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This month's feature...

Shumpei Yamaki, Potter

When Iowa potter Shumpei Yamaki took a chance and fired a bowl made of cone-6 domestic porcelain in his wood fired kiln, he was uncertain of what would result. Always an experimenter, Shumpei mixes his own clay bodies, using clay dug from the organic farm and school where he lives and works, testing different ingredients. “I liked the results when I increased the amount of soda spar. I started looking for a commercial clay body that has a lot of it,” he says. Standard’s Jim Turnbull suggested he try the company’s “213,” which is a domestic porcelain.  He fired his works in his Anagama kiln for three days to  cone 10.  “When I pulled out the first bowl” he says, “I was amazed by the colors.” Shumpei has crafted a whole series of cups from the 213 clay body and is pleased with the color pallet the wood firing produces: “213 give a nice blue color when it is fired in a reduction atmosphere. The soda spar content gives a great green ash glaze. I think this can be a great option for wood fire, with its cooler surface color. I like the feel of the clay.”

Shumpei Yamaki Cups

A Japanese citizen who came to the United States in 1996, Shumpei’s path to his Iowa potter’s studio was much like his experimentation with different clay bodies. As a teenager in Kamakura, Japan, he was attracted by the street dance culture in east coast cities of the United States and moved to Philadelphia to pursue his passion. “I was never sure what I was supposed to do, so I did what I wanted to do,” he explains. Eventually, his parents urged him to pursue a college degree and steered him toward archeology, based on a long childhood fascination with dinosaurs. He ended up at the University of Wisconsin in La Crosse. During his senior year, he was badly injured in an automobile accident and underwent extensive physical therapy on his arm and leg. As part of his therapy, his mother suggested he take a course in ceramics, recalling how he used to form dinosaurs from clay as a child. He recalls, “It turns out I was very good at ceramics. My instructor was Karen Terpstra, who encouraged me to pursue a graduate degree.” Even though Shumpei lacked extensive study or even a portfolio, Terpstra recommended him for an Shumpei Yamaki Bowlapprenticeship with her friend and colleague Richard Bresnahan at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minnesota, who specializes in traditional Japanese pottery techniques. “I respect and admire all of his aesthetics for his life,” Shumpei says.
Bresnahan willingly took on the guidance of the young artist. He went on to earn an M.F.A. in Ceramics from the University of Iowa in 2005. “By the time I left Iowa, my heart and soul was in wood firing,” he recalls.

Manned with his degree, Shumpei once again found himself asking, “What do I do now?” He found a position as Ceramics Studio Manager at the Brooklyn campus of Long Island University and relocated to New York with his former wife. In the dense urban landscape, Shumpei had to face the challenge of adapting his art to electric firing. He sought out wood firing opportunities upstate as much as possible. After becoming parents, Shumpei and his then wife looked for a more suitable environment to raise a child and to build a wood-fire kiln, a search that brought them back to Iowa. They purchased a house and built a wood fire kiln on the property, naming it Kumahie, which means “Joyful Peace.”

Shumpei Yamaki Kiln
Today, Shumpei is Artist-in-Residence at Scattergood Friends School, a college preparatory school that teaches based on community principles and the connectedness of human life with the land, the inner self, and the other. Shumpei lives and teaches at the school and was able to build his anagama wood-fire kiln over a period of about a year, with the expert help of his good friend and apprentice, James Spielbauer. In an odd twist of fate, Spielbauer purchased the house Shumpei and his former wife originally owned when they moved to Iowa, giving Shumpei use of Kumahei once again.With these two kilns, Shumpei is able to fire several times a year. “The school kiln is smaller – a Gothic arch downdraft – and we fire it two times a year, with student work and my own work,” he says. The home kiln is much larger and enables him to produce works for sale at Sara Japanese Pottery in New York, through AKAR, an online gallery, and through several small mid-west galleries.

When asked about the contrast between a potter’s life in New York and a potter’s life in a small mid-west city, Shumpei says, “I don’t really care where I live. Everything seems to be coming together right now for me. I miss New York, but the Midwest fits a potter’s lifestyle, especially for wood firing. I don’t feel as though I have chosen what I do – things just seem to have come together. Someone suggests something; I try it. I do what I want and things work out.” In the same way that Shumpei gave the 213 porcelain a try in the wood kiln and created beautiful pieces, he has always had his eyes open to new possibilities. From the attraction of an urban dance movement, to the forms of early life, to the creation of clay art, Shumpei has found his creative space. In his artist’s statement for AKAR, he explains: I feel free to communicate with my own language through art. Direct action in the process of creating art is the key to communicating effectively…. My former experience in Hip-Hop culture … still exists in my body and soul, blending with and influencing my wheel throwing techniques…. I view clay on the pottery wheel as a sort of stage for myself as a dancer. When water flows on the surface of clay on a pottery wheel, my hands dance to rhythm and my mind stretches into meditation.

Shumpei Yamaki DinosShumpei’s journey embodies the artistic process itself. His willingness to be open to possibility has served him well. This past summer, his solo exhibit at Sara Japanese Pottery featured a series of wood-fired dinosaurs – a project suggested by the gallery owner, Naoki Uemura. Shumpei experimented with the idea, re-connecting with his childhood and reinterpreting it through art: When I make these dinosaurs, my focus is to connect movement with living form, such that the form implies purposeful action. During a wood firing, my dinosaurs shout out to me in the kiln as if they were in a survival world. [An] over 2,300-degree firestorm also reveals a unique surface for encountering one kind of my childhood toy, the real clay dinosaurs. With innovative minds like Shumpei’s, the world of ceramic artists expands with new ideas, new techniques, and new uses for materials like Standard Ceramic’s 213 porcelain clay body.

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