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Playing with clay: Takeshi Yasuda

Playing with clay: Takeshi Yasuda

By Andrea Stevens
Fri, 26 Jun 2015

Takeshi Yasuda at work in his studio in China in 2013.

Photo © Jay Goldmark. 2013.

With his ceramics represented in major public collections around the world - from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London to Te Papa in Wellington, and with eight works here at Auckland Museum - Tokyo-born Takeshi Yasuda's work might be considered rarefied and elite; objects for display, not for everyday use. But nothing could be further from the truth. While some of his pieces are indeed extraordinary and highly collectible, a lot of his work investigates humble functional ware - cups, vases, water jugs and platters - created to celebrate age-old social rituals of serving and eating a meal.

This stoneware jug is made at same period as the artist’s Sansai work and glazed with "synthetic ash glaze” and oxidised firing in electric kiln. Purchased from the Masterworks Gallery solo show of 1995.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. 1995.72.1.

A career of experimentation

In 1963, while on a student field trip to the pottery town of Mashiko, the 19-year-old Yasuda was completely struck by pottery-making. He moved there and was apprenticed at the Daisei-Gama Pottery before opening his own studio in the town. After a decade of working with stoneware, ash glazes and wood firing, he moved to Britain where he taught and practiced for 40 years. Here he was confronted with different clay types and with electric kilns. He adapted his practice and explored these new materials and technologies with fresh eyes and a sense of invention, themes that recur throughout his career.

While he did not want to trade on being a 'Japanese potter', he brought with him an innate philosophy that informs his unique approach. "In Japan, an object is an object and people discover its function," describes Yasuda. "So I was surprised to learn how the West often sees an object with a defined function. But I thought 'I can make anything, and people can decide how they use it'." This view has kept his practice open, from both a functional and an aesthetic point of view. And as his travels take him to different places around the world, his work also investigates other cultures and histories, but always with a link back to his Mashiko years.

Over the course of his career, we see a shift from earthy, brown stonewares from the 1960s and 1970s, to the explorations in light-coloured glazes and new forms of his Sancai series from the 1980s and 1990s – a three-colour glaze originating from China. This progression would eventually lead to the ultimate in lightness and delicacy – his current blue celadon-glazed porcelains. But despite this gradual shift in textures and form, and the theoretical environment he operated in while teaching, he remains focused on making functional wares.

Fat Rim Dish, Bath, England, 1990. In 1984 Yasuda began a series using the Sancai (three colour) glaze which has links with historical Chinese pottery from the T’ang Dynasty – the San-Ts’ai. The yellow and green colours derive from iron and copper and flow in a partly controlled way over the cream glaze base.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. The Green Gallery Collection. 2008.1.57.

Fish Plateau on Feet, England, 1992. Stoneware, oxidised, Sancai glaze.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. The Green Gallery Collection. 2008.1.58.

From earth to air: employing gravity and movement

His shift in focus from stoneware to porcelain – what I call a shift from 'earth' to 'air' where dense weighty clay gives way to fine translucent porcelain – occurred after his Sancai period. He has always used the pottery wheel to make work, but he has often combined it with other dynamic processes to upend traditional methods and discover something new. Porcelain inspired in him a whole new way of using the wheel and manipulating clay.

A wonderful example where function meets creativity is his Unfolding and Folding series (circa 1995-2004). Here, he exploits the delicacy of the material in a unique way. "In my 'Unfolding' series, forms are collapsed on the wheel and then hung upside down to stretch them back as they dry," writes Yasuda. "In my 'Folding' series, forms slump while being fired in the kiln, much like the glass-forming technique."

Unfolding bowl. Wheel thrown white porcelain. Exhibited 'Takeshi Yasuda' 23 March - 14 April 2002, Green Gallery, Waiheke Island, Auckland in 2002.

Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Gifted by the artist. 2014.38.1.

This series was made in Britain, but in 2004 Yasuda moved to the porcelain capital Jingdezhen in China, to become Director of the Jingdezhen Pottery Workshop Experimental Factory. In this historic epicentre he was able to make porcelain his focus. He opened a second studio in the Jingdezhen Sculpture Factory where he currently works. He uses different varieties of porcelain and celdadon (or qingbai) glazes, traditional Jingdezhen glazes from the Northern Song Dynasty: clear glazes with small traces of iron to create a greenish-blue tint.

The delicacy of this work is astounding. Tall vases and water jugs reach up with all the fragility and determination of a forest floor sapling. The potter pushes the limits of fine porcelain evoking qualities of air and movement. Yet in the same series he contrasts these tall pieces with broad, earth-bound platters - echoes of his early Mashiko training.

The 'hero' works in this series are the striking ripple-edged bowls painted inside with gold. They capture sudden movement - after being formed on the wheel the potter jerks the bowl down toward the floor, so that a strip of wet porcelain flies off the rim. The remnant shape looks like a torn petal, such is its fine, delicate, variegated edge. By then applying gold paint inside these bowls, the artist makes them appear to truly burst with colour, light and energy.

These technically brilliant works now verge on sculpture - the artist moving beyond what might be purely functional. And all the while this British-Japanese potter explores these historic materials with reverence and renewal, there remains a quiet Japanese character of abstraction and serenity.

Works from Takeshi Yasuda's solo exhibition at Te Uru Waitakeke Contemporary Gallery, November 2014.

Photograph © 2015 Jennifer French.

Takeshi Yasuda in New Zealand

In 1995 Yasuda was invited to judge the Fletcher Challenge Ceramics Awards, and hold a solo exhibition at Masterworks Gallery in Auckland. Auckland War Memorial Museum purchased five stoneware works from this exhibition.

In 2002 Yasuda had another solo show in New Zealand, this time at the Green Gallery on Waiheke Island, run by Mr and Mrs Shigenori Itoh. The Itoh's had settled on Waihkeke the year before and it was highly prestigious to have a branch of the renowned Tokyo gallery open here. In 2006 Mr and Mrs Shigenori Itoh gifted 70 works by 41 artists, mostly modern Japanese Ceramists, to Auckland Museum. The Green Gallery Collection includes two of Yasuda’s Sancai plates. And in the year of his Green Gallery solo show, 2002, Yasuda gifted an Unfolding bowl to the Museum.

Takeshi Yasuda visited New Zealand in 1995, 2002, 2009 and again in November 2014 to judge the Portage Ceramic Awards, held at the newly-opened Te Uru Waitakere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi. The gallery held a solo show of his celdon-glazed porcelain, from which Te Papa purchased one of the large gold-painted bowls for their public collection.

Across these four trips, Yasuda has contributed significantly to the New Zealand ceramic community through his insights as a judge, his artist talks and the many workshops and demonstrations he has conducted.

Further reading

  • Post by: Andrea Stevens

    Andrea is a freelance features writer, author and editor. Her special interests are culture and heritage, architecture and design. She was co-author for the book Beyond the State: State Houses from Modest to Modern (Penguin, 2014).

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