Hagi Pottery: Hamanaka Gesson

Hamanaka Gesson in his studio in Hagi, western Honshu

THE JAPANESE POTTER Hamanaka Gesson (b.1943, Kishiwada, Osaka), who is based in Hagi, western Honshu, is known as the ‘Master of Hagi pottery’. Hagi pottery have a 500 year-old Korean-inspired tradition which originally sustained the tea ceremony, and were crafted to satisfy a local market.

While guided by the spirit of making tea bowls, Gesson who became a potter in the late 1960s, has since transformed his pots into a contemporary and functional, art form. His signature wares have resulted from continuous experiment and they are proof that he understands the many possibilities of clay and glazes.

Using both local clay and clay from other parts of Japan, he subjects the material to complex potting techniques and works with three different kilns. In 1977, Gesson achieved national recognition and held a first exhibition in Tokyo. In the succeeding decades, he has shown throughout Japan as well as in the west, including Melbourne, Sydney, Milan and New York. In this exclusive interview from Hagi, Hamanaka Gesson discusses his fascination with clay, his life and work. 

Asian Art Newspaper: What was it like growing up in Japan in the late 1940s?
Hamanaka Gesson: Before I was born, my father had been sent to Kishiwada, Osaka, to work at the Kishiwada Hospital as its chief director. I was the first baby born in the hospital. We lived as a family in a dormitory attached to the institution, which was modelled on a typical German pre-war hospital. Its premises were very clean and orderly with all buildings systematically arranged. The hospital grounds had large gardens and since I was a curious child, I found many things to amuse myself.

AAN: Would you describe your childhood as creative?
Hamanaka Gesson: In the early 1950s, elementary schools, unlike Japanese schools now, did hold creativity classes. As we were still recovering from the Second World War, we were growing rice, beans and other vegetables in the fields within our school premises, and ate the produce after harvesting them ourselves. Under those circumstances, I learnt the importance of taking care of and valuing things that I owned. I also made things. When I was ten, my father bought me a set of carpenter’s tools, from which I made models of electric locomotives, bows and arrows, and even a small skeleton radio.

AAN: What ignited your interest in pottery?
Hamanaka Gesson: 1942 in the middle of the war, daily commodities had become very short in supply and people in Japan had to curtail their living expenses. This situation continued until after the war. Around the late 1940s and early 1950s, I began to notice the earthenware dishes we used at home which was not mass-produced. They were utilitarian, not perfect – certainly not masterpieces – but made in good taste. I clearly remember turning some of them over to check the support ring at the bottom.

AAN: You hail from a family of doctors, but became a potter at eighteen. Did your family’s relocation to Hagi influence you?
Hamanaka Gesson: My mother was born in Hagi and I visited several times as a child. After the passing of my father, we moved back to Hagi and lived with my maternal grandfather, Yamamoto Ben’ya. He was a medical doctor and also a local history researcher who documented Hagi monuments before they were demolished to make way for land development. He loved pottery, collected old-fashioned Hagi ware and had privately published books such as The Ceramic Works of Hagi, Roof Tiles of Hagi and related subjects. Growing up in this environment I was determined to be a potter by the time I left high school. When I graduated in 1962, I was apprenticed to the Hagi potter, Yoshiga Taibi, for seven years.

AAN: Tell us more about the Hagi pottery tradition, which developed in the early 17th century?
Hamanaka Gesson: In the 1590s, the great warlord Hideyoshi invaded Korea and attempted to conquer Ming China. In the ‘pottery wars’ that followed, Korean prisoners of war – many of whom were potters – were sent to Kyushu. Meanwhile in neighbouring Honshu, the Mori daimyo, ‘feudal lords’ of the Hiroshima area had grown very powerful by the 17th century. They were vassals of the Ouchi clan of Yamaguchi and eventually took over the Ouchi domain, holding much of western Japan and part of Kyushu. In 1601, the Mori established themselves at Hagi on the Sea of Japan, a stronghold of the Tokugawa shogunate (1615-1868) for 250 years. The making of Hagi pottery commenced around 1604, when the then daimyo, Mori Terumoto, got two Korean potters, the brothers, Rishakko and Rikei, to build a kiln as their compatriots had done in Kyushu. It was dedicated to the Mori clan and was situated in the Matsumoto Naka-no-Kura area as Hagi became a prominent pottery centre and castle town. The early pottery the Ri brothers produced was naturally influenced by the Korean korai tradition, and surfaced as rustic accoutrements for the Japanese tea ceremony – tea bowls, cups, water jars and tableware. Hagi yaki, a local stoneware which now counts among Hagi’s esteemed tea ceremony wares, is closely related to Korean Ido-type tea bowls which first began appearing in Momoyama Japan (1573-1615).

AAN: What was the basis for Hagi pottery as it developed from the 17th century?
Hamanaka Gesson: From the beginning, the materials for Hagi pottery were sourced locally. Local Obata clay was and still is, of a particularly high quality. It contains very little iron and is ideal for making pots, particularly teaware. The glazes were transparent, made from a mixture of Isu wood ash from Koshigahama in Hagi and feldspar from Ukeno in Hofu on the Inland Sea coast. A milky white glaze called ‘white Hagi’ – characteristic of Hagi wares – was formed when rice straw ash was added to the transparent glaze. The kobiki technique used white slip which was applied to the clay before firing, adding a transparent glaze for a smoother finish. Some changes took place during the Kyoho period (1716-1736), a hundred years later. Sandy, white clay from Daido near Hofu and Mitakeyama clay were used to make high-fired pots. Moreover, a ‘three island’ group in the Sea of Japan called Mishima in Japanese, or Samdo in Korean, contributed red clay which was low in plasticity, to the making kobiki-style pieces. These efforts formed the foundation of the Hagi pottery tradition which relied on the availability of local materials, but also used a Korean-type kick wheel for throwing.

AAN: You became an independent potter already in your mid-twenties, and actually built your own Korean-style climbing kiln?
Hamanaka Gesson: To cut a long story short, I found a good place to work at 24 and became an independent, professional potter a year later. When I was looking for a kiln location, a gentleman named Mr Inoue, a porcelain collector who ran a fabric business, drove me to Mashiko, Tochigi, to see the workshops of Hamada Shoji. On our way back, I decided to locate my kiln along an old Edo period highway, at Oya in the Tsubaki district of Hagi – and not on a modern street served by modern mechanical power. I did not depend on professional builders or carpenters to build my kiln, but hired a plasterer. We worked together starting from scratch, making the foundation brickwork and finally, two units of noborigama, ‘climbing kiln’ originally introduced from Korea and one unit of cellar kiln.

AAN: How did you come to name your kiln ‘Ooyagama’?
Hamanaka Gesson: I named it Ooyagama, after a place in Osaka where a very old temple called Wasenji Temple had stood. It had some connection with a famous ancient female poet, named Izumi Shikibu. There are still some ancient documents showing how this locality changed names several times in the course of its history. The early name of Uguisu-Dani, meaning ‘the valley of the bush warbler’ later became Ootani, ‘big valley’ and finally Ooya, ‘big roof’, hence my kiln’s name, Ooyagama.

AAN: In 1971, however, you took the artistic name ‘Gesson’?
Hamanaka Gesson: My first name is actually Shoji. But I decided to take the name, Gesson, consisting of two kanji (Chinese) ideograms: One for the ‘moon’ and the other for ‘village’. It was inspired by an image of the moon shining brightly, high in the night sky above mountains, at the foot of which stood a traditional village house with a thatched roof.

AAN: Hagi is identified with the making of tea bowls, which is known to be a highly conservative tradition. What has been your personal experience?
Hamanaka Gesson: I have been making pots professionally since the late 1960s. And plenty of tea bowls. In the beginning I could not even make a good traditional tea bowl. Then for three years I concentrated on the Ido-type tea bowl alone. I must have made more than a thousand bowls – but they were all bad and I buried them underground. My efforts were directed at making a tea bowl with a dent and a letter pressed onto its bottom. Eventually I managed to create a special bowl called itowazu, meaning ‘never hesitate to use’. I added feldspar to the local reddish clay to form it, and either finger-pressed or iron-plate pressed a pattern on its bottom – the kanji character for ‘moon’ – after my name.

AAN: How do you balance tradition and innovation in your work?
Hamanaka Gesson: It is very important for us craftsmen – in any field – to preserve our own traditions which are inherited from previous generations. But it is equally important that we stay innovative. In my case, while I obviously create ceramic works based on traditional craftsmanship, skills and techniques, I always try to do something new, something inspiring and creative so that I may develop my work personally and that of the Japanese ceramic industry as a whole.

AAN: Do you work according to any cardinal rules?
Hamanaka Gesson: One of my early rules had been never to compromise on this principle: To use the local clay solely for pots identified with a particular regional style. For example, Shigaraki clay for Shigaraki-type works and Shino clay for Shino-type works. For years I only used Hagi clay for Hagi-style ceramics. One day I had the good fortune to come across Shigaraki clay for the first time. I was astonished at its texture – I cannot forget the sensation I experienced when handling it. I therefore started using both Hagi clay and Shigaraki clay to create a special style called Hagi-Shigaraki.

AAN: Did you then begin exploring further afield and not confine your work to the Hagi style?
Hamanaka Gesson: I have always wanted to expand my horizons. After my experience with Shigaraki clay, I was keen on Shigaraki-type ware which is fired without glaze. This is totally different from glaze-fired Hagi ware, their respective potting methods are also different. To create Shigaraki ware I had to build an anagama, ‘single chamber kiln’. But at the time I did not own enough land to do so. As a compromise, I visited Tamba in Hyogo prefecture in central Honshu – one of the six oldest kilns in Japan dating from the 12th century. I studied a Tamba-style snake kiln belonging to the Tachikui potter, Ichino Tanso. Tachikui is famous for tamba yaki, a brown-black stoneware and a type of folk pottery. When I came home, I built a combination ‘climbing and snake’ kiln. Only much later was I able to secure a larger piece of land near my premises, to build my anagama kiln.

AAN: At the same time, you also started to diversify the use of your glazes?
Hamanaka Gesson: One day it occurred to me that I should not use the same glaze for different types of pots. A wider choice of glazes would enhance their varied forms. For example, the unique beauty of an iron-glazed yohen ‘ash glaze’ vase was achieved by combining glazes. Ash is a natural by-product created by the burning of firewood. When molten ash is blown on to a surface still wet with iron glaze, a natural glaze with an exquisite colour forms. This particular vase’s deeper colour is because it was fired twice.

AAN: You seem to have a fondness for leaf-shaped plates that are identified with you?
HG: Leaf-shaped plates have always been one of the most challenging forms for potters. An oribe or copper-green glazed, yohen form for instance, has been stone-paddled for a refined finish. Its unique leaf shape was quite unintentional – it formed as a result of the kiln’s performance, a ‘kiln accident’. Copper oxide glaze was applied over the plate with a dipper and the red-finished area was created by flame reduction.

AAN: What other special forms do you use?
Hamanaka Gesson: There are two. One is a tetsu, ‘iron’ yohen glazed square plate which is stone-paddled. Another is a monobloc-type ceramic made of one piece of clay, such as an oribe-style glazed, iron-painted yohen pot with stand. It does not have two parts joined together, and is hollow inside. It was made very carefully. When forming the clay, it was important to keep the pot stable and upright – so that it does not topple over – while moving the wheel.

AAN: What motivates you?
Hamanaka Gesson:I am devoted to my work, but most pieces do not satisfy me at all. It depends on chance. One day I may happen to create an exceptional piece after making plenty of ordinary ones. I might be happy at this outcome, but soon feel I can create something much better.


For a selection of Japanese pottery, including the works of Hanamaka Gesson, visit japanesepottery.com