In the December issue of Okinawa Living magazine there’s an interview I did with ceramic artist Nick Centala. I’ve added the extended text and a few images below for people who can’t get hold of the magazine.
Potter with a Magic Touch
Okinawa’s most valuable asset is its people. This month we meet Nick Centala, a ceramic artist using traditional firing techniques to produce modern designs.
Nick Centala was born in Los Angeles. At 18 he joined the U.S. Navy as a corpsman and over the next 4 years he was based in San Diego and Okinawa. After the military, Nick studied pre-med to become a doctor, but a return visit to Okinawa steered his life down a different path.
In 2001, he spent five weeks learning about sculpting shîsâ with Okinawan potter Miyagi Shojin. A consuming passion for pottery grew from this experience. He switched his life goals from medicine to art, and became an apprentice to a potter in Kumamoto. After 3 months, he was offered a job managing a large wood-burning oven in Kagoshima, and it was there he spent 3 more years honing his craft. Nick still hoped to return to Okinawa, and when the opportunity arose to work for Okinawan potter Matsushima Choogi, he moved back to the Ryukyu Islands. His long-term goal, however, was to have his own kiln in Okinawa. From there he could create his own sculptures, but also make his knowledge and workshop available to others who have an interest in ceramics.
In 2008, Nick found the ideal plot of land on the outskirts of Nago City. He has since built his own 5-meter wood-fire kiln, and is finally living his dream.
How did your Japanese apprenticeship compare to learning a skill in a classroom?
In a classroom, you’re paying for an instructor to teach and provide you with tasks designed to improve your level of skill. An apprenticeship is a bit more like slavery, you work for free or very little pay often doing menial jobs, but in return you slowly learn the trade of the master. Some apprentices will remain with their sensei for years, often more than a decade. I, however, preferred to stay a much shorter amount of time at a variety of different workshops. I’d learn as much as I could about a particular style then move on. Because of this, I could choose the kiln style that suited me the best.
Why base yourself in Okinawa?
It’s a combination of factors. Okinawa has a pottery culture and a steady flow of visitors, therefore a market for my work. Tokyo also has a large market for ceramic art, but it would be impossible to buy land and set up a kiln there. Okinawa has the right combination of space, materials and market.
You use a wood fire kiln, how does this differ to a gas or electric kiln?
A wood fire kiln burns for much longer, usually three to ten days. More importantly, a gas or an electric kiln only produces a high temperature to vitrify the clay. In a wood fire kiln the ash combines with the natural materials in the clay to give the pots a glass-like luster.
After cave painting, wood-fired pottery is the oldest art form in existence. Using a wood fire kiln is also an awe-inspiring spectacle. The kiln heats up to over 1250 Celsius or 2280 Fahrenheit. It burns white hot, an inferno contained within the walls of the kiln.
Where does the wood come from?
Rather than cutting down trees, I reuse industrial wood such as old shipping crates. This natural fuel would otherwise be burned or put in a landfill at great expense. I can put this wood to good use in my kiln, obtaining value from something that would otherwise be wasted.
Do you use Okinawan clay?
Actually, the clay I use comes from Shiga prefecture. Shigaraki is stronger and more suitable for hand-built structural objects. Okinawan clay is nice, but a challenge to work with sometimes.
What kind of structural objects do you create?
Some are based on natural forms while others are more abstract. Some see element of Picasso in my work with a mixture of angular and flowing shapes. For a long time, I’ve been influenced by the work of Rodin who produced sculptures of bodies in bronze. Recently I created a series of torsos similar to those of Rodin, but in clay. The human form never goes out of style.
Some of your pieces have a futuristic or industrial feel to them. They look more like rusted metal than clay.
Yes my “iron works” in clay are popular. I’m currently working on a series of pieces that I call Modern Jomon, I’m blending a 3000 year old style of pottery with modern industrial shapes. Some Japanese visitors have said it reminds them of the airships in the anime Laputa: Castle in the Sky by Hayao Miyazaki.
Have you had any exhibitions of your work?
I showed some of my pieces in Kagoshima and since being back in Okinawa I’ve had exhibits at the Ryubo Department Store, the Foster Library, Urasoe Art Museum, the Okiten Annual Art Show, and Cotonoha Artspace + Café. In 2009, I exhibited my work at the Design Festa in Tokyo where I was able to showcase my creations to a new audience.
Nick’s workshop and kiln is located off route 84 between Nago City and Motobu Town. Directions and information about his work, the public workshop, and kiln can be found at www.sentorayaki.com