Fukami Sueharu: After 20 years, an overnight success

I first saw the work of Fukami Sueharu-san while walking down Gojozaka in Kyoto, nearly 10 years ago. My colleague, Nancy Craft, and I spotted his work in a gallery window. Our jaws dropped to the ground. Neither of us had ever seen such striking work.

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That afternoon, Nancy and I visited indigo-artist Fukumoto Shihoko-san’s studio.  Again, our jaws dropped to the ground.  Coincidentally, for the second time that day and the second time in our lives we saw a clean, direct and stunning work by Fukami Sueharu-san.

Though he came from a family of functional-ware potters in Kyoto, early on he wanted to do something different—to express himself as an artist.  Obsessed with the image of very smooth, sculptural pieces, he decided to make blue celadon porcelain his life work.

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To achieve his ideal, Fukami-san began experimenting with slip-casting of sculptural pieces.  But the casting he had in mind had never been done before. There was no “book of instructions.”  It took him 13 years of trial and error before he finally got the slip casting technique right. “I succeeded in casting just the right kind of mold, into which I poured liquid slip.  After walls formed in the mold, I used a bicycle pump to remove the excess slip from the center, resulting in the kind of light, hollow form that I had dreamed of.

“Next, I have come to use very specialized hand planes to achieve a sculpting back of the cast form.  After bisque firing the piece, I further refine it with a diamond polisher.  It is very time consuming to create my pieces.  I glaze both outside and inside of the piece to prevent cracking and warping.  This too has been a process of continuous failure and learning.

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He also experimented with color.  “I love the gradation in celadon, from white to blue. Where glaze is thin, the color is lighter.  When it is thicker, the color is bluer.  The color is based on thickness that follows the form of the piece.  In the kiln, the glaze builds where it does not rest, adding to the form, the shape.  I think that thickness, itself, is also a type of form.  Most ceramic sculptors do not use glaze.  It is more difficult to express with glaze. I feel that the combination of color and shape creates a new form that is neither sculpture, nor ceramics.  Rather, color and shape, together, make something new, something beyond.

“I didn’t want there to be crackles in my celadon.  They interfere with the impact of the shape.  I want my expression to be straight and honest, and crackles get in the way of that.

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“Until I was 43, I worked and tried so hard that I thought I would collapse.  I wanted to make this technique my own.  For years, my wife and I struggled, just to survive.  Both of our families helped to support us through those very difficult years of trial and error.

“Though I have been told by various critics to try something else besides celadon, I am not at all finished with it yet.  I feel as if I am moving towards a distant light, refining as I get closer to it. I have long wanted to create a Fukami niche in the world of celadon.  I simply want to find my own little place that would be very much my own expression, my own contribution.”

FUKAMI CAKE DISH

In Collaboration with Photographer, Helen Hasenfeld

© Photos by Helen Hasenfeld