Japanese kiln master brings custom design to art department
He sits behind the rotating potter’s wheel, eyes never drifting from the pot he has placed before him as he touches the sharp trimming tool onto its surface.
It cuts away at the little rough edges, creating a smooth, soft finish.
He holds the pot with a steady hand, baring a few fingers that have been noticeably shortened as the result of a childhood fire accident. Despite the tragedy, it allows him a smoother, more natural grip on the rounded surface.
Students watch as he takes his foot off of the pedal and holds up the finished work, a traditional Japanese teapot.
Masakazu Kusakabe is a world-renowned potter who has mastered the craft after many years of practice and came from Japan to make Tennessee his home for the next few months.
Everyone calls him “Sensei,” because he is the master of his craft.
In the classroom, he is positioned as if he were a wise old teacher amongst his circle of students, demonstrating the meticulous patience and discipline necessary to create beautiful ceramics.
Each pot and cup is left with a smooth, yet unique surface, complete with cracks and imperfections that could only have been made by hand.
“Now very special I can do for you,” he says to the class as he reaches for another pot.
He makes each pot with a unique design, demonstrating the ancient Japanese philosophy known as ‘wabi-sabi.’
It is the art of finding beauty in the imperfection and profundity of nature, by accepting our own imperfectness. It is the understanding that though we are all of the same origin and species, not one of us are the same, and that’s what makes us beautiful.
“European’s way is very much made to be appreciated, you know,” Kusakabe said. “And very much perfect, but for Japan are kind of Japanese artists who watch for imperfect. Each one different and also I’m talking about … for even human beings. Everybody different face, different form, different hairstyle, different shoes, so ceramics everything is also same.”
Ceramics are not Kusakabe’s only specialty. He is also a published writer, philosopher and world traveler.
He said he tries to visit at least seven or eight countries a year. This is his first trip to the southern US.
“I like music, so I’m very happy to be visiting Tennessee here,” Kusakabe said.
His journey here is not only one of pleasure or to share his knowledge of wabi-sabi with others. He is here, along with the help of students, to make MTSU a little bit greener in the coming months thanks, to his sustainable and eco-friendly kiln design.
“It’s very exciting together with them kiln building. My kilns are smokeless and kind of very eco and no pollution,” he said.
The project, which has been in the works for nearly two years, is something that arts professor Marisa Recchia couldn’t be happier to see come to fruition.
“It’s a pretty incredible thing that he’s come all the way from Japan just to do this,” Recchia said. “I’ve always been interested in this particular kiln.”
She previously applied for a grant to get a few high-tech, computer-controlled kilns custom built in Holland, but Kusakabe’s kiln takes the opposite approach.
“We’re firing by the most traditional method and the most ancient method, which is wood, but it’s also super clean and friendly, so it’s pretty cool,” she said.
Kusakabe has designed and built many similar smokeless wood-fired burning kilns in Asia, Europe, Canada and California.
His last model was built for Harvard University in 2009 after a series of marathon construction sessions. However, being a man who is constantly improving on his own unique design, the kiln he has developed for MTSU is now his latest model.
“This is a similar one, but this is a more effective one than the Massachusetts one,” Kusakabe said. “This one has more development and the most new design.”
The kiln is under construction between the Todd art building and the KUC and is to be complete by the end of October. After it is finished, it will be one of only a few smokeless kilns of its kind in the country outside of California, Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
In addition to firing pottery, the kiln will also have another purpose. There will be a cooking chamber, which can be used to heat water and cook food – one more way it will be able to generate and conserve energy while leaving a low carbon footprint.
“The concept is very ecological because you’re burning wood, so why not use that energy for more than one use,” Recchia said.
The relatively large size of the firebox and chimney are its means for a clean burn. It allows for effective combustion and ash distribution.
Kusakabe comes from a town in Japan called Miharu.
It is of the Fukushima prefecture, the same area devastated by the nuclear reactor explosions following a major earthquake and tsunami in 2011.
Since that time, he has been committed to finding a new way to work with clean energy for the future.
“Even now Japan has a problem with nuclear,” Kusakabe said. “So I’m very much thinking about the future energy and ‘how?’ How economic and effective and eco? In Japan, this is a very special time for new energy.”
Kusakabe is also a cancer survivor. After contracting a rare type of cancer seven years ago, he was in shock and left without much hope for survival.
“I’m the first person for my kind of cancer to clear in the world,” he said. “When I was with cancer about seven years ago, my doctor said ‘you are very difficult for survival. Only three months, 30 percent.’”
Faced with the shock of this devastating news, he sought comfort in his fellow patients, who helped him gain a new perspective on his situation in a way that showed gratitude.
“I’m very happy, and I’m finding for when my doctor said that you are 30 percent for survival. I was shocked and I come back to my room and everybody there had cancer and I said to them with very shock that ‘I am only 30 percent survival for three months.’ And they were like ‘oh you are so lucky. Because I am 15 percent’ or some people it was ‘I am 5 percent’ and one friend said, ‘I beat cancer three times and now I am back full time,’” he said.
During his bout with cancer, Kusakabe experienced loss that eventually fueled him.
“I stay in hospital 10 months and every month two people pass away, my room. So I stay 10 month, 20 people pass away, my friends, from cancer. So if I am a survivor I want to travel the world and teach for young people. Smiling and smokeless and wonderful living energy is my mission now.”
Kusakabe has since tackled life head-on and has achieved more than he could have hoped, given his previous odds.
He is the co-author of the book “Japanese Wood-Fired Ceramics,” and is currently working on his second book.
After the last pot is placed in front of the class among the dozens of others, each one its own unique creation, it is time to head outside and continue work on the kiln. The students begin filing out of the classroom toward its location.
The construction is still in its infancy, with only the barest of a foundation laid.
There is a lot of work ahead, but each hand plays a vital role. Though it is Kusakabe’s design, the students build it.
Kusakabe takes his place at the head of the foundation, offering advice and instruction in a way that is easy for everyone to understand. He smiles as they all take their places at each corner.
Each brick is a step toward a new development, a step toward a greener campus and a cleaner environment.