People

Masayasu Mitsuke

A contemporary artist reshapes tradition

Kutani-yaki is Japanese porcelain with overglaze painting that has been produced in Kutani Village—now part of Kaga City—since 1655. The use of vivid colors, distinguishable patterns, and unique shapes in kutani-yaki has garnered admiration from viewers for the past 360 years. In their many forms, they have become known as one of the best representations of Japanese porcelain. Kutani-yaki continues to be coveted by contemporary collectors and international public collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre.

Today, in the same city where kutani-yaki was born, Japanese artist Masayasu Mitsuke upholds the porcelain tradition while implementing new motifs, tools, and processes. Well-regarded as a genius in his field, Mitsuke challenges traditional notions of the contemporary artist, with his ancient eyes and magnetic smile belying a level of humility. It makes sense that everyone he meets is attracted to him, wants to take him in, and champions his success. Approachable, eager, and unwavering, he roots his work in history, community, ethics, and practice.

LIVING FORM visited Mitsuke at his home near the Katayamazu Hot Springs in Kaga City. Here, he works out of a sparse tatami room at a desk where he sits and paints quietly for hours and hours with tools such as a single-hair weasel brush.

People

Masayasu Mitsuke

A contemporary artist reshapes tradition

Kutani-yaki is Japanese porcelain with overglaze painting that has been produced in Kutani Village—now part of Kaga City—since 1655. The use of vivid colors, distinguishable patterns, and unique shapes in kutani-yaki has garnered admiration from viewers for the past 360 years. In their many forms, they have become known as one of the best representations of Japanese porcelain. Kutani-yaki continues to be coveted by contemporary collectors and international public collections, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Louvre.

Today, in the same city where kutani-yaki was born, Japanese artist Masayasu Mitsuke upholds the porcelain tradition while implementing new motifs, tools, and processes. Well-regarded as a genius in his field, Mitsuke challenges traditional notions of the contemporary artist, with his ancient eyes and magnetic smile belying a level of humility. It makes sense that everyone he meets is attracted to him, wants to take him in, and champions his success. Approachable, eager, and unwavering, he roots his work in history, community, ethics, and practice.

LIVING FORM visited Mitsuke at his home near the Katayamazu Hot Springs in Kaga City. Here, he works out of a sparse tatami room at a desk where he sits and paints quietly for hours and hours with tools such as a single-hair weasel brush.

“Approachable, eager, and unwavering, his work is rooted in history, community, ethics, and practice”
  • Kutani-yaki is a type of Japanese porcelain that has been produced in Kutani Village (now Kaga City) since 1655 and is known for its vivid colors, distinguishable patterns, and unique shape. Tatami room is a room with traditional Japanese flooring comprised of an auspicious arrangement of thick tatami mats, made from rice straw.
  • Aka-e refers to traditional “red print” designs introduced to Japan by China, normally depicting hermits, dragons, and phoenixes.

LF How do you describe yourself in contemporary terms, such as artist, craftsman, and so forth?

MM

I am using traditional techniques that have existed for hundreds of years, so I consider myself an artisan. I’m asked to “make this,” such as a rice bowl, whereas an artist creates his or her own work. This doesn’t discourage me from diverging from the traditional.

LF When we hear the term kutani-yaki, we think of it as one of the Japanese traditional crafts and find it quite formal.

MM

It wasn’t like that in my case. When I was little—this is my hometown—we had pottery painting classes at our elementary school. There were kilns for firing painted pottery and hand-molded earthenware at my elementary school. So the term kutani-yaki was naturally a part of my life. I have really loved drawing since I was a little kid and practiced calligraphy throughout high school. I really loved using the brush.

LF So this is how you got started?

MM

During my second year in high school, everyone started asking themselves the usual, “What will I do next?” Around that time my father found a kutani-yaki technical training school. He suggested it because both he and my mother thought it would be a great fit. They wanted to let me do what I really liked, so they encouraged me. I studied under a master for ten years, which is quite unusual.

LF How did you know aka-e, red print, was for you?

MM

My first drawings weren’t as difficult as I had expected. I already had a callus from doing calligraphy, so I think that’s why there was a sense of finding a perfect fit when I held the aka-e brush.

LF What inspired you to create your own designs?

MM

Well, since aka-e was introduced to Japan from China, the designs include things like hermits, dragons, and phoenixes. I drew a lot of those while I was training under my master. Since I studied all kutani techniques, I started to feel that I wanted to make my own artwork—meaning not replicating existing designs. Coincidentally, I went to Europe for the first time. The ceilings of churches there were incredibly beautiful.

“So the term kutani-yaki was naturally part of my life”

LF How does your work differ from traditional aka-e?

MM

The patterns used in aka-e of kutani-yaki are mostly curved lines, but my work is more linear.

LF Let’s talk process. What’s the first thing you do when you enter your workplace?

MM

Prepare. I start out by smoothing paints on the paint plate. When I draw, I first do a rough draft in pencil. Then from there I start drawing patterns along the rough drawing. I don’t have a preconceived pattern before I begin painting, only starting points. I customize my brushes by cutting off the edges. A normal brush is slightly too thick.

LF When does the process get difficult?

MM

The edges are a bit difficult. Places that are a bit deep like here [points to crevice in bowl]. I need to hold the brush higher. If I hold it any other way, I won’t be able to get my hand in there.

LF This is so detailed it must be terrible when you make a mistake!

MM

You can actually erase your work as long as you haven’t fired it. I use a pencil and scrape it off like this. [Motions scraping.] The paints don’t get fixed unless you fire the artwork. It’s relatively easier to draw on flat surfaces. Still when oil attaches, the paints are repelled by it so I have to be careful. Sometimes even wearing gloves cannot protect the surface. Because of this, I draw just one side then fire it, and continue drawing in sections.

LF How does it feel when you finish?

MM

I am simply happy.

LF You recently showed your work in New York and have had exhibitions outside of Japan. Was there anything new you realized about how foreign people, for example people from New York or Europe, use and view kutani-yaki?

MM

Yes, at the Museum of Art and Design, New York. [MM is speaking about the 2015 group exhibition Japanese Kōgei | Future Forward curated by Yūji Akimoto, Director of the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture, Japan.

Although it was an exhibition of handcrafted work, foreign people didn’t assume that such work was done entirely by hand. That’s what surprised people the most. They were simply amazed by that. They said, “Really? You drew it with a brush! What? A brush! You drew it by hand?” To me, it’s just normal that in Japan you draw with a brush.

Immerse yourself in Japanese tradition

Kaga Onsen, Ishikawa

Immerse yourself in Japanese tradition during a visit to Kaga Onsen. The area is approximately an hour south of Kanazawa, near the holy Mount Hakusan, where there is a collection of highly rated hot springs and public baths found in the center of each town.

Yamanaka onsen is one enclave in particular worth spending time in, where a stay at a luxury
ryokan here will enhance your experience after a day out visiting with an artist and enjoying the
local scenery. The area is also known historically for its lacquerware and woodworking, and is
even home to a Living National Treasure.

Other sites to see include Natadera, a temple of the Shingon sect of Japanese Buddhism set
against a verdant backdrop, along with local craft sake breweries.

Contact the travel@theartoftravel.net for art-focused journeys to Japan, or visit theartoftravel.net.