Robert Yellin's Japanese Pottery Blog

Greetings from Kyoto, We've just moved our gallery into a magnificent old Sukiya style home located very near the Silver Pavilion; a stunning area and setting for the inspired ceramic art we share with the world. Please visit us if ever in Kyoto or online at and

Thursday, March 30, 2006

One of the Greats/Urakami Zenji

About this time last year when I visited Bizen to select works from Masamune, I had to drive by the house of Urakami Zenji. As the taxi passed the gate, there was Urakami-sensei sitting on his stone wall just gazing at the sky; I waved to him and it was like being in a slow motion movie as he smiled and waved back. Urakami Zenji---what a great name--has always been one of my favorite Bizen artists. He stuided with the last great Meiji born masters and himself was also a fantastic figure-sculpture ceramic artist as well as throwing serene Tea wares. In my beginning collecting days, all I wanted to do was meet him and and acquire a guinomi. So, about 18 years ago I just walked up to his door and rang the bell---something a Japanese would almost certainly never do. His wife gave me the once over twice and really didn't know what to make of me, this scruffy gaijin abruptly asking to see the great Zenji! I was eventually shown around and was able to acquire what I had come for, yet not directly from Urakami, only through a man I met by coincidence--Goto-san--who was a big Urakami collector and was very curious about this most unusual visitor. One work of Urakami's I'm still looking for is seen in a photo here, a smiling Hotei viewing the moon; it's a work I dream about. Urakami studied with the great Bizen sculptor-potter Nishimura Shunko(1886-1953) and has had a very successful career being named an Okayama Prefectural Intangible Cultural Property in 1973. His large wall-reliefs are well-known to any Bizen fan, as two shishi grace the train station as well as other places in Japan. His blue-Bizen is mysterious and I shall never forget drinking sake from one of his blue-Bizen guinomi, my midnight cup. Just today, I read that Urakami Zenji, born in 1914, had passed away last week from pure old age. It's not likely Bizen will ever see another like him.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Bizen in Boston/Kutani in New York/Joan Mirviss Talk

If you happen to be in the Boston area (or know someone who is), a fantastic opportunity to see some fine Bizen (Isezaki Jun/Koichiro, Kakurezaki Ryuichi)--and non-Bizen(Jeff Shapiro and Tim Rowan) pots--and meet the artists--is at your door this weekend. La Coste Gallery is hosting an exciting exhibition titled
'GENERATIONAL CROSSROADS/BIZEN EVOLUTION' from April 1 - 23, 2006. Information about the exhibition, the opening this weekend, and the five artists, can be viewed here:

And from March 30-April 5 at the 7th Regiment Armor at Park Avenue and 67th Street in
New York City, Joan Mirviss will be showing Takegoshi Jun's exceptional contemporary Kutani creations. More about this exhibition, and the magnificent Asian Art Fair, can be viewed here
Ms. Mirviss will also be giving a talk "The Art of Japanese Ceramics" on Saturday, May 6th, 2006 Saturday at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. From the talk brochure, "Joan Mirviss presents an overview of the world of modern and contemporary Japanese ceramics, beginning with the prewar mingei (folk-art) tradition personified by Hamada Shôji (1894–1978), through the postwar, avant-garde Sôdeisha movement led by Yagi Kazuo (1918–1979), to both the traditional and sculptural forms of today’s top Japanese ceramic masters and upcoming talents."
More information on that and also about Louise Cort's talk on the same day (A Japanese Potter’s Study Trip to Edo: Ceramic “Research and Development” in the Seventeenth Century) can be viewed here www.metmuseum

Sakura Days!

(Images are of Tim Rowan's work...)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Ceramics of the Silk Road/The Art of Kato Takuo

A major retrospective exhibition of the late Living National Treasure Kato Takuo(1917-2004) just finished showing in his native Gifu prefecture and now makes one more stop in Okayama at the Okayama Orient Musuem from April 1-May 7. The exhibition features works made throughout Kato's brilliant career and also many ancient wares that inspired/hypnotized Kato. A fine catalog was printed for the exhibition, in Japanese only though. The museum's very basic web site in English can be viewed at:
Please note the two photos of Kato are from the catalog.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

After Use/Father and Son

We have all heard about how some types of Japanese ceramics change over time with use, such as Hagi. Well, I'd like to illustrate the point from my own personal experience with a Bizen yunomi I purchased about five years ago--maybe a bit more--and have used every winter since. I only use it during the winter for Bizen clay allows heat to reach the surface rather quickly--unlike thickly glazed Shine, for example, that retains heat--and warms my always cold winter hands. The Bizen yunomi on the left is now about to be set in the cupboard until the cold winds blow again. It was made by the late Nakamura Rokuro and has his fine drinking lip and form we've heard so much about for his guinomi-sake cups. Notice how dark it became compared to the unused one on the right. The rich chestnut tones are a delight to gaze upon and the yunomi has also became very smooth as well after endless times of being lovingly held and turned in my hands. The right one was made by Rokuro's son Makoto and at a simple glance one can also see the 'Nakamura Way' that has been passed from father to son. The throwing lines, shape, lip and kodai-foot all share a common bond, like looking in the mirror and seeing how one resembles a parent. Now Makoto's son has decided to become a potter and we'll no doubt see the influence of his genes in the way he forms pots; that's how it's traditionally done here in Japan.
The great joy and delight to use these 'simple' cups in daily life and watch them also come to life is something that the Japanese--and I--cherish.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Really Bland Bizen Guinomi

Bizen is my first love and we never forget our first love (third grade, Joy), and thus I really look after her, Bizen that is. If you've ever visited Bizen then you've seen the dozens of shops that line the streets in and around the train station; most, sadly, are full of what I call 'plastic Bizen.' What do I mean? Well, at first glance the firing and effects are Bizen no doubt, yet there's an unnatural gloss to them and ever more than that a lack of depth. It takes years and a lot of handling works to be able to see the difference. By all means, if a certain Bizen pot--or any for that matter--appeals to you then buy it, enjoy it and learn from it; it should 'ask' you many questions. Those who have visited my web gallery know I often offer fine shuki--sake vessels--and Bizen is always well represented. So, I'd like to show you photos of what I consider a 'plastic Bizen' guinomi to give you a visual definition of what I mean. This guinomi pictured here I often take to talks to illustrate the point. As noted, at first glance it's very Bizen, yet take a closer look. Look at the overall balance of the work; how the foot relates to the lip; how the foot balances the piece in relation to the diameter; how the lip is so uniformly rounded; how the inside has no character. I guess that's how I would describe this bland piece overall as well, totally lacking character. It has no emotion and thus leaves my senses with nothing to ponder; it doesn't call out to be used. And for any guinomi--or chawan-yunomi, etc..--that should be a key voice. Take in the photos and 'see' if you can hear what I'm talking about. To look at what I consider--and one small voice that is---not up to par I hope will allow folks to deepen their eyes, just as Yanagi's selection in the Mingeikan has done for me. Not to totally discard this Bizen guinomi, it looks fine with paperclips on my desk.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Some More about The Box/Japanese Influence in Seattle

Japanese art collectors can get pretty excited about a signed wooden box for a piece of art work. It need not be housing ceramics, as signed boxes usually come with all forms of art here from hanging scrolls to bamboo baskets. Much value is placed on the box in terms of how it authenticates the work inside, and also for its own beauty. Many questions twirl around in a seasoned collector's mind as he/she views the box; age? high-quality/low-quality? double-slats or framed under the lid? condition? artist's signature? Or, in many cases, if not the latter who did sign it--if anyone at all(many antique utilatarian pieces never had boxes)--and who are they? I'd like to talk about the latter point as I was thinking of it when a client/friend sent me a box--and contents--to have a look at. It's the last photo here. I often see such boxes for older pieces and although the kanji is correct for the piece--Choraku-zou, Kuro Raku Chawan--there is no signature or seal, and it could have been written by anyone. Such a box does not add value to the work other than having its own box for protection. Now if some famous Tea Master had signed the box---and there are MANY fakes of those too---it would have added 1000s of dollars to the value. We're also talking about chawan here, another special world in its own right. Yet even for more 'lowly' works--even top-end chopstick rests (Rosanjin/Ajiki), when the option of having a box made and signed by the artist---or an't mean the contents match the box. I say this after seeing a Bizen tsubo today in a very old box with the contents being new. It's a complicated affair, the box and its worth. More about 'the box' can be read on
My dear friend, wonderful writer, fine potter, and all-around good guy Dick Lehman had the honor of having his work on the cover of LAYERS AND LEGACIES. As Dick notified me, 'It's an exhibition in Seattle that features the work of 3 Japanese master potters, and their American now-master-potter students and friends. Three pairs/duets of Japanese/American potters were featured. I was paired with my dear friend Mr. Shiho Kanzaki. However, I was fortunate to be included in a three-generational view of 'legacies": Peter Olsen, one of my former students, made up the third portion of our trio. Also included in the exhibition was the notable Mr. Tatsuzo Shimaoka, who is currently a Japanese "ningen kokuho" - or Living National Treasure. Here is a link to the Honeychurch Gallery where the exhibition is being held:
I had been reserving my very best wood-fired work from the last 7 years for
just such an occasion as this: 10 of my very best works are there. A lovely
catalog of the show if available for $15. Contact Emma at the Gallery to
secure one.' All the best with the exhibition Dick.

If anyone has any interesting stories or questions about Japanese yakimono please do send them for possible blogdom here.
PS-As soon as I published this blog, I recieved an email informing me that Koyama Shinichi has passed away. Koyama was the son of the late,great scholar/potter Koyama Fujio--and a sturdy potter in his own right--and the one who often authenticated his father's works. I have a nanban tokkuri by Fujio with a box signed by Shinichi. I actually took the piece to Kamakura many years ago to have a box made and thus signed. R.I.P. Shinichi-sensei.......

Monday, March 13, 2006

Abe Anjin

Today I received a simple post card from Abe Anjin. For those of you who may not recognize this name, Abe ('ah-bay') is simply one of the finest Bizen ceramic artists EVER seen in this classic style. The postcard was to announce that two mixed-media works dating from 1994 and 1997 were acquired by the National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto. It may not be known, yet also three works were also acquired by the MET in New York a few years back by the wheels I set in motion. Abe always wanted to have a show in New York and back then I was the 'shadow man' for most of Dai Ichi's exhibitions, and so I introduced him to B-san and an exhibtion was arranged. Someone 'got' Abe's work and made sure that those in power at the MET also noticed, and thus the acquisition. At that time in history, Abe was also working quite intensely with the late artist Ikeda Masuo--his interest in yakimono ignited--and joint exhibitions were held and many more planned before Ikeda's untimely passing. I have many fond memories of visiting Ikeda-sensei in Atami with Abe-sensei and before noon came around Ikeda-sensei would be calling my name, "Robato, nomo!" We then hit the best sake to be had with the finest sakana-tibits in the land, all the while his dogs--what were there six-seven?--barking for tastes from his pure hand. Abe was devastated when Ikeda-sensei left this world and a deeply moving mixed-media Abe tribute is titled, 'Masuo I am Still Alive' and is a work of art one can never forget upon once glance. I shall place some 'Abe-Bizen' on this blog tomorrow--different computer now--yet for the time being please enjoy Abe's recently created home page:
Once again, omedeto to Abe-sensei as his works find yet another deserving place. A fine interview with Abe-sensei can also be read here: and also more here:

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Hamada Tomoo Mashiko Online Exhibition is very pleased to share with the world for the first time ever a large selection of Mashiko potter Hamada Tomoo's(1967-)creations. Tomoo was born and raised in Mashiko in the fabulous Hamada compound and took in all the art with his senses and spirit. He's now an established potter in his own right and continuing in the Hamada tradition making works quite different than his famous father and grandfather--Shinsaku and Shoji respectively. His role in Mashiko is only going to grow and his fame will also travel wide and far. We hope you can see why in the Tomoo's world debut exhibition in Mishima, Japan and on our web gallery.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Kato YasukageXIV Exhibition in Okayama

Eastern and western Japan are quite different in many ways with the most obvious being in dilalect and mannerisms. In the pottery world the differences I'd like to point out here are in department store galleries. In Tokyo--eastern Japan--the two most prestigious places are Mitsukoshi and Takashimaya both in the Nihonbashi section of Tokyo. Having a show in either venue means you've reached to pinnacle of d.s.g's and have made a name for yourself. In western Japan, these two d.s.g's are not as prestigious, for some odd reason. In Osaka the main venue is Umeda Hankyu--some say the best d.s.g. in all Japan, and also Tenmaya in Okayama. It's at the latter that Mino ceramic artist Kato YasukageXIV will be having a solo exhibition from March 7-March 13. In a way it's a homecoming for Kato for he did study in Bizen--located about 35 minutes away--with past Living National Treasure Yamamoto Toshu. Kato is making all styles of Mino excelling in his pastel toned Shino chawan and sculptural Oribe works. Kato is still relatively young--born in 1964--- and is surely a potter to keep one's eyes on.