The Best of 500 Ceramics

Lark’s highly visual 500 series includes, 500 Teacups, 500 Bowls, 500 Plates and Chargers, 500 Figures in Clay, 500 Pitchers, 500 Vases, 500 Teapots, 500 Ceramic Sculptures, 500 Animals in Clay, 500 Tiles, 500 Raku plus Masters in Porcelain. With very little text and nearly all full-page photographs, browsing through these books is like attending a show. And like any juried show, you find yourself swooning over some work and shaking your head at the inclusion of others.

Sometimes I amuse myself by wondering what Lark will do next: 500 Covered Jars? 500 Place Settings? 500 Baking Dishes? Oh, there are so many possibilities. How about 500 Architectural Pieces? 500 Horticultural Wares?

Before moving on to  other genres, however, and ending my speculation, they have published The Best of 500 Ceramics: Celebrating A Decade in Clay and, with help from a group of jurors, selected the “most technically masterful, stylistically inventive, and historically important pieces” from the prior books. Looking through The Best, I felt at first that it was weighted toward sculpture, but on a second read, I think it may be close to half and half. I was going to count, but a) I am too lazy and b) some pieces appear at first to be functional but may not be, such as the impossible Half-Doughnut Teapot by Leena Bantra. So, we will go with my guess.

Functional or sculptural, liking all the pieces is not the point of reading a book like this. The point is to see what people are doing with clay these days. What are the skills they are using? Where has their imagination taken them? Who are they making their pieces for? And does it resonate?

The pitcher shown above by Linda McFarling was chosen by Patrick L. Dougherty. He says, “This is a wonderfully balanced form with a great surface and a quiet but powerful presence.” Yes, indeed.

Looking at The Best of 500 Ceramics is a pleasant way to spend an hour or two. And the nice thing about a book like this is you can look at it several weeks or a year later, and see it differently.

Ken Matsuzaki on Film and Paper

I was not going to write about another of the books from the Goldmark Gallery in England for a few weeks, but the three catalogs and two DVD’s on Ken Matsuzaki are irresistible. Elemental, the DVD produced in 2009 is one of the best ceramic DVD’s I have seen. It includes the title video, nearly three quarters of an hour long, two shorter videos, Best in Show and Wooden Boxes, plus two slide shows one of pots from 2007, the other 2009.

Elemental opens with the sound of Matsuzaki and friends on traditional drums while we see fiery images of his anagama kiln (which was later destroyed in the March 2011 earthquake). Phil Rogers, one of the few potters Matsuzaki will allow to participate in a firing, comments on the process from beginning to end. We see Matsuzaki, his head wrapped in wet white towels, a welder’s mask across his face, and silvery fireproof arm guards as he shovels charcoal into the firemouth. When the shovel becomes red hot  he plunges it into a bucket of water to cool. Flames shoot out of the blowholes. The pots glow inside. The firing takes seven days, and consumes thousands of bundles of pine and chestnut wood, plus thirty to fifty bags of charcoal.

After a week’s wait, the kiln is opened and we see Matsuzaki as he unloads one astonishing pot after another. He is pleased. As is Rogers, who exclaims more than once over the fact that every pot has come through the rigors of the fire. There are no cracks or fissures. Rogers holds up various pieces, turns them over, and tells us how the kiln has affected each of them. Elemental closes with the well-attended opening at the Goldmark Gallery.

Goldmark has produced three beautiful monographs, Ken Matsuzaki with an essay by David Whiting in 2007, Ken Matsuzaki with an essay by Sebastian Blackie in 2009 which the Elemental DVD accompanies, and the most recent from 2011 with an essay by Phil Rogers. Miraculously, the pots for the last exhibit and book were already out of Japan when the earthquake struck and destroyed everything. Each of the monographs is well illustrated with high quality photos. A second DVD, which accompanies the third monograph, has a video of Matsuzaki throwing teabowls plus a slide show.

Matsuzaki glazes his pots with shinos, Oribe greens, and the natural ash glazes that cover his pots during the long firing process. His pots are meant both to behold — he places beauty above all other considerations — and if you choose, to use.

The good news is that Matsuzaki has rebuilt his kiln. This past spring, the Pucker Gallery in Boston showed his new work in an exhibit, Rising from the Ashes. I see too from his blog, Euan the Potter, that Euan Craig whose kiln was also destroyed in the earthquake is back in business. So ever so slowly, potters in Japan are recovering.