By Robert Yellin
In the Japanese ceramic art world it is said that ceramic artists reach their artistic height in their 50s, and for the most part such an adage holds true. There are quite a few mid-40s’ artists here in Japan who are on the threshold of joining that venerated club and fulfilling their destinies. Surely one that all lovers of Japanese ceramic art should watch is Kako Katsumi (b.1965).
One of life’s joys is discovering something while getting lost, or looking for one thing only to be introduced to something—or someone else. That happened for me on one of my countless ceramic outings. I was going a long way to view the solo exhibition of an artist in a super large room, when I was immediately distracted by more appealing work in the teeny gallery off to the side. That is how I discovered the work of Kako Katsumi, somewhere around 2002.
At that time Kako was working with lots of different ash glazes on vessels he fired in a small noborigama climbing kiln. Though noborigama are traditionally multi-chambered kilns, his was so small that it only had one chamber. Kako learned the way to build such a versatile kiln while studying at Saga Art University in Kyoto under the tutelage of Iwabuchi Shigeya, who actually invented the one chamber nobori kiln which he called ittekoi. Though Kako has built numerous kinds of kilns over the years, he recently returned to the ittekoi as its design best suits his style and vision. In addition, having a small, versatile kiln allows him to fire as often as he likes. These invaluable, numerous firing experiences have cultivated in him a deeper awareness of his art. In contrast, many wood-fire potters have large kilns and only fire once, maybe twice a year. They are unable to experiment and ‘play’ as much with their art, and so are unable to refine their skills as much as Kako can.
And he has, immensely. I am not the only one who has taken notice of him. Most importantly, Kako is winning awards at prestigious juried exhibitions. At the 21st Tanabe Museum of Art’s ‘Modern Tea Forms’ Exhibition in 2004, Kako’s awayuki chawan-tea bowl was not only awarded the Award of Excellence Prize, it graced the cover of the exhibition catalog. Awayuki is a Kako original glaze that he likens to fresh white snow. In a past interview on www.e-yakimono.net Kako commented, “This is a new style of mine. Awayuki is an old way of saying of botan yuki, or a pure white spring snow. It was my intention to leave the flavor of the clay (tsuchi-aji) while applying a white feldspar glaze that resembles freshly-fallen snow.” On the Tanabe chawan, Kako leaves a large portion of unglazed clay exposed on the front and added some stamp patterns there as well; all in all a very engaging chawan and unlike anything seen before in the chawan world.
More recently a group of Kako’s work was exhibited at the 6th Paramita Museum’s Ceramic Art Grand Prize Exhibition; Kako was awarded the Grand Prize Runner-Up Award. Here the works were of a new glazing scheme called haikakutou, which is an ash-glazed reddish work. The inspiration for the rusty red tones came from late Yayoi period (2nd-3rd centuries) earthenware. Kako has essayed many forms in his haikakutou yet the most compelling are his circles or ovals that recall Zen enso circles, or his large basins—one of which was exhibited at the 3rd Musee Tomoo Biennial, Tokyo in 2009—-as well as his monolith swords, two of which greet visitors at my new gallery here in Kyoto. Coincidentally as I was starting to write this piece Kako knocked on my door with his three charming daughters and I snapped a photo showing the two pieces, along with a very proud Kako.
Proud of his daughters, yet still humble about his art despite his many successes, Kako knows that his time to truly shine still awaits. I have no doubt, absolutely none, that the old adage fits Kako perfectly. He may not agree……yet I can’t wait until he turns 50.