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Still point: Yukiya Izumita.

THE GRAY CAT DOZING NEAR THE WOODFIRE KILN suddenly jumped up and dashed behind the wood pile, startling Japanese artist Yukiya Izumita. Izumita was alone in his studio, preparing to fire a batch of ceramic sculptures for an upcoming exhibition in the US. All winter, that cat kept coming into the studio looking for food and warmth. Izumita enjoyed its company while working in his studio in the forest, away from his home in the seaside town of Noda-Mura in Iwate prefecture on the northeastern coast of Japan. He glanced at the clock, it was 2:45 p.m. His wife Harumi must have picked up their young son from school by now. Just as he was about to load the kiln, the heavy wooden table started to sway, tossing the sculptures as if they were boats in a stormy sea. He threw himself instinctively over the table, spreading out his arms to steady the artworks. The shaking intensified, the old wooden building groaned under the stress. All he could do was to hang on, watching the top of the long kiln bucking up and down as if a monster were trying desperately to get out from inside.

When the commotion finally stopped, all the lights in the studio were out. Miraculously the kiln was still standing. Izumita immediately called Harumi but the telephone no longer worked. He jumped into his car and raced down the twisty mountain road to town. To his relief, he found his wife and son at home, shaken but unharmed. Sirens were blaring out loud tsunami warning. Izumita went outside to look at the ocean. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, except for some fishermen pacing back and forth by the sea, gesturing excitedly while talking on their walkie-talkies. Tsunami warnings were not uncommon in seaside towns like Noda-Mura. Many residents dutifully took refuge on higher grounds but few suspected the impending catastrophe that would befall their town within hours.

Halfway around the world in Santa Fe, New Mexico, gallery owner Akiko Hirano turned on her computer in the morning, expecting to see a message from Izumita informing her about his coming show. There was no message. Splashed across the screen were horrifying images of unimaginable devastation brought by a monstrous tsunami triggered by the strongest earthquake that ever hit Japan off its northeastern coast. She immediately called Izumita, but the line was dead. For the next several days, she tried to contact Izumita through friends in Japan, but all communications with the disaster area were cut off. She wondered if the artist had perished along with tens of thousands of others. On the fifth day, the telephone rang. Hirano picked up the phone and almost cried. It was Izumita. He and his family members had survived; all he was worrying about was whether the showpieces would arrive on time for the show.

Izumita (b 1966) grew up in Iwate prefecture, an area known for its high mountains, deep forests and beautiful sea shores. After college, he worked for three years in Tokyo but found that the populous metropolis was not for him. In 1992, he returned north to take up an apprenticeship in pottery-making under Gakuho Simodake, a seven-generation Kokuji-yaki master. Simodake recognised Izumita's unusual abilities and encouraged the young artist to explore new ideas for self expression. Izumita understood that the best ideas were useless without a solid foundation of technical knowledge and skills, achievable only through disciplined training. He diligently learned all aspects of traditional pottery-making from the master. In 1995, he established his own studio. Even today, Izumita would start each day by throwing traditional cups and bowls on a potter's wheel before moving on to the more demanding projects.

The first impression of Izumita's sculptural work is often one of amazement. One seldom expects to see clay honed to razor-thin edges, torn apart, twisted at impossible angles like giant origami, to create shapes that exude quiet elegance and tension, forms that appear unpolished and at the same time complete. Great technical expertise is required to create such works, which stand out among contemporary Japanese ceramics.

Beyond the innovative forms and technical brilliance, Izumita's creations are meant to convey deeper The first impression of Izumita's sculptural work is often one of amazement. One seldom expects to see clay honed to razor-thin edges, torn apart, twisted at impossible angles like giant origami, to create shapes that exude quiet elegance and tension, forms that appear unpolished and at the same time complete. Great technical expertise is required to create such works, which stand out among contemporary Japanese ceramics. Beyond the innovative forms and technical brilliance, Izumita's creations are meant to convey deeper of his work. For different firing effects, he uses both a gas kiln and a wood fueled kiln. Glazes are applied for specific purposes, to convey feelings of the changing seasons or sentiments of erosion and decay that give character to the land.

Exactly three weeks after the Japan disaster, Izumita's exhibition Still Point opened in Touching Stone Gallery in Santa Fe. Only half the showpieces had arrived in time for the opening. Ironically, several works entitled Waves were broken in transit. These were pure sculptural forms reminiscent of sand dunes or ocean waves (Figs 1 & 2). To commemorate the event, the gallery decided to have the broken pieces professionally restored and dedicated the show to help Japan disaster relief.

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A centrepiece of the exhibition was a large sculpture entitled Ori No.1 (Fig 3), which had won an award in the Twentieth Japan Ceramic Art Exhibition in 2009. Broad thin surfaces unfolded from a heavy rectangular base as in a giant origami. The graceful sweeping surfaces drew one's eyes towards the centre, where the surfaces cracked open and disappeared into an abyss. The juxtaposition of delicate surfaces and massive forms created dynamic tension, which hinted at the contradiction between the fragile beauty and fearsome power of nature. One viewer who saw the award-winning Ori No 1 commented that it was similar to watching gigantic tectonic plates colliding against one another in slow motion, terrifying and at the same time spectacularly beautiful.

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Nature's influence was also evident in his original forms entitled Stratum, built from numerous layers of slabs (Fig 4). These were functional vases, each with an opening and a water-tight interior. Their rough surfaces and jagged edges gave the impression of sedimentation strata exposed from heavily eroded bedrock. The seemingly haphazard manner the layers were stacked upon one another belied the meticulous planning and execution that went into these pieces. Another example that required extraordinary forethought was an unusual covered box (Fig 6). Its pitted surfaces with streaking patina had the appearance of a weathered wall of an old house. Its lid was built from a series of thin slabs, carefully stacked and curved to fit perfectly over the parabolic opening. Izumita had an exceptional ability to make complex forms look simple and the sensibility to distil beauty from the simplest forms. Few examples illustrate this better than the piece entitled Ravine (Fig 7). This beautiful work consisted of a single long slab sculpted into a graceful arc. Some viewed it as a purely sculptural form, others saw an arroyo in a rolling landscape. In any case, one would be hard pressed to find a single unnecessary line in this elegant piece.

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The most important element in Izumita's work is difficult to define physically: Passage of time is often implicit in each piece. A good case in point was a large sculptural work entitled Still Point No. 3 (Fig 8). Its large textured surface was torn apart by an S-shaped gap and folded into a fantastic landscape. Tiny grains of sand and stone were embedded in the surface. It evoked a dried-up stream bed running down an eroded, deeply fissured gully. The piece was balanced delicately on a single point at one end. As in a fulcrum of time straddling past and future, between decay and regeneration, this was Izumita's silent dialogue with nature. The conversation was so sensitive and eloquent, one could not help but hear its echo and feel the artist's emotion and be moved by it.

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Six months after Izumita's show, Hirano travelled to Japan to visit the artist again. The train tracks and the station serving Noda-Mura were washed away by the tsunami. Hirano took a bus to the nearest accessible town, where Izumita picked her up in his car. He took her to the waterfront where the sea-wall was overwhelmed by waves almost three times its height, where iron railings were flattened and ripped from the concrete foundations. They stood where the train station was, in front of a wide swath of barren ground that used to be part of the centre of town. Workers in heavy equipment were moving mountains of debris and mangled automobiles into neat piles for disposal. Hirano wandered around what seemed to be the remnant of an abandoned stone factory. Large blocks of stone lay toppled and scattered amid broken glass and twisted metal. Suddenly, she saw something beautiful lying among the debris: an intact statue of the Buddha, calmly looking up towards the sky.

That image captured the spirits of the Japanese people. They had accepted their fate and were looking to the future. As for Yukiya Izumita, the disaster had heightened his awareness of the fragility of human life. It had lain bare the irony between nature's endearing beauty and terrifying power. He felt as if he were a speck of dust in this vast earth, being kept alive only by the grace of nature. At any moment, everything could be taken away and turned to a pile of dirt. Yet in the aftermath of that terrible day, he had focused on recovery and healing, turning his emotions into beautiful art. Gazing towards the ocean, he reminded Hirano that the once beautiful seashore that now lay in ruin was created over time by powerful waves and one day beauty would return.

More than 21,000 people were killed or missing in the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. The gray cat survived and continued to visit Izumita's studio.

Article by Tim Wong and Akiko Hirano

Dr Akiko Hirano and Dr Tim Wong are co-owners of Touching Stone Gallery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, US (www.touchingstone.com). All works pictured are in private collections.
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Author:Wong, Tim; Hirano, Akiko
Publication:Ceramics Art & Perception
Date:Mar 1, 2013
Words:1750
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