Ceramic Arts & Perception — Ceramics Technical
Ceramics Art & Perception

Fukami Sueharu Ceramic Sculptor

Article by Shinya Maezaki


AN EXHIBITION OF THE WORKS OF FUKAMI SUEHARU was held at the special exhibition gallery at the Fondazione Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche (MIC), in Faenza, Italy. The exhibition began on June 10, 2005, the same day of the award ceremony of the 54th Premio Faenza, Concorso Internazionale della Ceramica d’Arte, Faenza. A total of 25 porcelain sculptures, dated between 1985 and 2005, all glazed with his signature qingbai glaze, eloquently represent the ceramist’s development over the past 20 years. The overwhelming sense of vitality and the stretched tension of his unfaltering curves have never failed to fascinate viewers.

Fukami Sueharu was born in 1947 in the Sennyu-ji temple area in Higashiyama, the eastern mountains, of Kyoto, Japan – the sixth child after two boys and three girls. Then, as now, in the area surrounding Sennyu- ji temple, there were many potters’ workshops, and Fukami was surrounded by ceramics as a child. He studied ceramics at the Kyoto Arts and Crafts Training Centre and graduated when he was 18.

Having nothing to do after graduation, he helped out with the family business and was encouraged by a friend to enter an art competition. At 20, one of his porcelain pieces was accepted to Nitten (The Japan Fine Arts Exhibition), one of the largest art competitions in Japan, and he recalls that it was then that he decided to embark upon the path of a professional potter. Fukami began concentrating on qingbai glaze in 1975 and started to develop his high-pressure slipcasting technique in 1980. When he participated in the Premio Faenza in 1985, his works were introduced outside of Japan for the first time. There, he became the grand prize winner of the 43rd Premio Faenza. He was the third Japanese ceramist ever to win the internationally- acclaimed ceramic competition. In 1986, he was given the opportunity to hold his first international solo exhibition in Faenza as the winner of the previous year, and this was followed by a successful tour in Europe. Since then, he has slowly but surely climbed up the ladder of success as a ceramist. This year, he was invited to hold a solo exhibition in the city once again as one of the best Premio Faenza winners in the long history of the competition, in order to show the on-going development of his innovative creativity and impeccable technique. More than 500 visitors from around the world attended the Fukami exhibition opening and award ceremony for this year’s competition, and the small city southeast of Bologna was enlivened. In Italy, it is unusual to have a solo exhibition of a living artist funded entirely by a public museum, and Fukami showed his gratitude for all the support in front of the people of Faenza.

For Fukami, this exhibition was more important than any other exhibition he has ever participated in. He took more than two years to prepare for it in order to put together an exhibition comprehensively representing the past 20 years of his career. This exhibition therefore is important not just because it is held in Faenza, where his international reputation was launched but, even for Fukami himself, it is a rare opportunity to see gathered together in one place the various landmark works of his career, which are now scattered around the world. Some important pieces were even re-made from old moulds to fill the gaps in order to make the exhibition more comprehensive. The exhibition also served as an important retrospective of Fukami’s later works following an exhibition of his early works held at the Lee Institute for Japanese Art at the Clark Centre, Hanford, California, in 2002. Together, these two exhibitions provided the opportunity to study the 38 years of his artistic progress through highlighting the prominent achievements of this ceramist.

The exhibition begins with the three prize-winning pieces of the 1985 competition: Haruka no kaikei (Distant Seascape), Kaze no kaikei (Seascape of Wind) and Kiyoki no omoi (Pure Thought). Haruka no kaikei is in the permanent collection of the MIC, and the other two pieces returned to Italy from Japan after a 19-year absence. Reunited for the first time in 20 years, the three works demonstrate finely reduced silky transparent qingbai glaze covering elegant organic forms. The three pieces remain a fresh and viable reminder of why the grand prize was granted to the young and internationally unknown Japanese ceramist. Since 1980, five years before receiving the grand prize with these works, Fukami had been using a unique high-pressure slip-casting technique in order to create his distinctive forms in porcelain. The reason for using this technique was to avoid warping – which Fukami calls te-ato or ‘traces of handling’ – during the firing process. Traditionally, in the world of Japanese ceramics, such unpredictable changes in forms and glaze during firing were accepted and even at times appreciated and embraced. However, as an artist, Fukami could not accept the gap between what he envisioned and what emerged from the kiln. Fukami struggled with this problem for a long time and asked advice from his brother, who had inherited the family kiln. His brother introduced him to the method of high-pressure slipcasting, which is normally used for mass-produced porcelain wares. Because porcelain slip is cast into a plaster mould using pressurised air, this process ensures that the clay throughout the piece is even and therefore not susceptible to warping. The introduction to this technique was an important turning point in his career, but it was also the beginning of great hardship. At first, Fukami was able to create only a handful of pieces using this technique. After several years of trials, he succeeded in producing these remarkable pieces.

The qingbai glaze is also an important element of his work in conjunction with slip-casting. Fukami began focusing closely on this glaze in 1975 and recalls: “In the simplest terms, to my mind, the beauty of qingbai glaze went beyond whether the form was good or bad. It was just beautiful.” Originating in 11th century Jingdezhen, China, qingbai ware is characterised by the interplay of blue and white. As the slightly blue glaze accumulated in carved designs on the surface of the pieces, delicate patterns, called yingqing or ‘shadowy blue’, subtly rose to the surface. In Fukami’s own words, the quality of qingbai glaze is reflected “at the place where the sky and the sea meet, the ‘something’ that is heading out into the ocean’s horizon.” With the combination of the classic glaze and a modern technical innovation, Fukami made his international debut. The exhibition also featured evidence of his development over the next 20 years. The graceful more than 2 m tall Ritsu (Rise) looked down on viewers with dignity. This piece is the result of Fukami’s efforts to create a work that pushes the medium of porcelain beyond its limits and it was only after a year of experimentation that the piece finally stood in Italy. In order to maximise the size, technical improvements were essential as his casting technique required a nearly perfect understanding of the relationship between the clay and fire. This piece is the largest work Fukami has created and probably the largest porcelain piece ever produced by an independent ceramist. However, the importance of this piece lies not only in its size: the vitality of Ritsu is overwhelming because it reaches an entirely different level compared to his earlier works. One could say that while the attractive sharp edges and slender bodies of earlier works emphasised instantaneous beauty, the massive volume of the piece here succeeded in eternalising it. This piece serves as a testament to the height of his technical mastery, allowing him to proceed forward to the next stage. Kaze no kaikei (Seascape of Wind), another highlight of the exhibition, represents a perfect example of Fukami’s successful mixture of expressivity and mature casting technique. He has pursued enlargement of the scale of his works and, at the same time, has tried to attain a shape that corresponds to the absolute form he dreams of.

During the 1980s, Fukami’s works were organic in character. The spontaneous forms were full of fresh energy as if the pieces had just been given birth. The 1990s were a time when Fukami radically enlarged his pieces, but it appears that his technique could not keep up and he therefore began constructing works in sections. The pieces suddenly grew in size, but this resulted in a sacrifice of overall coherence. Works became deliberate and lost the certain feel particular to his earlier works. In the late ’90s, his technical achievements finally reached a level sufficient to meet his needs, and his works not only recovered their purity, but also acquired a mature sanctity. Edges were sharper and surfaces were smoother than ever before. If his pieces of the 1980s are representations of nature itself, his recent works are, in my opinion, much closer to that ‘something’ heading out into the ocean’s horizon, something more than nature. Kaze no kaikei is probably the best example of the perfect combination of medium and the soul of his expression. Considering that the material Fukami uses has remained the same since 1980, it might appear that his works have not changed for a long time but have just grown in size. As explained earlier, however, his works have changed continuously during this time along with his pursuit of ultimate beauty, and Kaze no kaikei and Cho V-1 (The Ether V-1) belie such an evaluation. Kaze no kaikei shows Fukami’s endless pursuit of new potential in form. In particular, the front edge is unlike any other pieces, sinuous like a wave.This new experiment added depth to the collection of his works. If Ritsu embodies the violent madness of waves, Kaze no kaikei has captured the calmness of the ocean’s surface. If Ritsu represents attainment of the goal bringing sophistication to his technique in highpressure slip-casting, then Kaze no kaikei demonstrates a possible new artistic direction. Cho V-1 is a large wheel-thrown cylindrical piece lying on its side. The smooth curves of the surface and wide rim against a small base show the artist’s admirable wheel-throwing skill.

Fukami freely admits his admiration of Carlo Zauli (1926-2002), and the overwhelming vitality of recent pieces reminds us of the legendary Italian ceramist. Fukami’s adoration of Italy is well-documented and stems in large part from his admiration for Zauli. Upon receiving a ticket for a one-month research trip anywhere in the world after being awarded the Newcomer Prize of Kyoto Prefecture Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1980, he chose to spend the time in Italy for the chance to meet Zauli. In 1973, prior to Fukami’s visit to Italy, Zauli had held a travelling solo exhibition in Japan, and it made a great impact on the Japanese abstract ceramic world including the young Fukami. Fukami was astohished by Zauli’s vigorous use of clay and unique presentation of ceramics. He hoped one day to visit Faenza to meet Zauli and other important potters in Italy. There, the two exceptional talents met for the first time, and it did not take long for them to become good friends. The friendship lasted until Zauli passed away in 2002. For Fukami, having a retrospective exhibition in Faenza is doubly meaningful, because the town is the birthplace of his friend, one of the ceramists Fukami truly respects.

Many scholars have suggested that Fukami’s work was influenced by Sodeisha, a pioneer Japanese avantgarde ceramic movement lead by Yagi Kazuo (1918- 1979), but it was Zauli who ultimately enlightened Fukami regarding the unlimited possibilities of clay and fire. Zauli’s and Fukami’s works are not at all the same – the former uses stoneware and a distinctive white matt glaze, famously known as ‘Zauli White’; the latter uses cast porcelain and traditional qingbai glaze – however, their goal appears similar, that is to reach beyond the notion of pottery as craft. Because the history of ceramics is one of the oldest continuous traditions of humankind, people tend to categorise any ceramic object as ‘craft’ without careful consideration. Zauli was one of the few ceramists who was able to break down such restricting ideas and his work, in fact, broke free of the associated with this form of craft. Fukami’s work has a similar quality. Because he creates sculpture from porcelain, Fukami likes to call himself a ceramic sculptor, but why does Fukami labour so diligently over his ceramic pieces?

The form of his sculpture itself is the great achievement of his art and it would seem that some other material could be found that would be capable of expressing his desired forms more easily. To these questions, Fukami answers: “Ceramics are fascinating because they are fragile. If the piece were made of metal, it would not be as beautiful nor would it project a feeling of fragility or a sense of insecurity.” We recognise unconsciously that works of ceramics, especially those like Fukami’s, are delicate and we are afraid to touch them. Fragility and insecurity hidden in a majestic body, calm severity expressed in shape, exquisite contrast of white and blue – these tensions are compounded by the fact that Fukami’s works are double-sided. The achievement of this seemingly small detail, essential for planting the subtlety of an important emotion in the senses of the viewer, is one of the reasons he does not spare any effort and daringly persists in using the porcelain medium.

Here, the limitation of medium and material is important for the sake of more than just materialising the ultimate work he sees in his mind. This limitation is the fundamental clue to understanding the works of Fukami. By limiting himself to this medium, it seems he might have lost many creative possibilities among the unlimited number of glazes and techniques. But Fukami responds: “When I started highpressure slip-casting, I promised myself that I would immerse myself thoroughly in tracking down my true self in this porcelain and qingbai glaze. And that I wouldn’t flip-flop and go back to stoneware. If I ran into a wall, then I’d run into it. If I couldn’t break down that wall, then that was my own problem, and maybe I should give up, knowing that it was only due to deficiencies in my own talent. So I decided, with conviction and determination, to stick with this medium when I was 33 years old.”

The motivation driving Fukami is to reach the final target by using what he believes to be the most beautiful materials, porcelain with qingbai glaze. The limitation of medium therefore did not fetter Fukami but, rather, has actually removed all unnecessary elements for reaching his artistic destination, which is to create artworks that display a universality capable of expression only in this modern age. It was once said that his work lies at the boundary between what he wants to create and what he can create in regards to the limitation of medium. This exhibition proved that the boundary has been breeched by his tireless pursuit for technical improvement and artistic possibilities. The pursuit, therefore, is the logical path of his creative process, and the limitation has shown him the way to his goal.

Fukami recalls a defining moment that inspired him to pursue the path of porcelain sculpture was the recollection of an experience by the ocean when he was in his early 20s. “It was the memory of an encounter I had with a sharp breeze while on the cliff during winter… All the senses in my body felt the pleasure of the strange wind as it stabbed my cheek. This tactile experience is at the heart of my creations.” In other words, the edge made clear in sharpness, the ridges smooth as if flowing, the superb combination of surface and edge – all of these resonate to recreate the feeling of that experience. When we view his porcelain sculptures, we can share the artist’s original sensation of a sea breeze or the sound of waves. At the same time we can catch a glimpse of that ‘something’ beyond the ocean’s horizon.

Shinya Maezaki is a PhD candidate on Meiji period ceramics at SAOS, University of London. The catalogue that accompanies the exhibition is entitled Sueharu Fukami (Museo Internazionale delle Ceramiche in Faenza, 2005).

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