In the more than 25 years that Hideaki Miyamura has been dedicated to fine ceramics, he has focused on classic glazes, most notably the Yohen crystal and the Yohen Tenmoku glaze. Miyamura has explored these ancient techniques, sometimes bringing them back from oblivion, then perfecting them and making them his own.Miyamura was born in Niigata, Japan, in 1955. He began his career in ceramics creating functional pottery using a limited number of conventional glazes. Working with a master Japanese potter, he started with small sake cups, struggling to learn how to create identical forms. In his second year, he moved to tea cups; during this time, he sometimes worked seven days a week, producing more than 1000 tea cups per month. In the third year of the apprenticeship, his repertoire expanded to include small vases.
Through repetition, Miyamura found that the motor patterns in his body for making pottery became so automatic that he could shift his focus to thinking creatively. He wanted to make forms that were more sculptural and less utilitarian, but when he tried to experiment, he was reprimanded by his master. This negative response seemed to further fuel his desire to invent forms, and he discovered that he could “get away with” making more creative shapes when making the smallest vases.
Hand in hand with this desire to explore new forms was Miyamura’s wish to expand his knowledge of glazes. He began by researching glazes that had been used in different cultures. A photograph of a teabowl made during China’s Song Dynasty (1290– 940 BCE) set him on a journey of discovery that continues to this day.
What captured Miyamura’s eye in the photograph was the iridescent crystal glaze on the bowl. In his research, he discovered this compelling surface treatment was a variation of the Yohen Tenmoku glaze. The “iridescence on a dark peaceful background,” he recalls, drew him in in a manner akin to looking into the “limitless sky on a clear night.” The comparison is apt: Yohen literally means “stars glistening in a night sky.” Its companion term, tenmoku, although widely known today as a type of high fire black glaze, also signifies a certain shape of ceremonial teabowl.
Only four teabowls featuring the original glaze are known to exist today, all of them confined to temples and museums in Japan. The bowls, which had been imported from China during the height of the tea ceremony’s popularity (1500–1600 CE), are considered national treasures.
“These glazes not only have a long and mysterious history,” writes Miyamura, “they also carry deep meaning in the art and philosophy of China as well as Japan.” To tea masters and Zen priests, the artist explains, the Yohen Tenmoku teabowl represents the universe, “an ever-changing and limitless chaos, a creative void, as boundless and dynamic as it exists in our own spirits.”
In his extensive research of the history of traditional techniques, Miyamura could find no examples of the iridescent crystal glaze. To pursue his developing passion, he sought out another master Japanese potter, Shurei Miura, who specialized in tenmoku glazes, and became his apprentice. His assignment during this six-year apprenticeship was to develop new glazes, primarily of the tenmoku variety, in brown-black shades with iridescent properties.
Miyamura established a routine early on, one that entailed analyzing test pieces after each firing, then making adjustments. He typically experimented with 10 to 15 glaze variations at a time, with each formula fired at two temperatures. He set aside the ones that looked the most promising. After reviewing the differences in the recipe that had resulted in the most interesting characteristics, he then selected ingredients to change for the next firing.
The process was complex and systematic. Miyamura created a matrix of the ingredients and covered all the possible combinations, slightly increasing or decreasing each material. This rigorous, investigative approach resulted in a great deal of data related to the interaction of ingredients as well as an enormous body of knowledge concerning the properties of glazes.
Progress toward producing a Yohen-like glaze eluded Miyamura, so he began looking for hints of iridescence of any kind, still picturing that Song dynasty teabowl. The beacon of that ancient glaze became one of many beacons as he found inspiration in surface treatments that did not resemble it at all. By the time Miyamura left Japan for the United States in 1989, his focus had shifted completely to other glazes.
Moving to America offered more than culture shock: Miyamura quickly realized that the raw materials available in his newly adopted country were very different from those to which he had access in Japan. He had spent years learning how glaze ingredients interacted and behaved on Japanese porcelain. Some of these components were unobtainable, others behaved in unexpected ways, and the clay was different.
“I’d like to say that I saw this [situation] as an opportunity to learn new things,” Miyamura notes, “but in reality my initial reaction was panic; I felt as though I had lost all my footing.” Determined to continue in ceramics, he began to study the new materials that would be the foundation for his experimentation going forward.
The biggest challenge was coming up with different types of ash to use in the glazes. In Japan, Miyamura had used straw, pine, rice straw, chestnut, and isu tree ash, but none of these were readily obtainable in the United States. In his search for a replacement, he asked a neighbor if he could use some of the ash from his wood stove. It was oak ash and he thought it might be worth trying.
While the oak ash didn’t behave like any Miyamura had used in the past, it brought out an intense blue in a nearly black glaze that he had been exploring. His reaction was delight: here was that subtle vibrant energy flowing from a peaceful dark background color that he had admired in the Yohen Tenmoku glaze.
Miyamura also began experimenting with different sources of basic glaze ingredients. Based on the extreme differences he came up with in his tests, he assumed that every component, both in the glazes and clay body, were contributing to the variations. He subsequently expanded his testing to include changes in basic ingredients such as feldspar. He found that Custer feldspar reacted similarly to the feldspar he had used in Japan. For the clay body, EPK kaolin worked best.
Miyamura has never ceased to experiment with Chinese glazing techniques. His goal all along has been to create anew the Yohen Tenmoku glaze, to explore its harmony with new clay bodies and forms, and to combine it with traditional as well as modern and western shapes. Most of all, he has sought to develop its potential as “a form of cultural and spiritual communication.”
As historian Andrew L. Maske has written, Miyamura’s ceramics represent a “search for ideal beauty.” While he began as a craftsman of utilitarian objects, his evolution as an artist has led him toward purer and purer forms, to the creation of objects that supersede their functional attributes—“sculptural vessels,” as Maske put it in a 2006 essay on Miyamura’s work.
Gourd-shaped, plump, shapely, stately, classical, adroit, slender, graceful, Miyamura’s vessels are wonderfully diverse in form. The necks vary from the diminutive to the elongated; some of the stoppers are shaped like temples. Glazes skirt the curved sides, reflecting light. The surfaces can be subtle yet expressive. Each piece invites (and requires) close study in order to fully appreciate the aesthetic intent.
One vase takes the shape of a hand bell, its proportions perfectly balanced between the thin, attenuated neck and a tapered base. A green crystalline glaze offers an organic arrangement of constellations of lichen-like accents.
A favorite glazing effect resembles the aurora borealis, where the intersection of different glazes shimmer with a band of blue, crimson, and gold.
Among Miyamura’s signature surfaces is the hare’s fur tenmoku glaze. In one vase, the fine vertical streaks (from which the glaze gets its name) are enhanced by a shinogite design (carved ridges or fluting). The piece is statuesque. By contrast, a gold shinogite vase calls to mind the treasures of an ancient civilization—a vessel fit for a queen.
The range of surface effects is remarkable. Often references are made to the natural world—sea urchins, peacock feathers—and to the cosmos: a starry night, a comet’s tail.
In the essay for the catalog that accompanied Miyamura’s show at the Pucker Gallery in Boston in 2003, Brother Thomas Bezanson focused on the risks required of a potter who is seeking to create beauty, paying tribute to all the failures the Japanese–born ceramist had to accept on his way to perfecting his glazes. “The kiln is not a runaway horse,” Brother Thomas noted, “but there is no control, only hope, for those mystical pieces that seem more born than made.”
Following a visit by Miyamura in June 2007, Brother Thomas sent him a letter in which he counseled the young artist, “Stay faithful to your own heart, to what is inside of you,” and stated, “The world needs the beauty you create.”Miyamura has heeded this sage advice. Through persistence and passion, he has created stunning objects that fulfill our need for the breathtaking.
Miyamura has participated in the Smithsonian Craft Show, and his work has been acquired by the Israel Museum, the Renwick Gallery, Sackler Museum at Harvard, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Peabody Essex Museum, and the Auckland Institute and Museum. For further information, see www.miyamurastudio.com.
the author Carl Little edited Discovery: Fifty Years of Craft Experience at Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. He is a regular contributor to Ornament magazine.