One with the Elements: Ceramics by Ken Matsuzaki

Pucker Gallery
Mar 18, 2016 7:55PM

"It is not what is seen on the surface that counts , but what is not seen. This root is what matters... In the unseen root, the real power, the real strength of an object lies.” —Shoji Hamada

What makes an individual a master of the ceramic medium? By definition a master is “an artisan qualified to teach apprentices.” In high school, Ken Matsuzaki was not only teaching, but also grading his younger students’ work and in the forty years since, he has far surpassed the title of “master.” His dedication and passion for clay makes him a seemingly supernatural force, respected and revered by fellow artists, scholars, and collectors. He has developed an unrivaled union with fire, wood, earth, metal, and water – becoming one with the elements.

Matsuzaki’s father was a collector of Japanese folk art and his passion generated sparks of ceramic interest within his son. He would often show Ken old ceramics, along with wood block prints, while telling him stories about the work. When Ken was in junior high school, father and son would venture to antique fairs together. Witnessing the buying and selling of folk art allowed for those sparks of interest to become a flame. High school art classes acted as a furnace for that flame. This is where he first experienced the potter’s wheel, along with gas and electric kilns. His natural talent became evident and his art teacher encouraged further development in his ceramic studies. Both his teacher’s interest in his potential and his own growing passion created a fork in Matsuzaki’s path. Though he greatly enjoyed working in clay, his original plan was to study agricultural science in college. When Ken Matsuzaki was accepted by the School of Fine Art at Tamagawa University in Tokyo, the ceramic world dodged a crippling blow. Had his career focus remained in agricultural science, his pottery in museums, galleries, and private collections around the world might never exist.

During his college years, Matsuzaki made two important decisions: one was to earn his livelihood as a potter and the second was to apprentice with Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007). Shimaoka was the second Living National Treasure of Mashiko, Japan, a town renowned for its pottery. Shoji Hamada (1894-1978), the first Living National Treasure of Mashiko, established the town’s reputation and was Tatsuzo Shimaoka’s teacher. Matsuzaki could not have better aligned himself to advance in the realm of ceramics and during this time his fiery passion was fueled. After training with Shimaoka for five years, Ken began to work independently.

Taking in all he learned and experienced over the years, his work was heavily influenced by the Mingei movement (finding beauty in handmade utilitarian objects for daily use). This traditional aesthetic is significant in Japanese pottery, but is also capable of muting originality for the individual artist. Matsuzaki realized this was true when a foreign art specialist commented that a Matsuzaki pot looked like a copy of Shimaoka’s work. Such a comment would certainly be difficult to digest, but rather than feeling discouraged and allowing his efforts to dwindle, Ken deeply and honestly considered the originality of his own work. The result of his contemplation lead to a turning point; yet another fork in his path. He had to decide if he was committed to continuing in the traditional Mingei style, or if he was willing to travel into the unknown in search of his own aesthetic.

Square plate, oribe glaze
Pucker Gallery
Mug, shino glaze
Pucker Gallery

His choice to pursue originality is evident in viewing this recent collection. Matsuzaki’s departure from the wheel in order to develop a personalized handbuilding method opened the gates to a panoply of new shapes constructed with clay. Moving away from familiar glazes allowed for new color and texture palettes to emerge, and exploring different firing techniques brought versatility to his final results. Collectively, these new ways of working bring an energetic, yet timeless quality to his work.

Matsuzaki’s process is the root of his work. From beginning to end, equal measure of mindfulness and effort is given to each step of the unabating process required to produce a pot. Digging, transporting, pulverizing, sieving, drying, and wedging (kneading) of the clay all are necessary prior to wheel throwing and handbuilding. Afterward, pieces must be trimmed and glazed. It is common for works to crack or break as they go bone dry. Works that manage to survive the glazing process still must face the final gauntlet of the kiln. After working for six months to create a group of pots to fill his kiln, another month is needed for loading, firing, unloading, and cleanup of both the kiln and the final pieces. During firing, the artist and natural forces of wood, air, and fire collaborate to transform the works. Only those deemed worthy will move beyond the kiln. Works that do not meet Matsuzaki’s aesthetic standards are smashed and discarded over the shards of their predecessors. Ken’s discipline and respect for process is testimony to his true commitment as a ceramic artist. 

A rounded vase with oribe glaze (MK877) is an example of process and exploration at work. (Oribe refers to a style of pottery produced in Japan beginning in the late sixteenth century, most identifiable for its use of a glassy and fluid copper green glaze.) When placed in the kiln, this piece became a playground for fire, glaze, and ash. Its faceted edges allowed the glaze to behave like water, gently washing over a tranquil beach. Where the clay is elevated and comes to a thin edge the glaze becomes translucent, showing the iron speckled stoneware through the green hue. As the clay returns to a uniform thickness, the oribe also becomes thicker, darker, and lush like a coniferous forest. As fire and air currents swirled through the kiln and around the vase like a river, they carried with them fly ash to lightly dance on the surface encouraging electric blue waterfalls to form on the left side of the vase.

Rectangular vase, kigushuri decoration
Pucker Gallery
Bowl, yohen shino glaze
Pucker Gallery

A pair of plates (MK889 and MK890) are gorgeous examples of the versatility of Matsuzaki’s oribe glaze, coupled with the awesome potential of a highly successful wood firing. In general, both handbuilt and wheel-thrown plates are notoriously difficult. During the making process they must dry slowly and evenly or they will warp and easily distort. When fired, they often crack, exploit inconsistent glaze application, and the wide, open forms leave the surface susceptible to contaminants and kiln debris. Matsuzaki’s plates are almost anomalies of the ceramic world. In both plates, the oribe glaze flows from light to deep green, transitioning to pools of blue that range in color from the night sky to Caribbean waters. As with many of Matsuzaki’s pots, they become unique, self-contained worlds when visually and physically held.

Run your fingers across the smooth shino surface on the top of a tea bowl (chawan, MK891), then follow to where the smoothness meets Matsuzaki’s thick, white feldspar glaze resembling snowcapped hillsides. Move further along the piece to find small pockets of bare clay, like patches of desert laying bare the stoneware’s grit. Such results are certainly not achieved overnight – and often not in one’s life time. Curiosity leads to understanding materials, determination allows for overcoming obstacles, persistence hones skill, and originality is born of creativity. Passion is the inferno that forges all these qualities into one and Ken Matsuzaki is passionate.

      – Jay Pastorello (January 2016)


Jay Pastorello is a ceramic artist and teacher at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. With more than a decade of experience, he continues to experiment with innovative artistic expression in clay. 

Pucker Gallery