Designated in 1990 as an “intangible cultural asset” of his village of Shigaraki, Japan, artist Shiro Otani makes his only public U.S. appearance this month with us at SHED.
Born in 1936, Shiro may not really have had any choice about becoming a ceramicist. After all, pottery is an 800-year-old tradition in Shigaraki. And in the late 15th century, the clay ware that the village artisans produced became something of the rage among practitioners of the traditional tea ceremony, who had previously used more polished sets from China.
The apocryphal story is that, in the 1600s, tea master Murata Juko proposed the concept of wabi cha, in which humble ordinary objects became elevated in regard, and were used even at occasions as formal as the elaborate tea ceremony. “Rough, naturalistic, and mundane objects” were suddenly brought into the “realm of connoisseurship,” according to an excellent article on artistpotters.com. The work that Shigaraki artisans had been making for centuries fit the bill beautifully.
As a 20th century teenager, Shiro worked for master potters and then learned to decorate pots after graduation, sometimes marking as many as 50 hibachi each day; perhaps he, too, was marked by tradition.
Starting out on his own as an artist, he began the struggle that all artists must wage, which is how to balance the desire to honor the past with an even greater desire to create the future. So he went to Tennessee.
Part of an NEA exchange between the U.S. and Japan, the University of Tennessee gave Shiro a year of freedom to gain a perspective on what his village knows and what he did not yet himself know. It’s fair to say that this tenure that allowed him to forge forward into becoming the national treasure and master artist that he is today.
Napa County artist Richard Carter first connected with Shiro in 1990, when he was preparing to institute the innovative workshop program he still runs from his Pope Valley ceramic studio today.
“I asked my teacher Ken Ferguson who he thought I should invite,” Richard remembers. “He said, ‘Start with the best,’ and Shiro was at the top of the list.”
The two soon formed a friendship in which Richard — a hugely respected California artist — has learned from and learned with Shiro over the ensuing decades.
“What has been most interesting to me is the way that Shiro approaches his craft,” Richard says. “Due to the long history and tradition of Japanese pottery, there is a deep thought and consideration in his artwork that I have rarely found in the United States. Shiro is open, sharing, humble, respectful, and generous. He inspires me.”
The clay that Shiro works with is as much of his art as his hands. Richard explains what makes it so spectacular. “Pottery started in this region 800 years ago because of the natural clay deposits which are unique to the region,” he says. “The embedded granules of feldspar in the clay, the wood-firing techniques — along with the local trees used as fuel — combine to give the Shigaraki pottery its striking appearance.”
No glazes are used to decorate or add sheen to Shigaraki clay ware. Rather, the forms are subjected to severe, truly incredible, heat held in hand-built kilns. Richard reports that, during the time that Shiro has been in residence as a master artist presenter this year, the studio has employed 10 full time workers for 10 days straight to stoke eight cords of wood into the fire to create the desired finish.
Wood ash and salt create the colors and abstract forms that eventually appear on Shiro’s finished work. They look like the work of ancestors; they look entirely modern.
“It was not enough for him to merely copy great works of art from the past,” Richard says. “He found his own voice, which moved the tradition forward in a meaningful way. His work is both traditional and new because of his original interpretation of an ancient craft.”
Here is a terrific short video that Richard took this week of Shiro at work:
Shiro Otani makes his only public U.S. appearance when he joins us at SHED on Sunday, Oct. 18, from 2pm-5pm. He will bring his wheel in order to demonstrate his technique, as well as slides of his work, history, and village. He will also have work on-hand for sale. Ceramicist Mitsuko Seigrist will provide a matcha tea service replete with a special wagashi dessert distinctive to Kyoto. $30. Reserve your spot now as we are close to selling out.