BY SARAH BUTTENWIESER
Hiroshi Nakayama lives and works at the very end of a dirt road in the woods of Worthington, Massachusetts, a tiny town tucked in the hills of Western Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley. On an early spring morning, the snow still blankets these hills and the blue sky presses in with springy warmth. Birds chatter and sap runs. Sugar shacks line the winding roads, piles of cars stacked around their driveways. The strong smell of smoke from maple syrup making fires burning thickens the air. Nakayama’s road, besides not being paved, is barely plowed, and, with the thaw, the initial muddiness of the season has set in. There’s a sensation of car sliding over mud and slush, and then Nakayma’s small house and nearby studio appear. After such a journey, it seems that his work must be influenced by this glorious place.
Yet, he’ll tell you that having grown up in Kyoto, he sees increasingly how his early influences—that city of shrines, gardens, historical objects, and ancient craft traditions —have taken over. Before coming to the United States, he traveled around the world. He says, “I don’t want to stay in one culture. Those travels somehow stayed in myself. I draw from them; what I saw and heard and felt remain influences.” So while you might imagine that his ceramic pieces, created to reveal a “strong, aged look,” are reminiscent of stones along a nearby creek, think again. Nakayama says, “People say that, about stones. That’s a result, not the goal.”
While he envisions the power of quiet and understated old things—in Kyoto, he says, “Nothing was shining,”—he does not attempt to fabricate anything as specific as a stone. The range of shapes he explores is large: everything from precise cylindrical vases to rectangular platters with rounded edges to curved objects with an organic feel.
Nakayama’s studio, just paces from his small house, is rustic and orderly. A couple of doorway-size openings are draped with heavy plastic sheets he takes down in warm weather, one by a table that is his favorite spot for working in the summer (“it’s like being outside”) and the other near the electric kiln that sits on metal runners for easy storage. He runs the kiln just beyond the studio. There are two wheels, practically side-by-side. The one Nakayama prefers is a standing wheel. He explains, “I don’t do one thing at a time, like throw all day long. I am always at work on several pieces at a time. When I’m standing, it’s easier to move between pieces.”
Not only does he work on several pieces at a time, he works on several varying shapes at a time, too. Almost all of his pieces begin on the wheel. None of his pieces come close to completion on the wheel, though. He says, “I work pieces quite a bit after throwing.” He very often makes pieces that would appear to have something attached, like a handle, but in fact are shaped from a continuous mass of clay. Enclosed spheres are hollowed out and cut. If some pieces do not seem recognizable as having started on a wheel, he explains he often alters a shape by turning the piece itself: “I might flip a piece and sculpt from there.” Some pieces he describes as “barely turned,” ones that he builds almost entirely—yet not completely—by hand.
For his high-fire stoneware Nakayama has created both his own glazes and his own technique for glazing. He performs repeated glazing and firings, and incorporates wood ash for color, texture and the glaze’s extra thickness. His aim, as evidenced in both physical construction and glazing, is to ensure that the object appears to be fashioned from one solid material.
Because his work is so precise and his stoneware does appear as if it’s always been there, it’s somewhat surprising to see pieces in different stages of development. Unfinished and unglazed, the work looks like, well, pottery in a way that the finished pieces—stony, if not stones—often belie. Though the studio’s shelves are filling, Nakayama points out that he’s not a production potter. He goes more slowly through the process of taking a piece from clay to sale and fires up his kiln less often than he once did. He explains, “It takes months to bring pieces to completion. I fire about every four months. I used to fill the kiln every couple of months.”
He uses several different clays, all of which yield similar results. He explains, “Sometimes, certain clays start to give me trouble. If something goes wrong when I’m using just one particular type of clay, then I lose all my work. It’s safer to rely upon more than one kind.” While he estimates that nearly all (90%) of his work is stoneware, which he prefers, he does some work in porcelain, which he was drawn to for the opportunity to experiment with different glazes.
While working, he plays music—new age, classical, classic rock—to keep him going. There at the end of the road, even with music and when the weather’s warm and studio is open to the outdoors, the sounds of the woods, there’s a quiet to his industry that one imagines is unshakeable.
So, how does a person like Hiroshi Nakayama sell his creations? That’s where the Hilltown SIx comes in.
A few years ago, Western Massachusetts-based potter Christy Knox was mulling over how she knew so many accomplished potters practically in her backyard—ones she rarely saw near home, but regularly caught up with at shows. “Turns out potters are pretty solitary sorts,” she muses.
Knox explains, “When I travel, I always look for pottery tours, which are easily found in Britain and New Zealand and France. I’ve always sought them out because the perspective on a piece of pottery is so much greater when you see where it came from. A fair or a gallery, that’s like getting the piece with only the second half of the story. I kept thinking about how all the local potters I knew held studio sales around the holidays. I started to wonder whether we might come together a different way, like our own studio tour.”
Nakayama and Knox were among the original Hilltown Six (membership has climbed now to eight) launching a weekend’s worth of open studios in the Western Massachusetts hills. Hilltown 6 is preparing for its fourth year (July 24-25th). Knox explains, “We wanted to put a tour together that a person could comfortably do in a day or two.” What enhances the experience of creating this collaborative event, Knox reflects, “We have become a real pottery community.”
For Nakayama, whose work has been sold by numerous galleries, the focus on selling his work in more intimate settings seems to work best these days. He’s opted for smaller venues for shows. “I used to do New York and Philadelphia and Boston,” he says, “but with the economy down, smaller shows are better. I sell my work best where people can see each piece right in front of them.” He likes the feel of the smaller shows, like the one he does in the Berkshires in August each year at Great Barrington, Massachusetts’ Monument Mountain High School.
While he relies upon the Internet for sales, he says it works best for who already know and collect his work. He says, “If they know the work, they understand better what it looks like in person, and so choosing from a picture is easier.”
In the three years that the Hilltown 6 tour has occurred, Nakayama notes he has had about thirty percent return visitors the second and third year. Knox concurs that the formula of open studios not too far removed from one another, a weekend to traipse the countryside and enjoy not only the pottery but the insight into its origins, works: for the customers and admirers—and the potters.
Check out Sarah Buttenwieser’s blog, Standing in the Shadows: