Handling History in a Clay Vessel

by Sakamoto Flash

There are few more ancient and revered artistic traditions in Japan than yakimono– the often-mottled, kiln-fired ceramic pottery whose origins predate recorded history and which today draws the interest of museums and collectors from around the world. Naturally, in such an historically rich tradition, there will be experts, people who devote their lives to the appreciation, understanding and sharing of its pleasures and insights. One who many believe to be the foremost expert in the field, certainly when it comes to contemporary ceramic art, is Kyoto-based gallery owner Robert Yellin.

While it may seem strange to some that such an individual is not Japanese, Robert has spent nearly thirty years in the field, conducting research by tirelessly visiting studios, meeting some of the living artists and, most importantly, handling the pieces. This tactile relationship with ceramic art is an underemphasized part of experiencing them and Robert is quick to assert its importance.

“People are always worried about yakimono because of their expense. What I if break it? Then don’t buy it. All things have their own fate. You have to interact with it.”

For most the visual interaction with ceramic vessels provides the greatest satisfaction. Robert’s pieces are all unique and he explains how each is hand crafted, glazed using a variety of techniques, and then fired, leaving the ultimate outcome to the fate of forces in the kiln. Based on these steps, Robert can accurately identify a piece.

“Japanese ceramic styles are defined by the clay. Once you determine the clay, you can determine what town it’s from. Even when it’s been glazed, I can turn it over and recognize it. Most are named after the town in which they are fired. The simplicity of the materials is very important: clay, water, fire, air. The only other thing added is the human spirit. Each piece has great energy running through it.”

His description may strike some as mystical, exaggerated, even bogus, but it’s easier to understand when you hold a beautiful piece in your hand. They do possess uniqueness, like an afterlife of the artist. Which begs the question, is it art? Shaping vessels out of clay can seem more like a handcraft, and so much of the end-result is a mere consequence of the kiln.

“There are two styles of wood-burning kilns. One was introduced in the 5th century, the Anagama, which is single-chambered. Then in the 16th century came the Korean-influenced Noborigama, which is a climbing kiln. When you have a wild, wood-burning kiln, all kinds of crazy things happen beyond the control of the potter. But they can manipulate the results. That’s how you get fascinating glazes and colors. There is interaction between man and nature to create beauty, and to me, this is very profound.”

Obviously, it’s profound to many others as well, which explains the fine museums and auction houses specializing in yakimono. Robert has many high-profile clients of his own—world famous celebrities—though he is discrete about their identities. He also notes that you need not be rich to become an aficionado. Some pieces are as affordable as several thousand yen, though they may not possess the complexity and allure of more expensive works. Robert’s own background seems humble for the role he has assumed.

“I did a college summer homestay in Mishima, Shizuoka, in 1982 and became fascinated by yakimono. I think my love of food and beverage and Zen and spirituality took me into that world. After college, I went back and was always touching and learning about these objects on my own. I studied a lot of aesthetics and philosophy in college, but my knowledge of ceramic art is all first hand. I trekked all over Japan, visiting kilns and talking to the potters. I attended lectures, but too many of these people have no first-hand knowledge. I’ve been in the field for nearly 30 years and there’s no substitute for that. I really don’t think anyone has handled more Japanese ceramic art than myself.

“Even now, I’m still looking. Some of the oldest extant pots in the world were made here; from the Jômon period on, some part of Japan has been firing kilns. It’s a potter’s paradise. The only way to understand them is to live with them.”

Years ago I met Robert when he was still based in Mishima. I mistook his passion for a kind of mild aggressiveness. Maybe the two are as inseparable as the swirling green and orange glazes of a piece I bought from him. Either way, his passion is infectious.

“You have these beautiful art forms connected to Zen and tea ceremony, and yet you can use them every day. There is a great joy in it.”

Finding a satisfying piece is much like love at first sight and can take time and chance. Robert better enables the pairing of clients with a piece by demanding the best.

“I acquire a lot of work directly from the artists. I say, I’m going to buy your work, so show me the best you’ve got. For any one kiln firing, only about 10% are exhibition or museum quality, and that’s what I want. That’s what I look for. Now that I’m in Kyoto, I can go deeper and visit more exclusive, dealer-only auctions.”

Robert’s recent move to Kyoto seems like an appropriate move for him. His roots are of course in Mishima, but its remoteness prevented some clients from coming. Kyoto has changed that. Now many more people can appreciate his collection and that alone seems to provide him satisfaction, the financial benefits aside.

His gallery occupies a beautiful historical home just a few minutes from Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion). After a night on the town– he is still partial to food and beverage, especially craft beer– we sit at a table to appreciate some of his pieces. That means drinking from them.

I almost choke on my sake when he casually mentions that I am drinking from a Kamakura-era piece, but then remember his mantra, “if it breaks, then that was the fate of the piece.” Drinking from such a vessel does somehow enhance your appreciation, not only of the piece and the sake, but the gestalt experience: seeing the many colors and shapes glittering beneath the shivering pool of liquid, feeling the incongruous surface on your lips, swallowing.

“That particular piece has an unusual shape because the samurai who drank from them wore arm armor that limited their hand and wrist mobility.”

For a moment, I imagine myself as a samurai. The sake helps. Robert begins taking pieces from his shelves and showing them to me, some functional, others abstract. He is visibly comfortable with handling such expensive items.

“These two are by former national living treasures. I’ve met many over the years: Kato Kozo, Miwa Jusetsu, Isesaki Jun, Fujiwara Yu, Suzuki Osamu, Shimaoka Tatsuzo. The first individuals were designated in 1955, to maintain the arts in Japan. People think the treasure is the person, but it’s not; it’s the technique that they possess, and they are designated to transmit that so traditions can remain alive and thrive.”

Yakimono, at least, does thrive. Designations or not, it will continue to with individuals like Robert. But somebody has to hold them and drink from them for the circle to be complete. Those worried about dropping them need not apply. It just wasn’t their fate to discover the deeper beauty.























Share and Enjoy:     These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages.
  • Digg
  • del.icio.us
  • StumbleUpon
  • Reddit
  • Google Bookmarks
  • Facebook
  • MySpace
  • Propeller
  • Technorati
  • TwitThis

1 comment to Handling History in a Clay Vessel