This is a photo of my favorite Japanese teapot – a gruesome beauty crafted by Tamba artist Ken Nagai. I discovered this teapot several years ago on the Japanese ceramics website www.2000cranes.com which is owned by our friend and ceramics expert Brian Nolan. It was love at first sight for me, and I contacted Brian immediately.
Fortunately, he still had the pot so it quickly became mine. When it arrived from Japan, I tore the box open and wrestled with the layers of wrapping around each piece. Once I unearthed the teapot it was even more exceptional than I had hoped. It was rustic, muscular and lean: nothing fluffy here.
I ran my hands over it, feeling the spots and bumps of it’s gritty, textured surface. I loved it for what it was: a rustic, flame-licked pot that proudly wore the subtle flashes of grey-blue and red-brown color that it had earned while being birthed during an intense night in a hotter-than-hot wood burning kiln.
To me, this pot was a rare beauty made by an artist with talent and vision who truly understands the dynamic forces of heat, smoke and fire at work inside his kiln. A lesser hand might have turned this teapot into something gloomy or a piece that could be discounted as a foolish dalliance. But instead, Nagai-san hit a brilliant chord in the execution of this pot. Because, underneath the brooding and somber nature of this teapot lies a sophisticated and intentional design that gives the pot radiance and soul.
I came to recognize that the clay overskirt which covers the body of the teapot ( and obscures the bottom of the teapot in the photo ) mimics one of the historic designs of Japanese tetsubin, large cast iron water kettles. ( Today, smaller versions of these kettles are enamel-lined and sold as teapots ). In spirit, this teapot is a precious equilibria between two essential yet contrasting elements of Japanese tea preparation materials: pottery ( earth ) and cast iron ( metal ) wares.
But the story of this teapot does not end there. In advance of our trip to Japan last spring we talked with Brian about his pottery and the talented artists he represents. He offered to take us to Tamba and meet Ken Nagai. Of course we were thrilled.
We left Kyoto for Hyogo Prefecture and the area surrounding the village of Tachikui where the kilns of the Tamba potters are located. Tamba is referred to as one of the Old Six Kilns of Japan, meaning that it is a very historic and significant area of regional pottery production that dates back to medieval Japan. Like its other historic brethren – Seto, Tokonome, Shigaraki, Bizen and Echizen - the characeristic appearance of Tamba pottery is determined by the composition of the iron-rich local clay which produces red-brown to blue-grey flushes of color, the shape and style of kiln and firing techniques used, and the overall, traditional aesthetic of the pottery. Tamba pottery is dark in color with an iron-like hardness and simple, utilitarian aesthetic. These pieces are marvelously earthy in feeling and organic in appearance. Like most Tamba wares, Nagai-san’s pieces are not glazed and the finish and texture of the pots is given to each piece by the kiln.
Nagai-san’s pieces have textural surfaces that play with the light. Hold one this way or that way and subtle colorations on the surface will reveal. Nagai-san fires his pottery in a small noboringama or climbing kiln. This type of kiln is wood-fired and can create quite dramatic effects on the pottery depending on where the pots are placed in the kiln, the type of wood used, and other magical variables.
When we arrived, Nagai-san was just opening his kiln. The once red-hot temperature of the kiln had cooled down so that the pots could be removed safely. We were told that all of these new pieces had been made for an upcoming exhibition of Nagai-san’s pottery at an art gallery. Reading between the lines of this statement, I knew that Brian was telling us that no pieces would be available for us to purchase. Althought we were initially disappointed by this, we knew that the invitation to the kiln opening and the opportunity to meet this admired artist and learn more about his craft was the real treasure. So we concentrated and entered the moment.
It was exciting for the three of us to watch Nagai-san remove the bricks that had sealed up the kiln. He peaked inside with a light as it was clear that he too, was anxious to see how successful his firing had been. He seemed pleased with what he saw. Brian explained to us that potters who fire with wood commonly lose some pieces in the kiln from damage that is inflicted by sticks of wood that are pushed into the kiln ( via slits in the wall of the kiln ) during the firing. Bits of burning wood can also ’pop,’ causing damage to delicate pieces.
When the opening was complete, we peered into the kiln and this is what we saw. To us it looked as though the forces of nature had wreaked havoc inside the kiln. In some ways that is exactly what happens during a wood-buring fire. But we were assured that all was fine, and that the ash and bits of wood debris covering the pottery was normal and expected.
Teapots came out, as did cups, bowls, plates and more teapots. Little fat teapots and larger teapots that had the shape of ripe summer melons. None of the teapots were like the one we had at home, but these pots also projected the stoic, austere Nagai-san style and his Tamba roots.
After weeks of throwing and building and a week of firing and cooling, Nagai-san still had work to do to get his pots ready to show. It would take him most of the evening and next morning to empty the kiln, after which he had a scant 36 hours to clean, burnish and primp every piece. Once we returned home, we heard that the exhibition was a great success and that Nagai-san had sold most of his pieces.
To see more of Ken Nagai’s work and images from his 2010 Osaka Exhibition, or to purchase a teapot, please visit Brian’s website: www.2000cranes.com
Click here to see images of classic overskirted tetsubins from a traditional Japanese craft company: www.suzukimorihisa.com. Under the Works header, click on the Teakettles header. The 2nd teakettle pictured in the top and bottom rows have the overskirted design.