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The Clan of One — The Bear Revisited

by Peter Ujlaki
(First published in the magazine Ceramics: Art and Perception #58; 2004; www.ceramicart.com.au)

Kumano Kurouemon signs his work in one of two ways. He scratches the two kana characters for "kuma" (bear), or else all four Latin letters get clawed into the clay. Either way, contemporary ceramic collectors wonder why he bothers; there is little to no chance of mistaking a piece produced by the burly, snow country wood-firer known as the "Bear of Echizen."

An article detailing Kumano's singular, uncompromising approach to his craft appeared five years ago in this magazine (#35), explaining how two or three times a year the man prowls his native mountains for particularly durable clay. He then throws or coils about 150 pieces, mostly vases, tea bowls, and sake wares, but also a few large urns and some plates, mugs and teapots, dipping roughly half the lot into vats of iron slip and home-made Shino glaze. Up to this point, apart from the bulky, roughhewn nature of the work — some of it seems to have been pawed over and gouged by an actual bear — there is little to distinguish Kumano from quite a few no-nonsense, traditional potters working in the Japanese countryside today.

large vaseBut then comes his firing. More or less foregoing sleep for a week, Kumano remains either hunched down with logs in hishands near the opening of his low-slung, half underground angama, or else he paces agitatedly up and down the 7-meter sides. As he tosses in cord after cord after cord, he is obliged to constantly adjust his stoking rhythm to what his ears ("the most important organ of the body when firing") tell him about the conditions inside. At the same time, he forces himself to stay attuned tooutside factors like the day's humidity and the direction of the wind. He even struggles to estimate the varying amounts of potential energy stored in the different quality of oak wood found in each stack.

Such toil and concentration is necessary because Kumano's target every firing is to build temperature to the level of 1520ºC. This is the temperature at the top of a volcanic cone, just before the lava spills out of the earth's navel to form new rock. It is also a point very close to the summit of possibilities of a wood kiln at his altitude, one that many potters would call an excessive goal, or even foolhardy. In actuality, even after more than a quarter century of refining his firing techniques, Kumano never knows each time the ordeal starts whether he will succeed; it is as if every force in nature, apart from his stubborn will, opposes him. In the end, the strain of trying to reach peak temperature,let alone maintaining it for the proper amount of time (more difficult still!) and then orchestrating a crucial flourish of actions before closing down, exhausts him physically and mentally for weeks.

Emotionally, it is all Kumano can do to return to the lonely mountainside some ten days later and unbrick the side opening. He often delays this a day, or two or three, because what largely emerges from the kiln are, in addition to the cleft plates and split urns typical of anagama firings, a sad, sometimes grotesque parade of collapsed vases, melted-down bowls, and cups fused to platters — disheartening failures destined for a shard heap that consistently claims up to 80% of each load.

Sake PourerIt seems that the combustion achieved in Kumano's "extreme" firings attacks any weak spot in even the thickest-walled of pots, causing larger works to buckle and distort. Smaller pieces on their way to the pudding-like state that occurs around 1400º tremble on the shelves like Holy Rollers; this leads to collisions and permanent fusing, which is rarely a good thing. As for the kiln furniture itself, Kumano considers himself lucky if only a single shelf collapses from the pressures of the firing environment.

This is all to what purpose, one might ask, Kumano's costly fixation on reaching 1520º? At first, as a student, it was the spiritual idea and the challenge of the hard fight that appealed to the him — wrestling with the forces that created his volcanic country, testing the true grit (the "warrior soul"?), of the famous veins of clay lines crisscrossing the landscape, and so on. In time, however, the more immediate rewards of his obsession started to reveal themselves.

As if by alchemical magic,the combination of Kumano's rugged Echizen mountain clay and his personal brew of natural Shino, when unprotected from flying ash and punished by white heat (but not for too long), has the ability to produce a kaleidoscope of rich reds and greens, plus an equally diverse range of browns, grays and whites. The extra-thick glaze appears to change hue with every half-degree increase in temperature, so a crowded, complex, unpredictable palette can be found within a very small area of the piece, on a surface that has been pocked, flaked, and encrusted by the scorching flames. The remnants of a few giant shells only add to the visual and tactile delights.

And sometimes, in the midst of this Impressionist canvas of mostly woodland hues emanating from deep beneath the surface, there suddenly turns up a streak of Kumano's trademark cobalt blue, or a splash of an otherworldly chalky turquoise. The vivid cobalt comes from the top temperatures working on the Shino. The ethereal turquoise, on the other hand, is ash residue fallen from a higher plane. By this is meant the shelves and kiln ceiling, of course, but so startling is its effect that the color could just as well have dripped from another galaxy. These various blue accents make the viewer feel as if they are gazing at an ice grotto filled with trapped gems, or the primordial terrain of Iceland, a surface powerfully glacial and actively volcanic at the same time. Against all reason, such pots seem to have permanently sealed in both fire and ice.

Vase NaturalNatural ash works also metamorphose beautifully in Kumano's kiln as temperatures climb above 1500º. Echizen clay, dark purple when fired, is the antithesis of Shigaraki's in that it does not easily show flame marks on its surface. Nonetheless, the amount of mineral-rich flying ash deposited and melted in that environment grows so copious that 20% of the non-Shino pieces (not more, Kumano explains, because oak heat tends to course through the chamber in a straight line) have the potential to emerge with handsome beige-brown shoulders, multi-hued rivulets, large speckles and countless other intriguing effects.

These, then, are the some of the rewards for which Kumano perseveres on his solitary course ... and for which his fans line up at the sole exhibition he has enough pieces each year to mount. In truth, even there one finds a goodly number of pots on display that sport major cracks and gold or silver-plated lacquer repairs, but these condition problems do not detract from the work's special beauty.

Or its power. The Shino and natural ash samurai that have survived Kumano's furnace additionally seem to emanate a certain, strength, rootedness and integrity, as well as a tempered hardness. Owners talk about receiving energy from them, and even, yes, using a piece as a healing force in their lives. At the very least, there is no growing tired of one; the only danger is its blowing away less "substantial" objects in a room.

None of the above has changed in the last five years, except that Kumano has added a few new forms (notably a pitcher and a split-vase serving dish), and concentrates more on the hikidashi technique at the end of each firing. Also, he has learned that reaching "only" 1480º, but holding temperature there for an extra day, can produce in the Shino wares several new ineffable colors. For reasons entirely unclear, a very pleasing luster has also started to appear from time to time.

The thrill of exploring this endless unknown, however, goes only so far. Despite his love of the unpredictable and the accidental, the bear is showing signs of wearying and giving up the overall struggle. He has never found a suitable apprentice to join his clan — few choose to pursue a path that never gets easier — and the cumulative stress of suffering so much failure is clearing affecting him. "What's the point? When I started making pottery this way, I knew nothing. Now, after all these hard years I still only understand only 2 or 3 percent!" Needless to say, if he abandons his brand of firing, he would have to leave pottery-making altogether. Given the way he views the art, half-way measures are out of the question.

Hope for pottery lovers, though, lies in the obvious depth of the man's obsession with fire.

   Other writings:

Kumano's Musings
Kumano's Philosophy
The German Tour
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