It was in 1977 when I began to set out on an American
ceramic journey of mine.
Early in the 1970's when an exhibition of ceramic art
works from the U.S.A., Canada, Mexico and Japan was held in Tokyo
National Museum of Modern Arts, I might already have started
on a journey to come across those works of dreamlike formation
and of rainbowlike coloration in line with a Western style of
I don't clearly recollect how long I spent at John F.
Kennedy Airport in New York after I landed at the place because
I was utterly at a loss how to control myself, overwhelmed by
crowds of people of all sorts I intermingled with there and by
expansive and extensive scenery of the American Continent I had
I was careful about how to take in breath as if I were
an animal left alone in a new world that I had never seen before,
then slowly I had my half of the pure air of the New World.
I felt an air of elegance together with an insignificantly
humid heat that was fumed in the dark-colored greenery of the
East Coast where I stayed during the summertime, when I came
to realize that I had had my fill of the pure air of the resort.
The students I saw at the College of Ceramics, Alfred
University, located in the upstate, or in the foothills of the
Allegheny Mountains in Western New York, were working on ceramic
art pieces in quite a liberal atmosphere. The scenery was of
such a deep impression as I had never made in Japan.
The summer session held by the College of Ceramics attracted
plenty of students who were aiming at a first-rate ceramic artist,
from every corner of the U.S.A.
Even dogs and cats seemed to enjoy the short summer, stretching
themselves comfortably beside those prospective ceramic artists.
As often happens, plenty of American ceramic artists of
those days had an unusual sensitivity for making their pieces
of work ride on the fashion of the world of art in general. They
were working on every possible style of products including ones
that are functionally oriented, of pop art, of conceptual art,
of hyperrealism, of installation, or color-field, all in a muddle
under the great influence of other genres of art.
This is why their works have not by 100 percent been regarded
as a pure line of art by artists of other genres. This situation
may be an inevitable result coming from Europeans' way of thinking
that they have set artistic handicraft far apart from a pure
line of art.
However, American ceramic artists of those days, mentally
free from any restraint, were able to produce any pieces of ceramic
work in any such sound-minded style as they wanted to, starting
to build up a new market for the products of their own since
the market was still in its infancy.
When I was asked, "What are you engaged in?"
at a gallery opening reception or something held at Manhattan,
New York, I replied, "I'm engaged in ceramic art."
Then I always got an order for ceramic coffee mugs. Those who
placed an order said to me, "Make a ceramic coffee mug for
me," making a fool of me half jokingly.
I met Robert Turner of Alfred University, a person of
quiet disposition with an English-gentleman-like figure during
my stay in New York. His work also had such an atmosphere of
quiet, and sedate nature as wafted by bottom-spacious bowls of
his, which was then covered with iron-matted glaze and deformed
with "Marking", looking quite chic in a refined style.
On the other hand Val Cushing was good at producing big-lidded
vessels by using a potter's wheel.
I continued to use a woodfire kiln for a long time since
I got engaged in ceramics. As for the clay and glaze for ceramic
arts, I followed a long-observed Japanese traditional way. Therefore
at first I felt that an American way of ceramic art was rather
foreign to me.
As against my awkward feeling toward an American style
of ceramic art, American ceramic artists always approached Japanese
counterparts in awe at a Japanese style of ceramic art. This
is why I was treated much more considerately than I had expected.
By their kind influence I managed to lead a pleasant summertime
both in the upstate and in Vermont where I was blessed with the
I visited ceramic artists' homes one after another and
was surprised all over again to find that every one of them was
greatly influenced by two artists: one was Shoji Hamada, a artist
of folk handicraft, and the other Bernard Leech. This finding
is worthy of special mention. It was in the 1950's that Shoji
Hamada introduced "noborigama" or a climbing kiln into
the U.S.A. from Japan. It took firm hold in the U.S.A. thanks
to his remarkable services he rendered. This incident made me
pretty pleasant and gratifying. I was also very much surprisingly
pleased to see many climbing kilns that had been brought to completion
and that had been actually in operation here and three in various
It is, however, very regrettable that the pieces of work
fired in those climbing kilns only bore an apparent resemblance
to the one fired in the corresponding kiln in Japan. The works
so produced were actually out of all recognition from Japanese-made
ones even though they used climbing kilns of Japanese tradition.
Probably this was due to the material they used, which was homogeneously
refined on a large scale by a big ceramic company.
Still, it is true that even now I can find those American
artists who have persistently preserved the mind and spirit beautifully
existing in the nature of folk handicraft. Each one of those
artists looked like a religious man. Warren MacKenzie was one
of them. I saw him as often as opportunity allowed and took off
my hat to his way of living a life. He always reminds me of the
fact that I have to ask myself what a creature the artist should
How stupid of me to have wished I could meet Peter H.
Voulkos. To tell the truth, this was one of the big purposes
that I had during an American ceramic journey of mine. The fact
was that at that time he lived at the West Coast while I lived
at the East Coast. It got me to give up my wish to meet him.
I was half in despair without any useful means available to cope
with the situation. His great name, then as now, echoed throughout
the country. Every time I mentioned his name, I always had to
face those artists who spoke to me half in a playful or teasing
way and half in a jealous attitude. They said to me "Are
you also one of those fellows who want to meet him?"
At this point of time I little suspected that things would
turn out this way. Shortly afterwards I was to be blessed with
a chance to get started on the firing of his works. I didn't
know that a retrospective exhibition of Peter H. Voulkos was
to be held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York exactly at that
time and Peter stayed there. What a coincidence!
On an earlier occasion I settled down at Ryosaku Miwa's
in Hagi City, where I assisted him in building an "anagama"
or a half-underground kiln. At one time during my stay there,
I showed Fredrick Mahler, a visitor from Los Angeles, around
Hagi City. To be frank with you, he was a mathematician as well
as a collector of modern ceramic art works, one of the collection
originators in this field in America. This great figure had Peter
coming up to Los Angeles, had him working at Otis Art Institute,
and had him going upon the world's stage.
It was through Mahler's good offices that I managed to
meet Peter at his brilliant opening reception that was held at
the Museum. At that night we had another spree, a carefree and
lively drinking bout, at the loft of a friend of his. (With this
artist Peter was associated at the time in the midst of abstractionism
when he was still sitting at an easel.) To the second party Jun
Kaneko, having just returned to America, made a timely appearance.
We wished a happy future to him, too. Having a very enjoyable
time with a good number of great artists there, I was bubbling
over with excitement, feeling as if I were blessed with sparkling
lights of the skyscraper.
A few days afterwards Peter held a ceramic workshop at
Greenwich Village, where I got several pieces of his ceramic
work in order to fire in an "anagama" or an underground
kiln. By this time I had instructed Peter Callas, a young American
ceramist who owned a small, firewood-using one-chamber type of
kiln, technical know-how about how to load items into the kiln
and how to fire them in it, based on a Japanese conventional
firing methodology. I fired several pieces of Peter Voulkos'
that he had made by using a little bit of iron-mixed clay. They
looked like "Bizen," one of the ceramic arts in Japan,
developed during the period of Azuchi-Momoyama (1568-1603). His
works brought innate strength out of the clay that he had used
and revealed it on the surface.
With this as a momentum I began to develop a new stimulating
relationship with both of them, Peter Callas and Peter Voulkos.
Having fired his works for a long time using wood, I found
that they looked soberly oxidized by ashes and embers. Taking
them with me, I left New York for San Francisco. Peter Voulkos
had already arrived at the airpot to receive me before I landed
at the place. He was having a taste of scotch and soda at a stylish
bar parlor of the airport when I, a strange-looking oriental
fellow, walked past the parlor. He called out to me, "Hey,
We left for his studio that was located at the Third Street,
taking a ride in a very old pickup truck that was subdued in
color. The artist's studio was like a small factory along a railway
track. What a terrible sight! Certainly I had expected to watch
the famed artist's studio consisting of his gorgeous residence
and workshop since he was then a man of intense interest, excitement,
or controversy all over the U.S.A. I felt a chill creep over
me. At the same time I felt as if I had caught a glimpse of the
core of craftsmanship.
Exquisitely Fredrick Mahler once said to me about the
essence of how to make the bowl, "Katsu, you cannot create
a genuine bowl at a place where you can see a Japanese apricot
tree in full bloom and hear a Japanese bush warbler sing songs
at any time you open a shoji or a paper-sliding door in front
of a potter's wheel stand of yours." He was indeed a great
man, having fostered Peter Voulkos. The latter fully justified
his fame as a disciple of the former.
Let me disclose one of Peter's private matters to you
in confidence. I have to tell you that he was good in nature
after all. He was afraid of no one else but Fredrick. The latter
sometimes rebuked the former for his carelessness, and then Peter
became silent and looked blue in the same manner as children
catch it from dad. This picture still comes up in my memory,
and then I am seized with laughter in spite of myself. It was
Fredrick only, no one else but Peter's father, that the artist
always cared about.
I intended to pay Peter Voulkos a casual visit on my way
back to Japan, but the fact is that I stayed at his studio for
as many as more than three weeks because I put off my stay from
day to day in the excess of my pleasure.
When he saw his own works that were woodfired for the
first time, he didn't talk much about them. On the spot in a
minute, he expressed his thanks for what I had done for him.
Then, he unsparingly gave me two pieces of his work. One was
like "a steep-rising tea bowl" and the other was "a
doll." Even now I can recollect that on that evening he
didn't state his impressions of the works in particular but he
continued to rub them gently without intermission by using his
long fingers of his big hands. From that time on, he continued
to put them on his favorite table, leaving a space between the
woodfire works and his new works.
It was not until a few days afterwards that he suddenly
began to talk about "Oribe", one of the ceramic arts
in Japan, developed by Furuta Oribe during the period of Azuchi-Momoyama
(1568-1603). To my surprise, he had accumulated a marvelously
professional knowledge about Japanese ceramic arts in general.
He was by far different from those who merely had interest in
He revealed one of his resources previously hidden, though
it was to a slight degree, saying that he had to be free from
any restraint and had to be courageously noble in mind and heart
whenever he set his hand to his work and that this belief was
exactly the same as the one entertained by Furuta Oribe.
You see what he believed in his work, judging from that
kind of stimulating coloring caused by the green iron-matted
glaze and that kind of stimulating deformity. On the other hand,
you could have driven him mad if you had showed him your work
interspersed with two or three fancy aesthetic words or trivial
distinctions, though this would have made you never see him again
with all having been over if you had taken such an action.
He believed in the idea that he always had to get started
on the basis of@ what he had got out of his own self-developed
skill and ability. I don' t know anyone else but him who hated
aesthetics, criticizing it so severely like that. He, like a
skillful hunter, succeeded in making "Oribe" of Japan
slide into his early works. Whenever I observe any of his works,
I am unconsciously forced to smile ironically feeling as if I
found a well-kept secret of his in it.
Let me tell you a little bit about Zen Buddhism though
I don't want to exceed the limits of good manners. Peter used
to enjoy "Zen mondo" or question-and-answer forms of
Zen, saying that white was black or black was white. I was tempted
to ask him what he had obtained, during his earlier days in New
York, from Suzuki Daisetsu's Zen lectures at Columbia University.
I was afraid this question was so absurd that he might have ceased
to speak to me or have cried in a voice of thunder if I had expressed
the inquiry to him.
I used to say to him, half in play and half in earnest,
"My former life led a life in Japan during its era of Azuchi-Momoyama
(1568-1603) in order to produce ceramic art works." Possibly
he might have entertained the spirit and passion that prevailed
during the Azuchi-Momoyama period as he had learned it before.
There was rarely any other western artist like him. He was a
man who left everything to the firing of the kiln. I never heard
him asking me why this or that happened on his works after they
I guess the Greek strain in him might not have allowed
him to make comment on his own woodfire works at any time, but
at one time or another I heard him talking about the charm of
Japanese earthenware, such as "Bizen," "Shigaraki,"
and "Iga." He always had the essence of the charm concealed
in his own works. I took a great fancy to the way he administered
such "poison" as this to his own works.
Late at night before I left for Japan, I promised him
to build an "anagama" for him one year afterwards in
order to fire his works. (The fact is that I had it built two
years afterwards for reasons of my own.) At that time he said
to me, "Katsu, you haven't obstructed my activities here
because you are rather small," when he was playing flamencos
on the guitar. He seemed to have learned to play the guitar on
a full scale in his youth. Nothing else but the guitar suited
a passionate man like him. He usually began to play the guitar
when the night was far advanced, about a few minutes past two
o'clock after the midnight. We were alone with no one else at
the scene. He seemed to hold the shadows of night dear for some
time while playing the instrument.
There were several enigmas to me about his studio. One
of them, which is even now a mystery to me, is as follows:
On the afternoon of every day was his studio filled with lots
of people, such as students of his, friends of his, and indeterminate
fellows who all appeared from nowhere. They took beer out of
the large refrigerator that was for business use, as they pleased
whether he stayed there or not, and talked about some or other
in various ways until finally they returned after twelve midnight.
What a long stretch of time they stayed there every day!
When I heard a very long freight train passing his gay
Third Street studio with a roaring sound and a high-pitched whistle,
I visualized a broken piece of solitude or the like in him, before
falling asleep, though he seemed to be far away from a solitary.
Two years afterwards I fulfilled my promise\I built an
"anagama" at New Jersey State Peters Valley Educational
Art and Craft Center. This project would have never been realized
without the superb backup of Peter Greeley, the Japan Society,
located at Manhattan, New York. The undertaking requiring concerted
effort also served for building a replica of the original kilns
which were built around the Mino district during the Kamakura
era (1192-1333) through the Muromachi era (1334-1567).
For the benefit of Peter Voulkos, who supported my class,
I had his half-dried works flied from the West Coast to the East
Coast. Now on a full scale he got started on his own woodfire
works. The texture engendered by natural glaze, embers, and ashes
made his works change completely, throwing him into ecstasies.
Peter Callas and I fired his works striving for mastery.
The "anagama" I built became one of the most
cerebrated ones all over the U.S.A., which resulted from the
fireing of his works. The "anagama" project was supported
with concerted efforts by a good number of people, including
Peter Voulkos, Rudy Autio, Jun Kaneko, Robert Turner, Toshiko
Takeezu, Ken Ferguson, Wayne Higby, Don Reitz, and too many other
ceramic artists to count.
The culture exchange ceramic art program that started
in 1979 made "anagama" widely popular. It was like
a dream come true. Now the "anagama" kilns has got
to be too numerous to be counted. I have managed to establish
the firing and hardening, a new genre of ceramic art, in the
history of American ceramic art. I feel that it was a matter
of wonderment every time I look back over it.
Peter Voulkos passed away on February 16, 2002 when staying
at Bowling Green, Ohio. He was at the age of 78. The official
funeral service for him was performed at the Oakland Museum on
April 6. It was the next day when the private memorial ceremony
was held at Peter's dome studio in the presence of nearly 400
attendants from all over the U.S.A., where for the first time
in a long time I saw again those people so dear to me, except
Peter. Now is the time I have to finish an American ceramic journey
of mine in line with a dramatic shift of the time from old to
new in a changing world.