In the middle of an Iowa cornfield, during one of the hottest months on record, Shumpei Yamaki has a fire burning. It is a fire of creation, one that burns the earth without destroying it, transforming the mud and clay into something else instead. Combined under the right conditions, earth and fire translate into fine art.
Largely wheel-thrown and wood-fired, Yamaki’s ceramic work is at once organic, utilitarian and rustically poetic in its simplicity and nuance. Like any object born of nature, no two pieces will ever be exactly alike as the fire touches each in a different way. Ash is transformed into glassy, jewel-like droplets; iron from the soil creates a deep rusty-red burn.
Born and raised in Kamakura, Japan, Yamaki now resides in a pastoral paradise south of West Branch with his wife and daughter, living and working with the same land that quite literally serves as the foundation for his art. As a true artisan, Yamaki mixes his own clay using the ground right outside his door.
Following a stint as a hip-hop dancer in Philadelphia and an archaeology student in Wisconsin, Yamaki arrived at The University of Iowa to pursue an MFA in ceramics in 2002. He discovered a passion for the craft almost serendipitously through a class taken for rehabilitation after a car accident. In 2005 he moved to Brooklyn, New York, to hone his craft, but ultimately found his place back in Iowa, where the land provides him with what he needs.
This patch of earth is also home to his wood-fueled anagama, a Japanese term meaning “cave kiln,” which he built in 2009. The cavernous stone structure has seen three firings since then—one each year—and will no doubt see many more. The kiln is essentially an earthen tunnel with a firebox at one end, a chimney flue at the other and no physical barrier between the fire and the pottery space. It can produce heat up to 2500 degrees.
Yamaki loaded the kiln this year on July 21 and kept a continuous supply of wood burning for two weeks. This meant round-the-clock stoking and refueling to encourage the complex interactions between flame, ash and earth that produce the unique stoneware textures and the colors of both land and sky. On Aug. 5, he unloaded the kiln to a small audience of helpers and admirers and declared it to be the most successful firing to date.
While each piece was born of the same patch of earth, each has its own personality due to its own unpredictable journey through the fire. Yamaki’s journey wasn’t so different; in a process mediated by chance and luck, a man and his art have both become something more.
Dawn Frary photographs as the Dewey Street Photo Company. One day she too will live in a pastoral paradise with her own darkroom and a chicken named Dorothy.
Paula Lamamié de Clairac is a dancer from Madrid, Spain. As an MFA student of Creative Writing in Spanish she also improvises with words, ink and paper.