town of Taku where Mike resides is where Yi Sam-Pyeong (Ri Sampei in Japanese), the presumed father of Arita porcelain who came from Korea in the late 16th century, is believed to have first settled to establish a kiln. Yi later moved to Arita in 1616 after the discovery of Izumiyama porcelain. “Nowadays people think Arita and Karatsu are completely separate traditions because they are such different styles of pottery, but they are all related,” according to Mike.
Not so long ago, the Japanese word “Karatsu” was used synonymously with “pottery” because so much stoneware was made and shipped from Karatsu Port. But the Japanese ceramics market has been in a slump for many years, and only recently has there been a surge of renewed interest in handcrafted tableware.
Mike says he has noticed many more young customers in the last 3 to 4 years who are interested in and recognize the value of quality handmade work. He says he hopes to continue to play a part in spreading the “Karatsu” name as a pottery destination not only for the Japanese public but also for foreigners through his work. When I asked him about this goal, he smiled and replied that “all the potters in the U.S. know Mashiko but not Karatsu, and I want to put Karatsu on the map.”