An award-winning jar and book and two sake cups by master and apprentice comprise this gift. The story behind it ties together several meaningful threads that run through our Japanese ceramics: the Satsuma ceramic tradition and its modern associations with the Folk Craft Movement; the transmission of knowledge from master to student; and our collections’ role in documenting moments in collecting history.
Nagayoshi Kazu (born 1928) did not begin his life in a potter’s family. As Leila Philip wrote in The Road through Miyama, the story of her apprenticeship with Nagayoshi, he “came to pottery after twenty years as a painter in Tokyo and Kyoto.” Increasingly dissatisfied, he encountered the philosophy of the Folk Craft Movement, established in the 1920s, and decided to try the life of a potter. He moved to the small pottery-making community of Miyama in Kagoshima prefecture, in southern Japan. During the Edo period (1615–1868), Miyama (then Naeshirogawa) was home to descendants of Korean potters brought to Japan in the 1590s. Their specialty was brown-glazed utilitarian ware. When members of the Folk Craft Movement discovered the community, it still had an old-fashioned rural ambience, which they celebrated and supported.
Entering a conservative rural community was not easy, but it offered a kind of personal and artistic independence. Postwar industrial design informs Nagayoshi’s taste. As exemplified by Jar with Design of Birds (1988), his forms are spare, glaze colors muted, and decoration restricted to the geometric minimum. This is true of the large pieces he makes for exhibitions and of the tableware that supports his workshop’s operation.
In 1983, Philip (born 1961), then a junior studying Japanese language and ceramics at Princeton University, visited me to discuss her wish to experience a “folk pottery village” in Japan. Confident that she would be able to reach a deeper understanding of the experience, I introduced her to Mr. Nagayoshi. She stayed with his family for a year while writing her senior thesis, and then returned for a second year to serve as an apprentice.
Following the established model, Philip learned by imitation, throwing and discarding hundreds of cups made to her teacher’s design until he finally approved one. As she recalled in her book:
Practice is over: two mounds of clay spun, pulled, shaped and cut off the wheel as teacups. ... Nagayoshi-san’s face peers through the open doorway. ... I notice that he is holding one of my cups up to the light. The muscles in my jaw tighten. “Getting better,” he says quietly. ...“Tomorrow ... start rice bowls.” Without looking up, he replaces the cup on the board. “Don’t sign them.”The Road through Miyama received the PEN 1990 Martha Albrand Citation for Nonfiction. Philip is now a professor of creative writing and literature at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Inspirational collectors of contemporary Japanese ceramics, Halsey and Alice North organized several ceramics-focused trips to Japan through the Japan Society Gallery, New York. As leader of the 1991 trip, Philip took the group to Nagayoshi’s workshop. The Norths convinced him to part with his prized Jar with Design of Birds, which had received an award in the 1988 national exhibition of the Japanese Traditional Art Crafts Association, with the promise that they would place it in a museum collection.