New York Times: On Japan’s Pacific Coast, an Artist Communes with Nature

December 3, 2021

Hannah Kirshner

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In an Edo-period farmhouse near the rural seaside town of Isumi, two hours southeast of Tokyo, soft light filters through paper-and-wood-lattice doors onto seven clay vessels as big and round as marine buoys; their pale surfaces glow against the building’s wood posts and beams, which have been blackened over time by smoke from an open hearth. These vessels are the only residents of this more than 200-year-old traditionally built house, or kominka. A lopsided white one, with gently indented fingerprints mottling its surface like fish scales, rests on the decaying tatami in the large front room. A turnip-shaped pair, one painted with dripping indigo polka dots and the other with a thick belt of sooty brown, seem to gaze out a window together. Hand-formed from grayish-white clay from Japan’s Shiga Prefecture, they are the work of the artist Kazunori Hamana, 51, who uses this once-grand dwelling as an exhibition space. His pieces have been shown at prestigious galleries, including Blum & Poe in Los Angeles and New York, but he refers to them simply as tsubo, a word that suggests utilitarian crocks holding homemade pickles in a grandmother’s kitchen. Compared to these familiar objects, though, Hamana’s tsubo are at once imposing — most measure nearly 30 inches across — and delicate, their weathered and cracked surfaces echoing the crumbling wattle-and-daub walls of their home.

Another buyer might have demolished this 1,000-square-foot building with its tin-covered thatched roof to construct a new house in its place, but Hamana purchased it in 2016 for the price of the land it sits on because he wanted to preserve it. “It’s part of my collection,” he says, referring to the objects he surrounds himself with to feel connected with human history: fifth-century clay vessels from Korea and Japan, ceramics made by friends and pre-20th-century mended indigo boro work wear that he finds at flea markets. Also part of his collection are a nearby modern beach house with a sand-colored cement facade, where he builds his tsubo and catches fish by casting a net into the swell from the home’s sea wall; and a modest two-story midcentury farmhouse in a valley to the north, where he fires his pieces in an old storage shed, grows rice on the property’s one-and-a-quarter-acre paddy field and lives and collaborates with the artist Yukiko Kuroda, 52. He commutes by motorbike or kei van (a cheap, compact vehicle favored by Japanese farmers) among his three houses, all within 15 minutes of one another, using the time for contemplation. His art, he says, is not the vessels he sculpts but rather the process of looking inside himself as he shapes them, and of living deliberately with nature at the edge of the Pacific Ocean.

Most mornings, he wakes up with the first light and cooks brown rice for the day. In the warmer months, he does farm work, and in winter he goes straight to his studio at the beach. Before dark, he returns to the farmhouse, prepares local fish and vegetables for dinner, heats the home’s wood-fired bath — sometimes with scrap from the old houses that are being demolished nearby — and goes to bed by 8 p.m. His tsubo are an invitation, he says: “I want to tell people about this shape of life.”

Hamana arrived in this place by a circuitous path. Though his parents indulged his early interest in growing and making things, he describes himself as the black sheep of a family descended from nobility who would have preferred that he become a doctor or lawyer. At age 6, he kept two chickens in the garden of his childhood home near Osaka, and he loved stories about country life, like the folk tales depicted in the animated TV series “Manga Nippon Mukashi Banashi” (1975-94). Inspired by the show, he used his grandfather’s tools and scrap wood to construct jizo, the small stone statues of bodhisattvas made by anonymous craftsmen to protect travelers on country roads and woodland trails — they represented to him a rural existence that seemed far removed from the area around Osaka in the 1970s, where Hamana was often forced inside because of poor air quality.

At 15, he enrolled at an agricultural high school in Hyogo Prefecture by the Sea of Japan, and three years later, he left to start an environmental studies degree at Humboldt State University in Northern California. Enamored with American fashion and ’80s-era movies like “Back to the Future,” he dreamed of beaches with surfers and girls in bikinis; the frigid northern coast was a shock, and he transferred to a community college in San Diego. In a film class, he saw movies by Akira Kurosawa and Yasujiro Ozu, and realized that, as he recalls now with a laugh, “I knew nothing about Japan. ‘Wabi-sabi, what’s that?’”

Motivated by this new curiosity about his own country, he returned to his family home and spent his 20s partying and selling the vintage jeans and sneakers he’d been collecting since high school. Garments like Levi’s 501s, he says, are not just fashion: “They’re culture, history.” He made his way to Tokyo, where he sold clothes at flea markets until he was able to open his own vintage shop, Blues, in Harajuku in 1994. In the ensuing years, he traveled regularly to the States to source used Nikes and denim, and the store became well known; he bought himself a Ferrari and a Porsche. But when business slowed and the luster of Tokyo nightlife started to fade, he began searching for a place near both ocean and mountains.

In 1998, he found a piece of land for sale on a dead-end road by the ocean in Isumi and built a compact beach house there three years later. After a divorce, he moved to the coast full time in 2008, raising his daughter there. He’d always loved playing with clay, and now he began to experiment with the medium in earnest, making his first tsubo at a community center class in Isumi. His classmates, who were mostly elderly, were perplexed: Why couldn’t he make something small and polite, like a vase or a dish? But he was interested in humbler forms — and in what might happen if he made them bigger. At his home, he installed a kiln large enough to fire 25-inch-wide pieces and, later, at the farmhouse he bought in 2018, kilns for 30- and 40-inch pieces.

As they’re created, the tsubo move with Hamana through his three houses. On the second floor of the beach house, he hand-builds each one at the dining room table over four to five days. Waves crash against the sea wall, which sits below a steep bank of weeds — susuki (Japanese pampas grass), Japanese mugwort and feral hydrangea. Hamana doesn’t plan the shape of a vessel, or how he will paint it, until the moment he begins, instead relying on intuition and serendipity. “If I think too much, it becomes design or craft,” he says.

Next, he transports the tsubo to the farmhouse where he and Kuroda live to fire them. Sometimes, on the way down the narrow stairs of the beach property he accidentally breaks one, and Kuroda, who left behind a graphic design career to work with her hands, transforms the fractured vessel with kintsugi, the traditional craft of connecting pottery or lacquerware fragments with urushi (lacquer made from tree sap) typically dusted with powdered gold, silver or platinum. Kuroda uses pewter instead, or sometimes urushi alone, to seal cracks, augmenting it with found materials like shiny medallions cut from the inside of aluminum urushi tubes or, once, with rusted wire mesh the couple had found on the beach. 

Today, Hamana’s work has been included in shows curated by Takashi Murakami, and is owned by collectors around the world, but he’s ambivalent about calling himself an artist. A tsubo, he says, isn’t intimidating or exclusive, like so much contemporary art; rather, it’s approachable: “People think it’s a vessel or a vase, not sculpture.” But when he creates a piece as wide as the trunk of an old-growth tree — his biggest works are a yard across — it transforms from a functional container into something that inspires contemplation. “It’s very similar to when you see people you don’t know,” he says: What’s inside is not visible, and you wonder what the vessel holds.

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