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Mamoru Taku
Japanese potter; Article by Kiyomi Noma

An Encounter with Organic Beauty

Hidasuki Tsurukubi Vase at Exhibition A vase drew me into a small gallery in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture. It was a vase with naturally graceful presence. There was perfect harmony between the sand beige coloured base and the glowing scarlet pattern on such a gentle form, I felt warm comfort surround me.

This sensation was what I had been longing for in Bizen-ware since my first Bizen experience in my childhood. I often visited galleries that specialised in Bizen pottery in Tokyo, journeys attempting to recapture those comfortable feelings. Despite my quest, ceramics at stylish galleries in Tokyo left me cold and uninspired. My search brought me to Okayama, the birthplace of Bizen. Unlike my expectations, most of the works I saw were mass-produced expressionless souvenirs. I had nearly come to the conclusion that Bizen had lost its warmth until I chanced upon an exhibition in Kurashiki. I immediately sensed a peaceful energy from the exhibits and explored them keenly with my eyes and hands.

"What element makes your creations so warm and attractive?"

I could not help asking a man who appeared to be the potter in the gallery.

"Well," the man chose his words carefully and replied, "It could be the flavour of the clay."

This was how I encountered the Bizen potter, Mr. Mamoru Taku and his works.
"I can see subtle gravel residue in your ceramics. The surface could potentially appear rough with gravel, but on the contrary, the texture shows a smooth organic flow. Would this be characteristic of Bizen clay?"

Answering my question, Taku-san said,

"Bizen clay contains various organic properties (around 200 different kinds) which I believe help to create the smooth texture of the pottery. Even my hands have become very smooth after making Bizen pottery for over two decades."

I read somewhere that Bizen potters used clay as a homemade vulnerary ointment. Penicillin and other organic properties contained in Bizen clay can cure wounds.

"My mission is to express this organic flavour of Bizen clay.

Thus, clay preparation is of prime importance in my work. The firing techniques and shapes are decided based upon the clay and the chosen theme of the work."

"The vase you were studying is shaped using a classical method, called 'Himo-tsukuri (ring-stacking).' It is the best shaping technique bringing the clay's flavour to that particular vase. Clay in artefacts made with 'Himo-tsukuri' keep their organic properties in tact. Due to its uneven texture the light on 'Himo-tsukuri' works is refracted. It could be this aspect that makes the works appear somewhat warm."

Taku-san also told me that he had built his own kiln in order to create the exact conditions for his creations. I was compelled to explore "Himo-tsukuri" in more depth, to personally visit Taku-san's kiln and understand the properties which made his subtle creations so warm and attractive to the senses. I booked a ticket to his studio in Takebe.

  Visiting Takebe (opens in new window)

Devoir to Clay
Taku-san took me to an outdoor corner near his studio and showed me how he prepares the clay for his pottery.

Clay Preparation "This first procedure should be done quickly, it is simply to moisten the clay. If you knead clay too much, then its subtle organic properties are lost."

Taku-san explained, as his assistant and son, Shusaku demonstrated the procedure of mixing ground soil and water.

Currently Taku-san keeps over 20 sorts of mixed clay in his studio. He picked up some from the shelf.
Best Clay for Hidasuki
"This clay is the best for making 'Hidasuki' (fire-pattern on a light base) works. I have not tampered with its content in any way. The original clay, which is taken from the site, has just been moistened. As you can see, this chunk contains various layers of different elements. This clay includes natural elements I need for making old-style Bizen 'Hidasuki' works. However, it is not perfect, it is lacking one substantial element, iron."

Taku-san showed me a fragment of pottery.
Old Hidasuki Fragment
"This is a part of an old Hidasuki pottery. Do you see the tiny black dots? These dots are oxidised iron created during the firing procedure.

Iron darkens the colour of the pottery and it is therefore quite contradictory to include iron when making light-coloured Hidasuki works. Most contemporary 'Hidasuki' artists use clay without iron, resulting in a clear light coloured piece."
Comparison of with and w/o iron As a comparison, Taku-san brought two tea bowls.

"The bowl on the table has a high iron content whilst this one in my hand contains less."
The work containing more iron is slightly mottled and has a darker hue whilst the other has a very smooth clean finish. For me the bowl with the higher iron content has a richer, more intense flavour.

"As I stated earlier, the best clay for 'Hidasuki' does not contain iron, so I mix the clay with an iron-rich soil, taken from a site near a historical kiln dating back more than 4 centuries. The iron-rich soil is the equivalent to salt in cooking; it brings out the best flavour of the material. This is the clay recipe I use for making my classic 'Hidasuki' collections."

"Throughout my studies of old Bizen masterpieces, I found that sometimes the ingredients contain elements that theoretically shouldn't be put together. The iron in the 'Hidasuki' work I showed you earlier is a good example. The old masterpieces teach me that the inclusion of only the 'best' materials to the exclusion of all others does not necessarily create the 'best' works. Sometimes baser materials are complimentary and enhance the created texture. Having the right thing in the right place with the correct balance is the key.

"Have you heard of a technical term, 'levigation?'

It is a process suspending soil in water to separate the coarser material from clay, a method commonly used by potters today. You can prepare huge amounts of clay with this method and levigated clay is soft and easy to shape. Clay Slices I personally choose not to use levigated clay because the clay becomes homogenised and many of the original organic properties are lost during this procedure
However, I still need to filter out larger pieces of gravel to avoid holes being created in the potteries. In order to do this, I divide the clay into very thin slices then remove any coarse gravel that is thicker than these slices."

It was still a little hard for me to visualize the difference between levigated clay and Taku-san's method and so I asked him,

"What happens if you mix seasoning clay such as the one containing iron into levigated clay?"

He answered, "If you mix red and white paint, it makes pink paint. But if you mix red sand into white sand, the result is different, isn't it? The texture and colour is more mottled and uneven. Levigated clay is more like paste.

Compared to levigation, my clay preparation is a process that requires a lot of time and effort. If I prepared all my material with this method then the number of items produced would be very limited.

"Time is a concern for another reason. My collection includes introductory works for daily use such as mugs and cups. They are equally as important to me as my classic collection. I am happy if people can enjoy the flavour of the clay from my mugs and cups in their daily life, and then gain something deeper from my classic collections.

It is not practical to prepare all the clay for both the introductory and classic collections using the earlier stated filtering method so I came up with a solution that kept the clay flavour as much as possible but took less time. If I got rid of the coarse gravel at the soil grinding stage instead of using the slice filtering method I could keep the quality of the introductory works intact despite producing a greater quantity of them."

Taku-san means quality not just for the appearance, but the durability of the products as well. He keeps natural, unevenly grained organic properties for scientific as well as aesthetic reasons.

"Apart from adding to the clay flavour, uneven grains in the clay actually strengthen the pottery. If you take a micro view of the pottery in the kiln, you would see two dynamisms at work. One is a stabilising force, the fire, and the other is an expansive force from clay counteracting inside clay. Clay has a natural tendency to expand in heat, but the potteries are shaped in certain forms and the force of the fire stabilises the form. Thus two enormous counteracting energies are created inside the potteries. The space in the uneven grains of clay lets out the extraneous energy and adjusts the internal force balance.

If you use clay with a very even grain, then the internal expanding force is kept inside the potteries even after cooling. This remaining expansive force is called 'intrinsic material stress' and becomes activated when heated. So, if you microwave the potteries which still have this 'intrinsic material stress', then the remaining expansive force reacts with heat and it is likely to break from the inside.

That is another reason why I prepare uneven, naturally formed clay for my potteries."

Stacking Soul into Shape
Taku-san Shaping a Vase I came to learn that the vase that captured my attention at the gallery in Kurashiki was one of Taku-san's lifeworks. It is called 'Hidasuki Tsurukubi Vase,' translated as 'A Crane-necked vase with a fire pattern.'

Taku-san showed me the procedure of shaping the vase with the 'Himo-tsukuri (Ring-Stacking)' method.

  Find more from the report
(opens in new window)

It was a soulful communication between Taku-san and his precious clay. I saw how this method could bring out the true flavour of clay in pottery.

Kiln, the Firing Dragon
Taku-san built his second kiln by himself in 1998 and it is located next to his studio.

It is a long clay dome tunnel partially underground, and ascending upwards along a gentle slope of about fifteen degrees. Measuring about 12 metres long it can house anywhere between 500 and 2000 pieces of work.

Many potters nowadays use gas kilns for greater productivity, but Taku-san only fires his work with this wood fuelled kiln. Once the kiln is on fire, it burns continually for ten days. Depending on the type of works in the kiln, Taku-san adjusts the temperature, which can vary from 950 to 1250 degrees Celsius. The kiln takes the same amount of time to cool as it does to heat up.

After hearing about all the hard work involved in firing products, I began to understand why Taku-san fires his kiln just twice a year. Unfortunately, the kiln was not at work when I visited.
Taku-san Building Cave Kiln
The kiln has nine stories. Each floor is quite spacious with small openings on both sides where the wood is burnt. During the firing, works are laid on the shelf, facing towards the fire door. Kiln, shelf Inside of Kiln
Lining Wall Brick of the Kiln The inside of the kiln is surprisingly beautiful. It has an ash-glazed lining wall that shines a bright emerald green. It reminded me of a pottery dragon with its cracked scales, belching forth fire.

"I aim to fire the whole kiln, not just the potteries."

"The lining bricks are made from a similar material to the potteries themselves. This aspect means that the whole environment inside the kiln is balanced in the best possible way for my pieces. The thermal conduction and cooling time are the same for the kiln and its contents.

One more consideration in this environment is the control of the ashes. Ashes have a tendency to start glazing on an object with a lower calcining temperature. Utilising this nature, I allow the lining bricks to collect the ashes. The material for the lining has a lower calcining temperature than the potteries.

The reaction to the heat from the glazed clay, the ash-covered clay and plain clay are all different from each other. Glazed clay and ashes contract whilst clay expands. If the ashes cover the works from many directions, then the contraction power of the ashes overcomes the clay, which can deform the potteries. It is therefore very important to try to avoid this situation."

Taku-san's kiln style is called 'Ana-gama (cave kiln).' It is an old style kiln abandoned centuries ago, after the introduction of a more productive style, called 'Nobori-gama (climbing kiln)' from Korea. The interior of the climbing kiln is divided into rooms. The partitions make it easier then a cave kiln to control the temperature.

"I used to fire with a climbing kiln. However, I needed more straightforward fire force to bring my works closer to the old Bizen masterpieces. I decided to recreate this 'Anagama (cave kiln)'in a similar style to those old kilns built in the 16th century. I had to study the structure all by myself from documents and the old, surviving kilns themselves.

I'm still learning to fully understand the characteristics of 'Anagama (cave kiln).' There are no masters left to ask for advice, so I learn mainly from my own 'hands-on' experience.

Normally, in the climbing kiln, the front line is the best seat, so potters put their best work there. But I learnt that the dynamism of fire works differently in the cave kiln. I see it more like the flow of water in a river. From the surface, the strongest force appears to be occurring at the rock where the stream hits, but inside the water, it is actually right behind the rock where the current caused by the rock hits the main flow.

Similarly, the best spot in a cave kiln is behind the first line where the convicted fire force and straight forward fire force meets."

Taku-san brought two pieces of imagery data from his production data.
Fire Force, Before Fire Force, After

"As you can see in these two images of before and after. The fire hits the works in the front line and it tries to go through the works to go upwards and hits the next row. As a result, fire forces draw landscapes on the works."

Article and images courtesy Kiyomi Noma and wazen-online. © wazen-online.

Next page > Landscapes, Drawn by Fire

More on Mamoru Taku

  Mamoru Taku's biography
  View Mamoru Taku's Collection

  View Mamoru Taku's Special Collection
  Takebe - Mamoru Taku's Studio
  Learn about the "Himo-tsukuri" Method
  Landscapes on Bizen potteries

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