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The Philosophy of Kumano Kurouemon

by Peter Ujlaki (with assistance from Bernhard Braumann)
First published in the magazine Ceramics: Art and Perception #35 (1999)

I.   Kumano Kurouemon, the Bear of Echizen

vaseEchizen, the area around Fukui City near the Sea of Japan is known to pottery lovers as the location of one of the "Six Ancient Kilns," meaning its stoneware tradition has been of major importance in the development of Japanese ceramics. Today, however, the region is far more celebrated for its eyeglass lens manufacturing and its winter-season crabs, having failed to attract to its soil — snow-covered for months on end — the kind of gifted contemporary potters that have revived the fortunes of other ancient sites like Bizen and Shigaraki.

This makes for a rather lonely situation for the few serious potters that are in Echizen. Spread out here and there throughout a fairly wide area on the "back side" of Japan, they lose out in terms of regular peer feedback, and they are also beyond the radar of most media. Even rabid pottery hounds keep their distance, contenting themselves with a visit to the museum to see the giant unglazed medieval urns that epitomize the classic Echizen look.

But for potter Kumano Kurouemon, who was born in Echizen, the province's remote, overlooked quality is ideal. Like the road up to his kiln, the creative path that Kumano has decided to embark on is a narrow and solitary one, and it is also one so unique that normal professional feedback or outside attention is of no real help. In fact, the contemporary pottery scene beyond his kiln is mostly irrelevant to him, something he tends to see as a distraction from the intense focus he needs to bring to his own work. As for the buying public, if Kumano had a showroom, or there were ever any pieces left over from his occasional exhibitions, he might welcome it. But he doesn't, and there never are, thanks largely to a pitifully small annual output, another side effect of the special path he has chosen.

Many a wood-fire potter in Japan has doubtlessly dreamed of trying to crank up the heat in their kiln to 1500º C for the thrill of it, but to actually do so would be foolhardy. At 1500º C one is well past the useful melting point of most glazes — they run off the pots or badly discolor — and of almost all varieties of clay! What you would likely be left with when the kiln finally cooled are puddles of collapsed, warped, fused and otherwise deformed pieces, with perhaps a shard or two to use as chopsticks rests. Altogether, not what any sane potter wants to risk seeing after an expensive, exhausting firing.

And yet Kumano, a black bearded bear of a man who does not come from a pottery family and thus knows no kiln taboos, already in his apprenticeship years decided that achieving successful firings of 1500º C or above was the only proper goal for him as an artist. Not just once, but every time he fired this had to be his challenge. As a result, over 20 years ago he set to work investigating the durability of local clays, heat-maximizing firing methods, and of course an appropriate kiln shape.


II.   Earth and Fire, Earth and Fire

sakeFor the first, Kumano learned by trial and error that the only clay sturdy enough to withstand the temperature inside his kiln was found high up in the hills, not close at hand in the paddy fields where many potters dig. He has since discovered too that, even at high altitudes, the right stuff was a scarce resource. Indeed, to see him travel in his pick-up truck the tiny mountain roads of Echizen — squinting his eyes to spot telltale colors and specific types of trees an then jamming on the brakes and scampering uphill with pick and shovel — is to relive the febrile days of a gold rush.

Having obtained suitable clay, the next step is the one almost every potter would agree is the most important: working the clay, fashioning it into pleasing, intriguing shapes, and adding glazes. Kumano feels these steps are overrated: "Earth and fire, earth and fire," Kumano says,"That's all that counts." Actually, despite such apparent disregard, his modeling at the wheel and his glazing technique are both very strong. Done in an intensely concentrated period just before a firing, (which in turn usually takes place at the last minute before a show), his forms have a rough-hewn quality to them, seemingly haphazardly thrown together and full of primitive energy. They are also invariably a bit heavy and oversized — the sake cups can double as winter tea bowls, some of his flower vases can easily accommodate sunflowers, and his teapots fill 12 cups to the brim — their only decoration being Kumano's signature gouged out deep and large: the two kana for "bear," the meaning of the first character of his name.

Kumano's passion at the wheel, and his equally bold, splashy calligraphy, call to mind Shiko Munakata, the legendary 20th-century woodblock artist. Munakata, too, was known for intensely focused bursts of energy, a person so much at one with his work that it was said it was difficult to tell where the one began and the other stopped. Curiously, Munakata was also recognized as belonging to the bear clan: "Little Bear," they called him.

But whereas Munakata was famous for his booming voice, Kumano, 43 years old, reserves all his energy for the clay. In fact, his voice is barely audible at times ... but he tries to make up for it. When you ask him a question, he thrusts his hands out through the cloud of smoke enveloping him — he's a chain smoker — and moves them around in circles, palms down, hoping to conjure up the answer from the bowels of the earth. (Or is he modeling a mound of clay on an imaginary wheel, a medium of expression he feels more at home with?) Alternatively, he grabs a piece of chalk and draws his answer on the floor.

After clay is modeled comes the glazing step. Kumano adds an iron slip when a batch of clay lacks iron, but eschews nearly all glazes except for Shino. Potters have known about Shino for centuries, valuing it for its warm, molten, milky white quality, but after Kumano, who dips over half his pieces into it, the book on Shino has to be re-written. He does not protect the Shino pieces in saggers, and of course he fires them extremely high, which results in colors and surface textures so unique the effect has been given its own name: "Kuma Shino."


III.   An Active Volcano

tea potTo fire up his kiln Kumano must employ novel strategies and cadences, but these are not easy to relate because, unlike the vast majority of potters, many of whom create a relaxed, invite-your-friends, party-like atmosphere, Kumano allows nobody at the event except his wife. All she reports is that the man doesn't sleep for the entire six days, a fact totally in keeping with his character and one that helps explain the long re-charging periods he needs between his thrice annual battles.

If you visited Kumano's atelier during one of the long down-times, however, you could at least see the towering heaps of chopped oak logs — not pine like most potters because oak, he feels, results in beautiful iron and cobalt markings on the pots — and you could peak at the kiln itself. It is a sleek, low-slung, 10 meter-long, single-chambered anagama , constructed half below ground at a 2 degree slope in a style called "split bamboo". One look at it is enough to realize that every aspect of it was designed with only one purpose in mind: maximizing the speed and pressure of the torrent of flames rushing through it. Alas, letting such a monster rip does not come without sacrifices. Despite a couple of decades of honing his firing skills, Kumano's failure rate on pieces is still over 80%. And always hovering over the scene is the threat that everything in the kiln might collapse. How Kumano can see into the blinding white heat and gauge the right moment to begin the cooling off week is an alchemical trick in itself.

The biggest question of all of course is: Why is Kumano obsessed with 1500ºC? Aren't there easier ways to produce good pots? He usually responds to this in a mystical way, which in itself is not so uncommon among Japanese potters, who often talk about their profession in terms of mediating between life's sacred elements. Kumano, however, who spends the many months between firings researching the lore and sites of the ancient peoples of his region, takes the discussion several steps further.

"Did you know that the temperature found inside an active volcano — of which there are numerous examples in Japan — is 1520º C? And that it is in this environment that soil and rock, the basis of all existence, are formed?" Put differently, that is the temperature at which the gods play around and create forms, and thus, Kumano reasons, shouldn't potters be trying to do likewise? Surely it must be the highest goal of a clay artist to approximate the primal furnace, and, who knows, perhaps even steal fire from the gods in the manner of Prometheus-- who, by the way, is sometimes credited with also bringing the arts to mankind. In effect, this is the line of thinking, seemingly more Hellenistic than belonging to the Tao, that led Kumano to set the lonely course of his career.


IV.   Dare to Go Further

seed jarBut don't get him wrong. Kumano is not chasing a specific kiln temperature merely to play symbolic catch-up with the planet's creative forces. At a far more practical level, Kumano feels that a pot actually becomes most alive at 1500º C, at the very moment when it is a quivering molten mass about to collapse on itself. If one can capture it at that instant, when it has been well-tempered by the crucible and battle-hardened, bowed perhaps but definitely still full of fighting character, then you have a work of art that exudes strength and mystery. Such a piece — resembling a work of nature more than a man-made object — actually offers energy to the viewer, making it is something you will never grow tired of looking at.

In addition, against all odds, some stunning and unique color effects emerge on the pots that survive Kumano's temperatures. First, depending on the clay used, the bare areas will fire the deep, rich browns and reds of old Echizen ware. Where flying wood ash under high pressure has adhered to the clay surface, or old accretions dripped down from the kiln roof and shelves — what the Japanese call "natural glaze" — you can get a variety of browns and greens, punctuated by rivulets of cobalt blue where the Promethean flames were the most intense.

Most astounding of all, however, is what happens to the Shino pieces. At 200 degrees above its usual temperature and totally unprotected in the kiln, Kumano's super-thick glaze starts the typical Shino crawl, (sometimes forming large flakes that half lift up from the piece) and presents an extraordinary palette of rare and delicate reds, blues and whites It is like a miracle — feldspathic mud transformed by the raging fires of hell into a heavenly rainbow. And each time there are new surprises. In Kumano's most recent firing, thanks to a particular fierce barrage of wood at the end, a few pieces emerged with a wondrous luster effect!

In short, though Kumano plays a very high-risk game — some criticize him for being obsessed with firing at the expense of utility and productivity — the rewards are very tangible to anyone who takes possession of one of his successful pieces. The larger works will dominate a room, drawing our attention to its heroic qualities, while the smaller pieces cry out to be held and fondled. Owners of a Kumano sake cup tend to spend their evenings rotating it over and over again in their hands, forgetting television and the lot to meditate on the universe exposed therein.

Love his work or not, the message implied by Kumano's quest is important for other wood-fire potters today: Experiment. Push. Dare to go further. Despite his own obsessions about tempering mountain earth with fire primeval, at the end of the day Kumano admits, "There are no bad kilns or bad clays, only impure hearts of potters."

   Other writings:

Kumano's Musings
The Bear Revisited
Kumano's German Tour

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