Mashiko-based ceramic artist Ken Matsuzaki is a man who has learned from his past influences and has broken free from them to find his own ceramic voice.
In Japan, where lineage is so important, Matsuzaki comes from a noble background.
Nihonga painterand mingei art collector Shuki Matsuzaki is his father, and Mashiko's current Living National Treasure, Tatsuzo Shimaoka, was is teacher. Behind these two strong personalities is Shimaoka's teacher, Shoji Hamada(1894-1977).
The first mingei Living National Treasure, Hamada is responsible for putting the small town of Mashiko on the world ceramic map.
Matsuzaki was born in Tokyo in 1950 and graduated from the Fine Arts Ceramic Department of Tama University in 1972. That same year he was apprenticed to Shimaoka, with whom he studied with for five years. He established his own kiln, Yuushin("Playful Spirit) Gama, in 1978. It is often said that an artist must first imitate, then master, and finally let of the first two steps in order to find his or her own voice. It's not an easy thing to unlearn all that was so diligently sweated over.
Yet Matsuzaki has passed through the first two doors and is well into the third phase, working in a voice that is uniquely his own.
This process is visible when one looks back at Matsuzaki's early works, which included what one might term 'Hamada-yaki' in reference to Hamada's enormous influence on Mashiko, which even continues to this day.
Shimaoka told Matsuzaki to find or design a pattern all his own, as Shimaoka did with his famous Jomon rope pattern designs.
Matsuzaki began with his 'White Heron' incised white-slip design phase. This is where he began to search outside his circle of powerful influences and find his true voice.
Styles that followed were hakeme (brushmark slip), gosu (cobalt blue), zogan (inlaid ware), overglaze porcelains, and yakishime (high fired unglazed wood-fired wares).
Matsuzaki still continues with some of these styles, particularly his intense yakishime which he fires in a traditional wood-fired kiln using pine and chestnut for fuel, and also in his delightful Shino and Oribe wares.
He calls his yakishime wares haikaburi-yohen, with haikaburi referring to the build-up of ash on the pieces and yohen pointing to the natural changes that occur in the kiln.
Recently it's the haikaburi yohen pieces that Matsuzaki has put most of his energy into.
He fires his wood-burning kiln only twice a year and it's a fervid process that lasts a full six days, twenty-four hours around the clock. The first three days Matsuzaki stokes the kiln with two thousand bundles of pine and chestnut and the last three days with pine charcoal.
It's a very labor-intensive challenge and leaves him drained for days after.
The rewards for pottery loversare the splendid pieces with layers of haikaburi that will surely dazzle one's senses.
The Mino wares (Oribe and Shino fall under this heading) of the Momoyama period (1573-1615) captivated his imagination with their playful, yet skilled freedom balanced with the wabi-sabi stance of the Zen influenced tea ceremony.
But it made no sense just to make mere copies of these masterpieces, so instead Matsuzaki was searching for how he could put his own mark on these most distinctive Japanese ceramic styles.
He developed a unique Shino ware known as Suo Shino (he fires these in a gas kiln) with its deep reddish purples unlike any Shino the world has ever seen.
The color owes as much to the glaze as is does to the iron-rich clay that Matsuzaki uses.
And then there are the forms.
Elegantly crafted water jars or tea bowls that have a sense of grace and honor without being boorish or offensive.
On this web page you'll be able to see photos from his large Tokyo exhibition catalogs and you'll see what I mean The same holds true for his Oribe wares in the fact that the shapes all spring from the Matsuzaki's playful spirit, superb craftsmanship and deep interest in ancient Asian art.
Influences can be seen from classical Chinese mingqi figurines and also stately Japanese doutaku bronze bells.
Still other forms in Japanese art are heishi or tall sake bottles usually found in medieval Seto wares and earlier lacquer wares. Matsuzaki incorporates the heishi form into many of his larger ash-glazed works.
The Internet has opened up new horizons for many around the world.
Now it's easy to see the works of great contemporary artists without ever having to leave your living room. Of course, nothing ever compares with holding and using a piece of Japanese pottery, or any fine pottery for that matter. Yet for those of you who can't make it to Mashiko to see Matsuzaki's work in person I imagine that this web page is the next best thing.
Matsuzaki is one of the first here in Japan to open up his own web page, and as usual he's looking forward with his keen vision making ceramic art that will surely touch many around the world.

Robert Yellin
Japan Times Ceramic Columnist
President, http://www.e-yakimono.net/