Shoji Hamada

Tokyo School of Fine Arts

Shoji Hamada was born on December 9, 1894, in Kawasaki, Kanagawa, Prefecture. Shoji’s father and mother were not well-known. From a young age, Shoji loved art and, attended the Tokyo School of Fine Arts when he was a child with an older relative who was already attending.

He was interested in the students and their work. As a teenager, he started working with wood and submitting his work to magazines and even won prizes at school. He first became interested in painting, but then he decided to start working with ceramics because a pot will always be useful, even if it’s not a good pot.

Tokyo Industrial College

After high school, Hamada went to study at the Tokyo Industrial College (now Tokyo Institute of Technology), where he learned about making ceramics. Then, he worked at the Institute of Ceramics in Kyoto.

After he saw the dishes and engravings of Bernard Leach at an exhibition, Hamada was impressed. When he returned to Tokyo in 1919, he had the opportunity to meet Leach, and they became friends. This friendship lasted a lifetime.

England

A year later, Leach invited Hamada to go to England and help set up a pottery in St Ives, Cornwall. Hamada already had two job offers but decided to accept Leach’s offer instead.

The artists arrived in England in the summer of 1920 and became interested in recreating ceramics from the Song Dynasty (960-1279). They got inspiration from the brightly colored glazed earthenware from that period, as well as English rustic pottery.

Both Hamada and Leach created products in the years that followed. These products were a mix of the two types of handicrafts from different parts of the world. And although it took a few years, they finally built a traditional Japanese wood-burning stove. Which was the first one built in Europe, but the firings in this kiln were unsuccessful.

Exhibition in London

In 1923, Hamada had his first solo exhibition in London at the Paterson Gallery. The show was successful, and he realized that his art was very popular with Western audiences. He exhibited there again in 1929 and 1931.

That same year, he returned to his homeland, worried about the fate of his relatives who survived the earthquake in Kanto.

Besides the work of Leach, Hamada was also influenced by other artists and artisans he met during his stay in England. He later wrote that these people led simple lives, growing their food and making their furniture, clothes, dishes, and other things. Similar to what he was used to seeing in Japan thousands of miles

Okinawa

Hamada moved back to his homeland and joined the local potters in Okinawa. He worked in one of the workshops there for eight years, gaining a lot of experience in ceramics. In 1924, he married Katsue Kimura, and they had four sons and two daughters together throughout their long life together.

Gradually, Hamada formed his view of art and agreed with other Japanese artists from that period. And with his longtime friends, the philosopher Yanagi Soetsu, the potter Kanjiro Kawai, and several other artists, they decided to consolidate their beliefs and, in 1926, founded the Mingei Folk Art Association.

Mingei Folk Art Association

The goal of this movement was to save what the masters of the past had created. This work had to meet several requirements: it had to come from the area where the master worked, use materials mined nearby, be made by hand, and be applicable in everyday life. And the name of the artist was not to be seen by hallmark or signature.

Such objects are made by anonymous craftsmen who did not consciously try to create art. While the modern artist started from this and thus, was unsuccessful.

The secret was to abandon the idea of ​​making art. Instead, using local materials and traditional methods to work naturally allowed the product to move into the category of art.

Shoji Hamada was one of the leaders, of the movement to promote living art. He traveled to many villages, saving people’s treasures and restoring old stoves.

Mashiko

Hamada moved to Mashiko in 1931. A small village located 100 kilometers north of Tokyo, where he set up a kiln and started making pottery. Ceramic production has been taking place in Machico for many centuries.

Many pottery dynasties in this area date back to the Momoyama era (1568-1603) or even earlier. Hamada, who was not originally from this area, did not receive proper recognition in the early years. However, a local potter eventually accepted him as an apprentice.

Hamada took students who worked in his style. Many of them, such as Tatsuzo Shimaoka (1919-2007), became great masters. Over the years, thousands of tableware items have been decorated, glazed, and fired in a wood-fired oven.

Hamada’s pots were sold, from the workshop directly. He rarely signed his work, believing that the work could be identified, only by referring to the identity of the potter.

Shoji Hamada used natural materials to make glazes for his utilitarian objects. He followed the principles of Mingei, which means the art of the people. These vessels were fired in a kiln using natural ash as fuel.

Hamada wanted to mix the new with the old and wanted to preserve the traditions of Japan while also spreading their influence to the art world.

Bernard Leach, who visited Hamada in Japan in the 1950s and stayed with him, wrote about his friend in his memoirs and said:

“He built his house and workshop from the very beginning, this “world” occupies several acres on a slope partially overgrown with bamboo, there is a garden, and trees come close to the edge of the rice field. It seems that people here share the same beliefs and are always ready to support each other. There are no foreigners. I love the spirit of this place.

Hamada works alone in the main house, sitting cross-legged on a low plinth in which the wheel is sunk. The freedom and ease with which he does this is a miracle. But the longer I look at him, the more I understand that this is the result of peace reigning in his soul. He has a clear and calm mind leading to equally clear and precise actions.

Shoji Hamada traveled a lot, teaching and demonstrating his art, and drew inspiration from the ideas of other cultures, which helped Western ceramic communities.

Even though Hamada was a successful potter, he remained modest. He did not talk much because he believed his work and example would speak for him.

Even though Hamada did not aim to be famous, he became very popular during his lifetime, and in 1955, the Japan Cultural Committee named him The Living National Treasure, which is a great honor.

Hamada was honored by the government for his work, in passing on national traditions to the next generation. He was a founding member of the Japan Folk Art Association and also an honorary member of the Japan Folk Crafts Society.

Honors include the Purple Ribbon Medal (1964) and the Kawasaki Prize (1976).

His work is highly valued by collectors today and has become part of the best museums in the world.

Shoji Hamada died in Mashiko on January 5, 1978, but his work as one of the best potters of the 20th century continues to influence world art.

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