In his workshop in Komatsu, Japan, Eiichi Mitsui produces elegant works of porcelain decorated in the style known as Kutani, after the village where it was developed almost 350 years ago. Although he creates new designs based on the traditional motifs and favours brighter colours than those used in the past, his work remains true to the spirit of Kutani style.
Born Deaf, Mr Mitsui attended a Deaf grammar school before switching over to hearing schools for the rest of his academic career. He first encountered the Kutani style as a ceramics student at Kanazawa University College of Arts and Crafts, and after graduation he served for one year as an apprentice under his former professor, Kutani master Torijo Kitade. His wife Nariko was another of Professor Kitade’s students; the daughter of a Kutani painter and granddaughter of a Kutani merchant, she grew up in the business and had herself done Kutani painting. ‘Me Mitsuis met at a gathering of students and artists; they were the only Deaf people there and quickly discovered they had much in common. They were married in 1961, and when Ms Mitsui’s father retired he turned his workshop over to Mr Mitsui and allowed him to take on the family business name: As honorary successor to his wife’s father and grandfather he is known as Tamekichi III. The studio remains a family enterprise; the Mitsuis share the business responsibilities, and several relatives also work with them. Almost all their employees are Deaf-Mr Mitsui prefers to hire Deaf people, he says, for ease of communication.
One of the duties of a master is to teach, and this responsibility clearly brings Mr Mitsui much pleasure. Twice he has visited Gallaudet University, at the invitation of university president 1. King Jordan, to live as an artist in residence and teach his techniques to art students.
Mr Mitsui says he enjoys teaching and watching the students come up with new designs using the restricted palette of the Kutani style; the experience is stimulating for him as well as for them. Students also visit him in Japan, staying in his home and working in his studio. Heather Lightfoot, a senior graphic design major at Gallaudet, visited the Mitsuis last summer. “While I was there in Komatsu,” she recalls, “he showed me the ropes of his Kutani ware business. I had the fun opportunity to paint my own sake cups and small dishes with the Kutani paints; it is a wonder to see how my ideas differ so much with Kutani war I saw in the area during my visit.”
Mr Mitsui’s work is very different from the Kutani ware of three hundred years ago; he does not copy antique porcelain but combines old ideas with new motifs to create new designs. It is in this way that he is keeping the Kutani tradition alive.