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Shiro Otani
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Shiro Otani   1      2      3      -      PRINTER VERSION

Published in Ceramics Monthly, 39(6), June/July/August 1991.

The landscapes on Shigaraki jars have seasons also. Some jars are as bright and vivacious as a spring morning with green glaze cascading over a warm orange surface. Others are moody and withdrawn, barely touched with color—streaks of lavender and blue against dry gray clay. The 15th-century tea men who first brought those jars into their tea rooms knew how to read the landscape, just as they could read shading of ink on paper and see mountains and streams. In their mind's eye, they saw the valley that had made the jars.
   —Louise Cort
   Shigaraki Potters' Valley

Shiro Otani was born in Shigaraki in 1936. For the majority of American potters, whose awareness of pottery came late in adolescence through the introduction received in university ceramics classes, it may be difficult to understand all that being born in Shigaraki implies; and how, for better or worse, it shapes a person's view of ceramic art. Try to imagine, if you can, being raised in a town whose identity was formed by the esoteric and poetic descriptions of its wares voiced by 15th-century tea masters, and becoming aware from your earliest moments of the uniqueness of Shigaraki pottery. Consider what it would be like to work your way through high school as a laborer in various potteries; and, after graduation, to study with a pottery decorator, then spend five years decorating over 50 hibachi a day. This was Otani's youth. Shigaraki pottery was more than just part of his daily life; it became part of his psyche.

In the late 15th century, the tea master Murata Juko presided over a new aesthetic in the tea ceremony that transformed forever the way Japanese view the commonplace objects that surround them. This aesthetic, referred to as wabi cha, elevated rough, naturalistic and mundane objects into the realm of connoisseurship, which until then had been occupied exclusively by more elaborate and technically sophisticated pottery from China. Juko's poetic description of Shigaraki and Bizen as being "chilled and withered", and his linkage of this kind of appreciation with the search for spiritual enlightenment made wabi cha (and objects like the Shigaraki jars that embody it) a powerful philosophical and aesthetic force that still reverberates in Japan and is felt even here in the West.

When Otani bought land and built his own wood-burning kiln across the road from Shigaraki's old imperial palace in 1973, he was totally absorbed with the idea of working in the tradition of Shigaraki that had developed around Juko's philosophy of wabi cha and was epitomized by those early Shigaraki tea wares. Shiro Otani's image of that tradition springs from and revolves around a special feeling he has for two elements he believes make Shigaraki ware special. The first is the material itself: a coarse, white, highly refractory clay, flecked with feldspathic rocks that appear to erupt over the entire surface of the pot when it is fired. The second is the interaction of the clay with ash and flame in the lengthy and intense wood firing that gives Shigaraki pottery its distinctive surfaces, ranging from soft pinks and oranges to crusty gray and toasted brown covered with transparent olive green glaze. Although other
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