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Hanako Nakazato: The Life and Career of a 14th-Generation Potter

Nakazato's status as a woman in Japan meant she could never take over the reins of the family business – which traditionally goes to the oldest son – but it has also given her the uncommon freedom to follow her imagination, open her own business, and live the life she chooses on two faraway continents.

Few creatives are as naturally bicultural as Japanese potter Hanako Nakazato, the 14th generation of one of the country’s most revered families of potters. The founder of Monohanako, a studio in the town of Karatsu on Japan’s southwesternmost main island of Kyushu, Nakazato spends half of each year in the United States, is shape-shiftingly bilingual, and is as influenced by the colors of Maine’s landscape as she is by the humble mix of treasures – stoneware, lacquerware, and wood vessels, plates, and utensils – on a typical Japanese family’s dinner table.

After attending high school and college in the U.S., she traveled the world with her father, then undertook an apprenticeship under him and her brother at their studio upon their return. Her status as a woman in Japan meant she could never take over the reins of the family business – which traditionally goes to the oldest son – but it has also given her the uncommon freedom to follow her imagination, creating stunning collections of work that have garnered international acclaim; open her own business; and live the life she chooses on two faraway continents.

We spoke with Nakazato about her monumental midcareer retrospective, which had just opened in Karatsu; why her works are as eclectic as they are sensual; and what a Turkish dance and her process have in common.

After years in the States, did you return to Karatsu to study pottery? And was your father excited about it?

The first answer is no. I never wanted to be a potter, because that’s what my family did. Since I was a girl, I wasn’t expected to be a potter. And since it was what my family did, I wasn’t interested. It was too close to home. But I was interested in art and craft. I majored in fine art in college, but I felt a little incomplete. I respected the philosophy and visual art, but I wanted to express something different. I was thinking architecture or design. I knew I wanted to make something useful to daily life.

My father is a big traveler, and he asked me to travel with him, to basically work with him as an assistant. So I traveled with him to Denmark and Hawaii and the continental U.S. He didn’t push me to pursue pottery, but he was saying, “If you like it, you could learn.” He opened the door for me. Since I didn’t really have other options, I’m like, “Okay,” but I wasn’t fully convinced because I wasn’t passionate about pottery at the time.

Nakazato was photographed in and around her Kyushu, Japan studio.

What was that time like?

I enjoyed seeing the world with him through pottery because he was doing pottery but he also introduced me to the world outside of pottery. We hung out with designers and architects in different worlds from the studio scene I knew in Karatsu. But when I returned to Karatsu to apprentice with my father, it was a different story. There was not much free discussion of creative energy. It was militaristic. I didn’t have much freedom; I just had to do what needed to be done, cleaning the studio and doing all the prep.

So everything but throwing pots?

We had very limited time to practice on the wheel. There’s no freedom whatsoever. I just made his production pieces for two and a half years. I felt frustrated by that, but in retrospect, it really taught me discipline and motivated me to make my own.

And is that what you did?

After I apprenticed with my father, I moved back to the States and started working with Malcolm Wright, a potter who had studied with my grandfather back in the late ’60s, before I was born. I was there for five years. He gave me the freedom to develop my work, which was great. He gave me a studio and the environment to work with him, and he completely understood my training, because he did that in Karatsu too. I was able to make my own stuff, and fortunately I was able to sell that stuff. That gave me confidence.

How did you end up back in Karatsu to open your studio?

I had confidence that I had built enough clientele in Japan, but I had never operated my own space. I was always using somebody else’s studio, and I’d never had the responsibility of paying the bills for the whole thing. I had to build my studio. It was the biggest shopping I’d ever done – and the biggest loan. Everything was completely starting from zero. It made sense to build a studio in Japan because by then, 70 percent of my business was from Japan. And my parents were getting older and I wanted to be closer to them.

What was your biggest challenge starting out?

In the beginning, it was in my head. People would notice me because of my father, and I should have been grateful for that, but I was offended. “Oh, you buy my pottery because you’re interested in my last name.” Or people assume that, “Oh, your daddy built your studio. Lucky you.” It’s just not true. Maybe I could get a loan because of my father. If I were nobody, the bank wouldn’t lend me anything because I’m nobody. I’m the one who had to pay, but people didn’t really see it that way. And that was a big challenge. I’m lucky that I was given a show from the start. But I had to fight for the other part.

At that time or even now, has it ever felt like a burden to carry on a 300-year-old family tradition?

Not to me, because I’m a woman and was never expected to carry on that business, which was fortunate. In Japan, to carry the family lineage and the name, you have to be the oldest son. My father, Takashi, was not the oldest, so he had freedom to create his own world. And he had a son already, my brother, to take care of his business and somebody to follow his legacy. It’s a different mentality. As a woman, I never had that pressure. I was fortunate to be close to it but not really in the middle of it.

If rules were somehow to change and you could take over your father’s business, would you do that?

It’s a good question: Yes and no. I can relate to my father, a free spirit. He came from the environment, but he created his own style and did his own thing. And he did it really well. I can relate to that. Keeping the energy is the most important thing – more than keeping the same style. So even if I carried on at my father’s studio, I wouldn’t make the same thing he was making. But I would definitely keep that energy going.

Tell me about Karatsumono, the Karatsu style of pottery. Do you use that term to describe your own work?

Everybody has a different definition of Karatsu, like “For Karatsu, you have to have a local clay,” or “You have to fire in certain type of kiln.” The way I was trained, in terms of throwing, yes; definitely it’s Karatsu style. You have a special type of rib – a tool to stretch clay when you throw – and you put a chunk of clay on the kick wheel and you spin the wheel clockwise. Technically speaking, that’s Karatsu style, and it came from Korea. In the West, most pottery making is done by throwing pieces one by one. You throw a cup with one mound of clay. After you throw a cup, you put on another mound of clay and that’s how you do it.

But in Karatsu style, you put a huge chunk of clay and off of that you throw multiple cups or plates or bowls. That’s a technical explanation. But how I interpret Karatsu is the speed. You work with speed and immediacy, and you have to work with rhythm. You don’t make things through your head but through your body. It’s physical. You have to have a technique in order to do that, but by working with speed, you can free yourself. It’s not perfect – you’re not really striving for perfection – but it’s very free-spirited and it allows you to show your true self. There’s no room to think about how to control it technically – it’s beyond technique.

You once said you can’t really plan what you’re going to do or it will ruin the piece.

Right. You have to be able to work with your intuition – it’s both. You know what you’re going to make, but old Karatsu pottery was known because of the technique, and it was highly regarded in the tea world because it was not too egotistic. The form was pure and naïve. And that comes from the immediacy of working with speed. Those potters are not really making art pieces. They are too busy producing for mass production, because back then everything was made by hand. There was no machinery.

So a bunch of potters were like kidnapped from Korea, and back then they had better skills than Japanese potters. These people were brought to Japan and just throwing, throwing, throwing pots for daily use. That pottery was found by tea ceremony lovers, who were like, “Oh, this is great, because there’s no ego. It’s not perfect.” That spirit is Karatsu. They’re not intentionally trying to make art pieces, but they end up being totally artful because they’re so human. That’s my interpretation of Karatsu.

Do you find pottery making to be meditative?

I’m not religious, but yes. I used to be an athlete, and I take throwing from an athletic point of view. I love the physical part of it. When I throw best it’s like I’m not there. I’m here, but I’m not. The wheel spins, and I think it has something to do with the spinning. I often think about sama. It’s a traditional Turkish dance: a bunch of guys spinning themselves around. And they totally reach a trance by doing that. I can relate to that. Throwing pots is very close to that moment, although I haven’t experienced sama. I like deep house music because it doesn’t have many words and it’s just rhythm, beat, and melody and repetition. I throw with music and I lose myself. It’s my hands and clay and the spinning motion.

Your work is so eclectic. Tell me a little bit about your different series.

I use several different types of clay, because I would get bored making the same thing; I make functional pottery, but I don’t make just one kind because I’m inspired by the way Japanese table settings are a mixture of everything; it’s not just pottery. If you’re at a Japanese dinner table, you’ll see a variety of dinnerware: porcelain, stoneware, glass, wood, and lacquers. That’s what I wanted to create with my pottery.

My work is always meant to be functional, not for decoration. So I want to make some room for food or flowers or the space. The pottery is never complete unless you use it. That’s my philosophy. So I don’t want to put on too much decoration. But lately, I’ve been interested in introducing some color, and I think that’s influenced by living in Maine and seeing such dramatic seasonal change in the environment. You would think green is pretty colorful, but if you put something white or even different types of green vegetables on it, the pottery looks totally different. My pottery is not just that finished work; you finish it with use. There’s infinite possibility in finishing the piece.

You spend half the year in Kyushu and the other half in rural Maine with your partner, Prairie. It must be a big transition to go from one culture to another and back again.

It tears us up when we are about to leave one place because we are so settled there and you have to say goodbye to the environment and family and friends, and then you have to start all over. But it’s not like we like one place more than the other. We love both places, and the separation gives us a good perspective culturally and mentally. Prairie is American, and that’s part of the reason why we go back to the States, so we can keep our cultural connections. It keeps my work fresh.

How different are the two worlds?

Japan is humid, wet and crazy busy. The places are different, but Kyushu and Maine are countries surrounded by nature, which is important to us. Strangely enough, there are a lot of similarities in the vegetation. We forage a lot, and we find similar plants. So what’s the difference? Maine life is much quieter, and its air is so crisp. I really love that color. It’s so beautiful. Every moment, every season, the sky changes dramatically, and that’s what I love about it. The constant changes, the seasonal changes. There’s a lot of seasonal change in Japan, too. But in Maine, it’s much more dramatic.

I have more shows in Japan, and the workload is more demanding with deadlines and production. I feel like I’m constantly working. Even though I’m working in Maine, I get to have weekends off.

The show you just mounted celebrates your pottery studio’s 10-year mark. Congratulations. Tell me a little bit about it and what it means to you.

Thank you. The show is at a famous inn called Yoyokaku in Karatsu. And that’s where I started, actually. We’ve had a relationship with them for a long time, since I was very little, because they carried my father’s work. I had my first one-man show in Karatsu there when I established my own studio. So this is kind of celebrating its 10th anniversary. It’s a huge space, so it’s been a good chance for me to show all kinds of work, which is rare. For most shows I have to edit my work down to a few kinds or series or a theme. But this time, I wanted to show everything, and I’ve made pretty much all of it this year, within two months. The opening was amazing. I made nearly 1,400 pottery pieces and they’re almost sold out.

I didn’t realize that all the work is new and that you were revisiting past collections by making new iterations of them. What was that like?

These past 10 years, I was moving forward and forward without stopping. But this time, I revisited what I made. I didn’t have any actual pieces, so it was all done by memory. There are some styles that I don’t repeat anymore, so I brought a new technique to an old style. It was like looking back to an old photograph of myself. I borrowed the style of the old, but then who I am now is different.

Looking back, did you find you have a favorite body of work?

No, no. Some moments I was like, “I love this.” I don’t mean that in an egotistic sense. It was like, “I never really expected this to come out this way.” But like I said, you never know. You might think, Okay, this is a pretty boring-looking plate. But if you use it, then that becomes your favorite. It’s like a human being: Exciting people are not always your favorite people. Sometimes a quiet person can be the most comfortable to be with.



More Posts by Lee Magill

Lee Magill is a writer and editor based in New York City who has contributed to Travel + Leisure and Time Out. She previously served as the editor of Time Out New York Kids

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