Finding Her Form

A member of a famous Japanese family of potters marries tradition with her own free-spirited style.

By Sara Anne Donnelly / Photographs by Erin Little
[H]anako Nakazato puts a contemporary, fluid spin on the traditional tableware that her family has been making in the ancient port city of Karatsu, Japan, since the 15th century. Because she is a woman, Nakazato, who divides her time between Karatsu and the tiny rural Maine town of Union, could never take over the family business, a circumstance she finds freeing.

Hanako Nakazato’s studio, Monohanako, is inside a two-car garage at the end of a dirt driveway in Union. Here, one of Japan’s most famous potters faces the woods beyond the open garage door, throwing as many as 200 pieces a day to the hum of the pottery wheel and the lilting call of the chickadees. She is fast, like her father, her grandfather, and all of her family’s 14 generations of Karatsu potters.

“The speed allows you to be kind of free,” she says as she pulls the clay from the spinning wheel and mounds it at the top with her palms. “The idea or the shape doesn’t come from here” — she gestures to her head — “or you controlling the clay.” She depresses the center of the mound with her thumbs and squints as she carefully spreads the clay, using a throwing rib that looks like a curved spatula. “Karatsu style is very free spirited,” she says as the bowl takes shape. “It comes from production skill.”

Nakazato stops the wheel, runs a piece of string under the bowl to separate it from the metal, and pinches her characteristic dimple into the rim.

In less than five minutes, a mound of clay has turned into one of Hanako Nakazato’s popular “almond bowls” — oblong vessels in colors like chocolate brown or gleaming ivory that swoop into a pucker at one end, as if the bowl is preparing to speak. This piece may well end up in New York City’s Sara Art Gallery, specialists in Japanese pottery that have carried Nakazato’s work since the start of her career in 2000.

At 42, Nakazato is a potter so prolific she is restricted only by her storage space, but her rapid production should not be confused with soullessness. Her work includes bright white cups with channels for slipping your fingers into and dark gray bowls that bend at one end, as if the clay is sighing. The illusion of movement has set her apart from the traditional aesthetic of her family’s pottery and earned her fans on both sides of the world.

“I actually feel like her pieces fly into my hand,” says Bonnie Kuykendall, a yoga studio owner who splits her time between Belfast, Maine, and Tucson, Arizona. Kuykendall owns some 40 examples of Nakazato’s work. “When I see a new shape or when I see them in stores around this area, it’s almost like they haven’t fully formed, yet they look so delicate. So that when I put my hands on them I feel like I’m finishing the shaping.”

[S]ince the 16th century, the Nakazato family has run one of Japan’s most popular pottery production businesses in the city of Karatsu. Their name is synonymous with Karatsu ware, a popular style of Japanese pottery that involves natural clay and rapidly applied glaze. “Too much skill is evident on Karatsu ware to call it rustic; too much freedom and spontaneity to call it sophisticated,” writes art historian Johanna Becker in her book, Karatsu Ware. “Its style lies somewhere between these poles.”

Hanako Nakazato is beloved in Japan because of her modern take on this old style — for her use of porcelain, for example, or for her clean, Scandinavian-inspired shapes. Mainers might see hints of the enamel campware Nakazato says inspired her black-rimmed white cups and bowls, or the squat antique gin bottles that influence the shape of her pitchers, or the red in the summer sunset that brightens her glaze.

When I visited Nakazato and her wife, writer and photographer Prairie Stuart-Wolff, they prepared lunch for me at their house in Union. Since 2010, the couple has split each year between the ancient port city of Karatsu and the farm town of Union to preserve their roots — and their visas — in both countries. They chose Union because of its relatively affordable countryside, its access to the coast’s robust farm-to-table culture, and because Stuart-Wolff has friends in the area from her time studying photography at Maine Media Workshops in Rockport. They have been together for 14 years and share a personal and professional symbiosis their friends say is special.

Dining is the way the couple prefers to introduce people to Nakazato’s pottery and to the Japanese tradition of mismatched dinnerware. Typically, Stuart-Wolff cooks and photographs the food for possible inclusion on the Monohanako blog or in her online lifestyle magazine, Cultivated Days.

I take the way we use pottery like fashion,” Nakazato says. “I don’t want to wear the same clothes all the time. It depends on your mood; you want to wear something different. It’s the same thing with pottery. I want to use different pottery each day. It depends on what you eat, how you feel, the season. The feeling is different. You want to have a dialogue with how you are feeling and the environment you are living in.

There are many windows in the Union house and all of them were open that afternoon. The couple had moved back from Japan a few days before and a sleepiness still lingered in the space. Stuart-Wolff made whole-wheat pasta drizzled with her homemade pesto — her go-to sauce, she says. The green and brown pasta was served in rustic yellow bowls with a gray slip swirl, while the sautéed summer squash and the fennel and dill salad added a touch of elegance on white porcelain plates that balance daintily on half-inch bases.

Our conversation drifted from Rockland’s mellow nightlife to the passion of the new generation of Maine farmers to the bustling family business left behind in Japan. Because she is a woman, Nakazato could never take over back home. That duty is always passed down to the eldest son. It’s a lucky break, as far as she is concerned. She’s free to do whatever she likes with her business, Monohanako — as in “Hanako on her own.”

“I just feel empty when people get my work based on fame or the reputation,” she says of some buyers in Japan. “They don’t try to see underneath.”

I ask what is underneath. She struggles to explain. “I want people to see my own work with their own feeling, not through their head,” she says after some casting around. “I want them to see my work with their heart and with their own emotion. I want the user to have their own experience.”