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Painting the Japanese Potter: An interview with MFA student Tara Sood

By Jesse Mangerson (FA Faculty)

One of the most interesting aspects of our MFA online program, from the instructor’s point of view that is, is learning of the variations on Thesis concepts being completed by our MFA students. The range of subject matter that is being addressed based on culture or location keeps our work as instructors continuously engaging and diverse. Working with students located in Norway, The Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and Japan to name a few, offers amazing insight into the places and the cultures that influence their work.

Tara Sood is one of these students. She is an American living and working in Japan whose work and project epitomize this idea. 


I had the opportunity to work with Tara last semester in FA 811: Process and Thesis development. Her Fine art painting MFA Thesis project is based on the work of the Japanese Potter and the firing of the Noborigama kiln.  Her work and story are inspiring to say the least. I sat down with her in an asynchronous interview about her project

Structure housing a Noborigama kiln. Okinawa, Japan

Structure housing a Noborigama kiln. Okinawa, Japan

J: Will you share your Thesis statement?

T: Japanese pottery is revered and prized in Japan. Unlike the western world where sets of dishes all matching are treasured, a Japanese household will offer their guests each a unique pottery tea cup or plate. Among the most prized types of pottery are the teapot and the bonsai pot. My next three years starting in June 2016 will be spent in Okinawa, Japan. Having access to the Japanese culture I seek to paint the art and process of Japanese potters. There will be at least 15 representational oil paintings of the figure working in their environment – outside or in the studio. The finished sizes will range from 12x16 to 30x40 inches. The information for these studio paintings will be collected through on location oil and pencil sketches and photographs. Further sketches in oil will be made working out color and composition using the references collected prior to completing the final piece. The color palette will be inspired from Japanese culture, art, and life using seasonal colors and colors with specific meaning (i.e. in Japan white indicates death, red equals a wedding or new beginning). A painterly approach will use an expressive brushstroke to explore the elements of atmosphere and light and shadow effects paired with explorations of contrast in value, color, and texture at the area of interest.

J: Where are you located in Japan?

Pathway to the kiln

Pathway to the kiln

T: The four 'kojo' - factories that I am working with in Okinawa was stumbled upon on a scouting trip with my translator and friend - Kyan Yuko.  She suggested visiting Yomitan village of potters first in my search for a potter to work with.  There are 30 plus potters in this village that run studios, factories, and kilns and it took some time to walk through and talk with some of 

T: My family and I are living in Okinawa, Japan, a small island part of the Ryukyu Archipelago south of the mainland.  We are actually really close to Taiwan.


J: How did you get acquainted with this group of potters?

Making clay. Okinawa, Japan

Making clay. Okinawa, Japan

them.  I was looking for a potter that used more traditional Japanese methods in pottery such as the kiln built into the hillside and the overall appearance of a potter's studio close to nature.  This large quadrangle was one of the last we visited and there were signs on all the doors of 'Staff Only' and 'Please Private Entrance'.  Having Yuko-san there was essential because I would have just walked past all the studios because of the signs.  In mainland Japan signs like this are like unspoken rules and if broken it is like a breaking of trust.  But as I've found many things are a little friendlier and a little easier here in Okinawa, my translator suggested we go in and talk to the master potter.  I was pretty nervous being an American! 

We lingered around the entrance to the most direct kojo and a worker happened to emerge with a long board filled with just formed pots and we introduced ourselves and told a little about what we were looking for and who I was.  He smiled and went to put his burden down and came back and introduced us to his sensei - the master potter of that studio - Miyagi-san.  He was kind enough to listen to my project explanation and direct inquiry of whether I could photograph him working

Noborigama kiln between firings

Noborigama kiln between firings

He suggested we talk to the larger kojo next door and the sensei there - Yunihara-san.  We were introduced and welcomed.  Yunihara-san has a great sense of humor and listened to my project with many jokes aimed at me.  It was wonderful and he was interested in what I was doing.  He also perused my thesis proposal book.  He then took time away from his carving of pots to show me much about his specialty in pottery and answer my questions regarding his specific method of firing, forming, and specialty works.  He specializes in texture and firing with shells to produce an ancient looking pot. 


He agreed to accommodate the needs of my project and gave me an open invitation to come and take references anytime.  The one catch was to come and let him know I was here and to bring my translator with me.  He ended in telling me that he may be able to speak English but he probably would have to be drunk first.  


J: What has your experience with the Japanese people been like? Were they welcoming when you approached them with your idea?


T: I've lived in Japan before and I had some expectations of resistance to breaking rules - especially those written on a plaque saying 'Staff Only'!  In mainland Japan it is common custom to call before you visit any place and see when they would be available to allow you through the door.  Here in Okinawa things are a bit different.  'Relaxed' is the key word here.  The Okinawan people are very friendly and willing to take time to talk to most people if approached.  The welcome to Yunihara-san's kojo was with open arms and quite friendly, although at first his staff, on the other hand, thought I was just a random tourist and were quite cold.  


After Yunihara-san heard about my project he took the next hour to answer questions about his practice and show me example after example of firing, his specialty in pottery, and different Okinawan techniques.  I was quite amazed he took time out of his day to teach me and agree to my project and without prior knowledge to my coming.  Each time I visit he is interrupted in his work and always waving me on to take pictures of whatever I'm interested in and leading me to Saora-san, the one lady in his factory that works for him and can speak some English.  Now that she and the rest of the staff know my project and me they all greet me kindly.


Firing the kiln Noborigama

Firing the kiln Noborigama

Sensei at work

Sensei at work

A great surprise came from the welcoming arms I received when I brought my youngest son on my back in a backpack.  I didn't have childcare yet being so new on the island and I really needed to give the pottery studios some gifts and thank you's I had made them.  I walked in unsure of the welcome and intent upon making my visit quick - most art places I had experience with were not welcoming to children.  On prior visits I received answers to my broken Japanese and a greeting, but this was the first time I, or should I say my son, was greeted with very big smiles and all the attention.  They asked why I didn't let him down and walk - I laughed!  They asked him why Mama had not brought him before.  So, I try to bring him if my meeting is short.  Come to find out, it is well known that Okinawans love children.


J: What has been your biggest struggle in this project?


T: My biggest struggle at first was the stress of not knowing who to work with or how to go about finding someone.  Being somewhat reserved added to the stress.  I knew I'd hire a translator and that proved to be the key to ease as she also had thorough knowledge of Okinawa and helped me in ideas and locations.  



My main struggle is tenacity.  I have many pulls on me as a mom of three young boys, a wife, an ambassador here in Japan, contributing to the household chores, and my continuing struggle to focus only on painting and not the other projects I aspire to do. 

I love this project with the potters but passion for my work only carries me the first 1/4 of the way.  I want to bring that excellence and ideas with the brush and paint that I have gained through my studies online at AAU to the level of my love for the project.  Trying to push my self to the level of painting I needed and had never done was my biggest struggle.  If I could not translate all these thoughts and emotions of my passion for the potters and their process to the canvas, where was I?  The intense painting sessions trying to push past my regular level of school painting took a lot of energy, focus, and thought.  I finally reached a couple painting sessions that achieved that balance in part of the painting of the large kiln firing.  I now know what it will take for me produce at that level; the careful balance between fresh texture of the brush, intuitive ideas on color, initial ideas of proportions and the necessary technical maturity.  I still struggle to push myself in each thesis piece to keep that tenacity for balance and focus, and still continue to grow.  It is easier to put it all into a small study that takes 3-6 hours than to keep that same level of intensity for hours on end in a larger piece.


J: What is the greatest advancement that this project has inspired in you? 


T: Growth!  And specifically growth in understanding what it takes to make great paintings.  For me, that is keeping my mind actively engaged in the process of color mixing, decision making, brush placement and sensitivity coupled with remembering my purpose for that section of the piece in the larger scheme of design.  The Potter's project has inspired me to keep on painting, not at my comfortable level, but focused and active in each time that the brush is placed on the canvas.  Which also means frequent short breaks for me as well as working with my family's schedule to keep this painting practice sustainable. 


I intend to paint like this after school is finished, between semesters and after I graduate. To do that, I have to make sure I develop this habit of intense painting so that growth will continue!