A Ceramist Who Draws on His Craft’s Ancient Global Traditions
Written by tokyoclub on August 26, 2021
“I was an incredibly naughty teenager,” says the ceramist Matthias Kaiser, who grew up in the Austrian city of Graz. “One day I just disappeared.” In 1989, at age 19, he sold his car and bought a one-way plane ticket to New York in the hopes of becoming a jazz musician (he played the soprano saxophone) — only for a chance encounter to radically alter his plan. Walking along West Broadway about a year after he arrived, he came across a stall where a group of potters were selling traditional, handcrafted Pennsylvanian ceramics and, though simple, the blue-and-white spongeware vessels captivated him. “I just couldn’t believe they were selling these objects that they had made themselves,” he says. “It blew me away.”
The experience compelled Kaiser, now 51, to enroll in pottery classes at the Parsons School of Design, where he discovered an immediate affinity for working with clay. “I spent my nights waiting tables and every spare minute in the school’s basement experimenting,” he recalls. His early pieces included plates, cups, bowls and teapots, whose glazes drew inspiration from the ancient ceramic practices of Korea, China and Japan. And that engagement with artistic traditions from around the world — accompanied by an unwavering desire to travel — has continued to define his practice, shaping a body of work distinguished by both its technical rigor and stylistic diversity. Kaiser’s pieces range from ancient-looking stoneware bowls, whose cracked slip surfaces conjure those of relics unearthed from archaeological sites, to globular vessels with off-center stems glazed in the glossy Japanese tenmoku style to white geometric porcelain vases informed by the aesthetic of the Bauhaus, the early-20th-century German art school. He’s shown with a similarly global mix of venues, including London’s Flow Gallery, Sight Unseen Offsite in New York and Gallery Fukuda in Niigata, Japan, earning acclaim for his deep commitment to his craft.
A few years after leaving Parsons, in an effort to further understand his vocation’s roots, Kaiser moved to Japan to apprentice with two master potters for a year each. Training with Fumitada Moriwaki in Seto, an epicenter of glazed ceramics since the 13th century, he learned techniques such as oribe, a way of forming and glazing stoneware vessels by hand to create lively shapes with expressively painted surfaces. While Takashi Nakazato, a 13th-generation maker from the southern island of Kyushu, taught him how to use a kick-wheel, make the Korean-influenced Karatsu ware bowls and cups often used in tea ceremonies and employ a vast range of glazes and finishes including e-Karatsu (meaning “picture Karatsu”), in which pieces are embellished with hand-drawn birds and flowers. After his time in Japan, Kaiser made his way through China, India and Iran — where he returned twice a year for the next 13 years to study Sufism — and this chapter of travel left an indelible mark on his work. “It’s meant I never run out of ideas,” he says. “The most difficult part is finding the time to realize them all.”
Today, he works for most of the year from his studio in the rambling, green-shuttered 12th-century house he inherited from his paternal grandparents in the market town of Grafendorf, in the East Styrian Hills, around an hour’s drive south from Vienna. Modeled after Nakazato’s work space, the simple earthen-floored room has bare, white walls and is minimally decorated. “The emptiness gives me room to think,” Kaiser says. Each object that he has introduced into the space — from the large antique teak Ayurvedic medicine cabinet in which he keeps his materials and tools (including the Indian tongue scrapers he uses for carving) to his pair of Japanese-style oak kick wheels to the drying racks that hang from the ceiling above them — has a purpose. The wheels are sunken into the floor at the studio’s northern end, so that when he sits at one, he can look east through a large casement window toward an abundantly fruiting cherry tree and a brook that runs through the property. As a child, he would spend weekends in this same garden pond dipping and collecting beetles. “It was here that I learned how to recognize different species of plants and animals,” he says. “It was a great lesson in tuning your eyes, and really learning how to look.”
Since Kaiser set up his studio at the house in 1994, his life in Austria has fallen into a monastic rhythm that he relishes. He spends weekends with his daughter in Vienna, where he has an apartment, and works in Grafendorf every weekday from late afternoon into the night. His more intricate, sculptural works — which he forms using various combinations of coiling, paddling and wheel throwing — tend to originate from ink pen drawings that he makes in a series of notebooks, but he finds that wheel throwing simpler vessels is a more instinctive process. “These have to come from your own gesture, not a sketch,” he explains. “And it takes time and experience to internalize those techniques.”
From conception to the final firing, it can take Kaiser up to six weeks to complete a single piece, which is partly because, in order to give his works an organic feel, he mixes his own materials. He creates his glazes by hand, from plant ash and minerals, using an age-old method he learned in Japan. And rather than rely on ready-made clay blends, which he finds too homogenized, he sources his own, either from Austria or from specialist suppliers in the Czech Republic. “If I were a woodworker I wouldn’t want to only work with plywood,” he explains. “Just as there are different types of wood, each with a different kind of beauty, there are different types of clay.” He cherishes a clay flecked with iron ore that he shovels from a site close to his studio, for example, for its variability and textural richness. He mixes each slab of it into a slurry with water, then dries it in laundry baskets lined with old cotton bedsheets, which allows him to control its structure; he’ll make a soft batch for tea bowls, or a firmer one for larger pieces such as vases. It’s a time-consuming operation but one Kaiser considers central to his practice, which has long been influenced by wabi-sabi, the ancient Japanese ethos of acknowledging the beauty of transience and imperfection. “I want what each piece has undergone to be visible, to tell a story,” he says. “It’s the impurities that instill interest and emotion.”
His peaceful routine in Grafendorf, though, has not sated his wanderlust. In 2015, he launched Loyal Exports, a project for which he visits another country and explores how his work might be understood in a new environment and what he, in turn, can learn from being there. “I sell my pieces at the local market for less than a dollar each, then visit the home of every customer to see how they were being used,” says Kaiser. For the first chapter, in 2015, he spent a month in Ahmedabad, in western India, a country he knows well, after being put in touch with a photographer for the project, Bindi Sheth, who lived in the city, and for the second, in 2016, after traveling around Ghana, Nigeria and Tanzania, he chose Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin, after forging connections through a friend whose father was born and is based there.
He felt such a connection to Porto-Novo, in fact, that in 2019, he bought a single-story, 20th-century house there, which he is slowly renovating, and he now spends close to half the year in the city. His time in Benin has also marked the beginning of a new phase in his artistic life. “While many of the vessels once made in ceramic there are now plastic or metal, virtually every new piece of pottery is a ritual ceramic for voodoo,” he says, describing vessels including agondje, the unadorned cups used in certain ceremonies, and more elaborate containers embellished with small, rounded spikelike protrusions. “Everything is very original to Benin,” he says. “Nothing is made for tourists or influenced by an aesthetic other than the country’s own.” These unglazed, pit-fired ceramics have encouraged him to experiment with more asymmetrical forms and silhouettes in his own work and, more broadly, deepened his fascination with pottery as a craft that has been practiced across cultures for millenniums, and yet still inspires awe. “The fact that you can take this lumpen piece of clay, this mountain of minerals, and join it with water and fire to make something permanent and enduring that outlives you,” he says. “It’s like magic.”