Oriental Ceramics in New Mexico

A blending of traditions


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PORCELAIN CLAY has a buttery smooth texture, the fragility of a butterfly wing and the pure whiteness of fresh fallen snow that brings joy to the hearts of many New Mexico ceramic sculptors and potters. Because of the unique qualities offered by wood firing techniques Korean style Anagama wood fired kilns have been built in Madrid, Taos, Dixon and other New Mexico communities. Porcelain clay, wood firing techniques and wood ash glazes with roots in Korea, Japan and China came to New Mexico in the hearts and minds of artists who studiedthese processes elsewhere.

For almost 30 years the University of New Mexico’s College of Education has offered classes in the Japanese Arita method of porcelain pottery making. The UNM program was established by James Srubek who maintained a working relationship with Japanese national treasure Sensei Manji Inoue with whom Srubek studied in America and Arita, Japan.

The method includes the throwing of tea bowls, cups, saucers and vases that consistently conform to established shapes, wall thicknesses and sizes. Arita porcelain was originally fired in wood fueled kilns but contemporary Arita potters fire their ware in both natural gas and electric kilns. The throwing technique requires the potter to practice a high degree of discipline and use specialized tools while accepting a formal obedience to traditional shapes. Artists willing to embrace these limitations are rewarded with beautiful ware that may evolve into highly individualistic styles.

Teachers and ceramic artists Kathryn Cyman and Elizabeth Fritzsche are two of Srubek’s earliest students who also spent four months as artists in residence with Sensei Manji Inoue in Arita, Japan.

Cyman: Porcelain
Image: © Kathryn Cyman
Porcelain, 8" x 6"

Cyman who still closely follows the Arita tradition in her own work tells her students that pottery was born approximately 15,000 years ago when people settled in farming communities that fostered cooperation and communication.

“Though creativity is generally a solitary pursuit, ceramic arts require communication and cooperation among a group of artists. The Arita technique is an elegant aesthetic discipline passed from one generation to the next that belongs to no individual. Though I hope the method remains open to some degree of interpretation the basic techniques and vessel forms follow a 16 generation lineage,” Cyman said.

When Srubek retired several years ago Cyman took over the Arita classes at UNM. She currently has 40 students.

Elizabeth Fritzsche has worked with porcelain for 23 years. Fritzsche said the combination of materials and techniques required in porcelain production infuse it with a palpable spiritual quality.

“I love working with porcelain’s smooth butter-like texture that produces an almost spiritual translucency when fired. Porcelain is a perfect medium that forms a strong relationship with the artist. It has a unique inner resonance, delicacy and beauty shared by no other clay body,” Fritzsche said.

Though Fritzsche honors the Arita tradition she has moved away from traditional forms and techniques. Her wheel works and sculptures exploit the plasticity of the clay that allows her to create paper thin edges, controlled indentations and inventive calligraphic designs that have become her signature style. In her most recent sculptures Fritzsche juxtaposes pure porcelain with tough cast iron forms.

Fritzche: True Rest

Image: © Elizabeth Fritzche
True Rest, Porcelain & Cast iron, 16" x 13" x 8.5"

anagama kiln

Image: UNM Anagama kiln north of Madrid, NM

Though now regarded as a symbol of tranquility and contemplative beauty, porcelain has a somewhat violent past. When the Japanese discovered large deposits of porcelain clay near Arita, Japan 400 years ago they had no indigenous expertise in porcelain making. Consequent military raids into Korea brought captured Korean porcelain artists to Arita to exploit the clay resource. Japan became renowned for its fine porcelain.

In 1998 Scott Rutherford, Ben Hall, UNM ceramics professor Bill Gilbert and a large crew of volunteers designed and built an Anagama kiln near Madrid. The tunnel shaped kiln is built on a hillside that allows the heat to rise naturally throughout its chambers.

Rutherford describes their design as a candle flame shaped chamber that allows the flame and ash to flow around and over the ware much like water flows around stones in a streambed. The kiln holds more than 600 pieces and requires a 15 person crew to fire it.

Ceramic artist Dan Feibig has worked in stoneware for more than 25 years and often uses Japanese shino glazes. His individualistic style embraces global inspiration drawn from Asian, Native American, ancient Greek and early American pottery forms. Feibig was a founding member of the Anagama kiln in Madrid and has participated in most of the firings.

“I like processes that I have to learn to understand intimately so that I can exert a degree of control without having absolute control. I like the element of surprise in wood firing and the dance that the process produces. The longer you interact in the dance, the more you know about different areas that offer different effects,” Feibig said. “I want my works to reflect the forces in nature that formed the world. Though I’m inspired by Japanese and Chinese pottery I have no interest in copying the Asian aesthetic, no matter how attractive that may be”.

Feibig: vessel

Image: © Dan Feibig
Wood-fired vessel with Oriebe glaze, 22"H
fired in the kiln above

Taos artist Kerry Lynn Cohn studied ceramic arts at the University of Montana where she was introduced to wood firing in 1995. Japanese potter Yukio Yamamoto was a presenter at a wood firing symposium at the University of Montana. His presentation and the workshops that followed inspired Cohn to incorporate the technique into her repertoire.

She brought her passion for wood firing back to her home town where she founded the Tierra Hermosa Pottery Studio. Her concentration is wood firing but she also creates Raku and stoneware with conventional firing methods. Cohn’s designs emphasize the use of her ware in the daily rituals of dining, storing and decorating.

“My forms are inspired by the vessel form in many cultures but my recent travels in China to visit ancient kiln sites have an influence as well. Because I’m working with an Anagama kiln in Taos I take the flame shape and ash flow into consideration when I design a piece. I’m also aware of the critical placement and position of individual works inside the kiln to take advantage of the wide range of conditions during firing,” Cohn said. “The flame and bottle shaped kiln echoes the forms that you place in the kiln. It is a wonderfully balanced relationship”.

Thanks to Wesley Pulkka, artist, critic and arts writer for New Mexico and national publications.

Originally appeared in The Wingspread Collector’s Guide to Santa Fe, Taos & Albuquerque – Vol 20

Related Pages

Glossary of Ceramics and Clay Terms article
Fine Craft in New Mexico article

The Art of Craft article

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