East Meets Down East

September 3, 2014

Text by Robert Kiener    Photography by Prairie Stuart-Wolff

Influenced equally by her Japanese heritage and her love of Maine, Hanako Nakazato crafts pottery rooted in the past and inspired by the present.

Some potters would be thrilled to hear that collectors cherish their work so much that instead of using it, they place it on display like a piece of art. But acclaimed potter Hanako Nakazato wants her pottery to be used, not set on a shelf to “merely be admired.” As she sits at the throwing wheel tucked into the garage of her home in Union, Maine, she explains, “Pottery is nothing if it’s not used. My work reaches completion only when it is used.”

While she trims off excess clay from an elegant, shallow, almond-shaped bowl she threw the day before and signs it, she adds, “I am trying to use my pottery to express the Japanese concept of enjoying life by being aware of all our five senses. I hope my work helps people explore that idea when they use it.”

Listening to Nakazato, watching her throw a pot, and examining her pottery, it’s clear that both her technique and philosophy are deeply rooted in the classic ceramic traditions of Japan. Indeed, Nakazato is a fourteenth-generation potter from the famous pottery center of Karatsu, the Japanese town that gave its name to a style of pottery known as Karatsu Ware. Her father, Takashi Nakazato, with whom she apprenticed, is a much-admired potter, and her late grandfather Tarouemon Nakazato XII was honored as a Living National Treasure by Japan in 1976.

But while Hanako comes from such a long line of Japanese-potter aristocracy, she has also been greatly influenced by time spent in the United States, where she went to high school and to Smith College. Today she splits her time between homes and studios in Japan and Maine with her partner, photographer Prairie Stuart-Wolff.

She explains that living in two such different cultures offers a constant source of inspiration. “We call ourselves migrating birds,” says Nakazato, as she sips tea in the elegantly spare living room of the couple’s home. “There is a richness here, from the special light to the shape of the mountains, that influences my work. Japan, too, has its unique influences.”

American clay is more processed than the clay she uses in Japan, she explains. And her kiln in Maine is electric fired, while her Japanese kiln is wood burning. “These differences can be challenging, but it’s my job to use my voice to interpret these differences,” she says.

Nakazato exhibits widely in Japan and is represented by an ever-increasing number of galleries there and in the United States. Her work is prized for its elegant craftsmanship and clean, flowing lines.

“There is a real warmth evident in her work,” says Vermont-based potter Malcolm Wright, who studied with Hanako’s father and grandfather in Japan in the 1960s. “You can see the generations of master craftsmanship in her work, but you can also see the changes she has made that make the work her own. She is at once freer and looser, but she maintains that tradition of excellence.”

Thanks to her years of apprenticeship with her father, Nakazato is an accomplished production potter. She works every day and produces from 6,000 to 8,000 pieces a year (she says she can produce hundreds of pieces a day if necessary). Still, she strives to put something of herself into every piece she creates. “I don’t like to copy myself,” she says. “I don’t want my work to become intentional; I want to keep it as natural as possible.”

Ai Kanazawa, whose San Diego–based Studio KotoKoto carries Nakazato’s work, explains, “It is easy to glimpse the depth of her skill from the suggestion of fluent speed and rhythm that are left in the grooves of her wares. There is no hesitation in the strokes, just simple grace.”

In fact, Nakazato doesn’t even measure her pieces to make them consistent but relies on her years of experience as she builds sets of cups or plates.

Sitting behind her slowly spinning potter’s wheel, she compares making pottery to performance art. “You must have technique, but this is a lot like a live performance,” she explains, as she begins expertly to create an elegant bowl from a lump of damp clay. She points to her head and says, “I don’t want to work too much from up here—I like to lose myself in the rhythm. I hope it is this energy in my work that people respond to.” •

Editor’s Note To see more of Hanako Nakazato’s work, visit monohanako.com.

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