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Makoto Kagoshima, based in Kyushu, the southern island of Japan, illustrates whimsical and heart-warming motifs on clay, making each ceramic object a unique, one-of-a-kind piece of art. Kagoshima’s designs are all done freehand. Forms are drawn in pencil on the dried clay then blocks of colour are applied using a paintbrush. Fine lines are then scratched out to give detail, using the improvised tool of a dentist’s pick and the broken rib of an umbrella.
After graduating from the art college, Makoto worked in the Conran Shop in Fukuoka and didn’t become a full time potter until the age of 35.
Makoto Kagoshima trained as an artist, and then worked for the Conran Shop in Japan, but it is with clay that he has found his medium. On carved and moulded terracotta bodies, whether plates, vases, tiles or simply designed, three dimensional animals, Kagoshima unfolds a joyful and dreamlike universe of curling tendrils, bursting blooms, charming animals, darting fish, soaring birds, strutting geese and alluring snakes. These highly stylised creatures and plants, some drawn from childhood memory, some swimming up from his dreams, may seem naive, but the designs are sophisticated, the colour sense refined and the craftsmanship accomplished. While each piece is unique, the design language is consistent, creating en masse a distinctive, exuberant imaginary world. Although he first began to work with clay as a child, in his grandfather’s workshop, it was not until he was thirty five that Kagoshima was able to devote himself full time to his ceramics. Since then, his bold, quirky designs have proven so appealing that they have been used also for textiles, prints and murals.
Kagoshima is not the first ceramic artist whose primary gift is draughtsmanship. At a party in Tokyo, in 1909, British artist Bernard Leach, who was to become so influential in the history of British ceramics, was invited to decorate a recently fired piece of raku ware. Entranced by the medium, he later wrote, “By this to me a miracle, I was carried away to a new world.” Leach brought his painting and etching skills to clay, honouring and enhancing the material. He also acted as a primary conduit in the early twentieth century between the ceramic traditions of the East and those of the West, diving back into British traditions of decorative ware from the seventeenth century, as well as the work of William Morris.
Kagoshima’s ceramics also carry us to a new world. And they too link the artistic traditions of East and West. Kagoshima says, “I believe that there is no real difference in ceramic techniques from all over the world. I am influenced by Japanese traditions, from the very old Jamon pottery all the way through to modern ceramics using the latest technologies.” Kagoshima draws his whimsical designs freehand in pencil on dried clay, before applying blocks of colour with a paintbrush, using a wax-resist glazing method. He then scrapes off some of the slip or glaze, with the kaki-otoshi decorative technique, using a wide array of tools to etch his designs: “I use dentist’s tools, broken “bones” from umbrellas, seashells and so on, but basically I use everyday items that are either at hand or that I come across,” he says. The number of firings depends upon the complexity of the design and the techniques used. As for his delightful imagery, again Kagoshima draws on an eclectic array of sources. He says, “From a young age I loved looking at the patterns in my grandmother’s and mother’s kimono collections.” But he also pored over picture books in his school library of everything from the architecture and sculpture of Ancient Greece, the rustic crafts of Spain and Portugal and ancient Mayan, Incan and Aztec imagery, to the Arts and Crafts movement in the United Kingdom, and Scandinavian design. Kagoshima has also explained “my biggest influence is probably from the Romanesque art world, and in particular the craftsmen (not the “famous” artists) of the era, with their fantastic wood or stone-based creations. Fantastic creatures really piqued my interest.” It is this breadth and depth of influence that accounts for the universal appeal of Kagoshima’s pottery: we can all of us respond to his bold vision.
Emma Crichton-Miller is a freelance journalist and TV producer specialising in the arts. She is a columnist for Apollo magazine and is also a freelance contributor to the Royal Academy of Arts
by Dr Claudia Milburn
Q. Do you see yourself as an artist, ceramicist or craftsman?
It’s very hard for me to definitively categorise myself, because it has always been my philosophy to first and foremost do things which I personally find fun.
I always hope to be able to combine the freedom of being an artist, along with the patience required of a potter, and the resourcefulness of a craftsman.
Q. How did you initiate your practice? What has been your background / training and how influential has that subsequently been?
I spent a lot of time while growing up in my grandfather’s workshop, where he created ceramic dolls, and came into contact with many tools such as brushes, paints, spatulas etc.
During my school holidays, I would often be able to play there, making things out of clay such as small plates, animals or other objects.
I think I always had a vague idea that when I grew up, I wanted to make a living from making things, so I decided to go to art college to pursue that dream.
I felt that as long as I was able to make a career our of this, it didn’t really matter so much to me if this was through making fine art, photography, graphic design, product design or indeed any other creative form.
Q. Can you tell me more about the subject matter of your work?
Above all, I want to create things that people find fun to live with.
Q. What are the processes involved in making your work?
Firstly I blend and kneed the clay, and then use a mould to create the basic shapes.
Then it is left to dry, after which I paint with my chosen design, and pre-fired.
Next step is to glaze the piece, after which I give them a full firing in the kiln.
Whether the piece is large or small, each one usually takes around 4 weeks to complete.
Q. What are the European frames of reference in your practice?
I have always had a huge amount of admiration and respect for European art and crafts.
In particular, the architecture, paintings, sculptures and crafts of the Romanesque period has been a huge influence on my tastes and style.
Q. Can you tell me more about the Scandinavian design influence in your practice?
I have definitely learnt many things from my favourite Scandinavian designers and artists. Their ways of thinking, of working, and how they interact with and relate to their local and national societies has always been especially inspiring to me.
Q. What does a day in your studio look like?
I don’t work to a fixed schedule, but typically I will sit down for breakfast with my family, before getting stuck in to projects I have on the boil at that time. I like to take time out to water my plants on the balcony and in my living room, to sit down and eat something delicious for lunch, before I can settle down again, refreshed, to carry on creating with a smile on my face until dinner time.
Q. What is your first memory of ceramic?
In terms of ceramics themselves, as a child I often had a few favourite plates, and would always ask my mum to serve my food on one of them-which I’m pretty sure used to wind her up!
With regards to actually creating ceramics, I vividly remember the first plate I made in my grandfather’s workshop. I didn’t understand that pottery shrinks by about 15% after firing, So, when the pieces came out of the kiln, I was confused and a bit upset. I remember shouting at my grandfather that although it ‘looked’ like what I had made, it was far too small to be mine, so they must have been put there by someone else!
Q. What is the most challenging element of your practice?
The most challenging part is trying to make sure that I am shaping and painting the pieces in a truly objective way.
Q. What thing or person is your greatest influence?
It’s too hard to narrow this down to one single thing. I would say that I was particularly influenced by the plants and animals in my home, the patterns and colours of my mother and grandmother’s kimonos, my brother’s encyclopaedias about natural science, and science fiction books.
Q. Who would be in your own ceramics collection?
I truly love both industrial products and artistic ceramics. I’m grateful to have an eclectic collection of both well known artists and designers, as well as various anonymous industrialised products.
I am a huge fan of the works of Birger Kaipiainen, Oiva Toikka and Ingrid Atterberg, who I enjoy in my collection alongside a number of vintage industrial manufactured white oval plates from Europe.
Q. What is your favourite museum / works of art?
The V&A in London is very close to my heart.
Q. Do you have any animals yourself?
I’ve always wanted a dog, but I haven’t been fortunate enough to meet ‘the one’ yet, so until that time I am focussed on looking after my collection of plants.
Q. What artists most inspire you?
William Morris, the father of modern fantasy.
Q. What is the American context for your work?
There isn’t a specific ‘artistic’ influence that I can think of, but watching films is definitely important for my creative flow! I’ve probably watched Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One over a hundred times, and whenever I’m stuck in a rut while trying to paint my works, I usually put one of the ‘The Fast and the Furious’ series on the TV, which gets my creative engine running!
Q. What exhibitions and projects have you been involved in to date?
I have been incredibly fortunate to have taken part in many solo exhibitions and collaborations, which have all been hugely enjoyable, There have been so many over the years that it is very hard for me highlight any of them in isolation.
Q. Do you have any work in public collections?
For the most part, my works are held in private or corporate collections.
In Japan, there is one large public collection held by the Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine in Fukuoka, where the pieces are part of their ‘Treasure House’.
Q. How is your work perceived in Japan?
I can certainly tell that while some people see my works as ‘tableware’ to be used day to day, others clearly view them as ‘art’ which they hang on their walls, or display in their homes.
As a person who is essentially making ‘things’ for a living, there is definitely a conflict in my feelings between making ‘art’ and the need to also produce ‘products’.
I think you can actually both see and feel this ‘dilemma’ reflected in my works.
To be honest, I find it really hard myself to categorise what I do, or at least to be able to put it in to clear words.