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Shiga, Shigeo (1928–2011)

by Noni Rutherford

The Japanese potter Shigeo Shiga was a large influence on Australian potters during the 1970s and 1980s. He first came here in 1966 on an invitation from Les Blakebrough, then head of pottery at Sturt, a craft workshop that was part of the Frensham school complex at Mittagong in the southern highlands.

Shiga was a great choice for the job. He was amiable and unassuming, but as he explained it, "99 per cent of my life is pottery''. The pursuit of his craft filled his life.

He was born in 1928 in Tokyo and grew up in Takada, a small town in the snow country of Niigata. He was a business student in 1943 when the Japanese wartime government conscripted high school students into war service.

Considered the runt of his class, Shiga was conscripted into the kamikaze and was scheduled to fly his suicide mission in December 1945.

He didn't dwell on the horrors of war. Instead he said the kamikaze was where he learnt to fly gliders and that had been a joy.

He chose Australia for the chance to work with "unknown" clays, rather than the known clay bodies of Japan's traditional pottery-making areas.

It was an adventure he shared with Australian potters including Col Levy, Ivan McMeekin, Peter Rushforth, Blakebrough and Bernard Sahm.

Almost the first person he met in Mittagong was Alexandra Rutherford, a teacher at Frensham. They married in 1968 and had a son, Atsushi, now a Buddhist monk known as Kouzen.

Shiga was in Australia for 14 years: first at Sturt, then sharing Sahm's studio at Talofa, Mosman, before establishing his own studio in a former poultry shed at Terrey Hills.

He made works for exhibition and commissions, taught at the National Art School in East Sydney and ran professional and community workshops around Australia.

He was a master of all aspects of claywork — throwing, turning, hand building — but his particular skill was in the development of new glazes.

One vase he brought from Japan was glazed with a pale, egg-yolk-yellow celadon that had taken more than 10 years to achieve.

In Australia he found and experimented with local minerals for his glazes. Every time he fired his kiln he included test samples of the glazes he was developing. By recording the results he built a palette of colours and effects.

But pottery is not an exact science and Shiga loved the surprise of opening the kiln to see how the piece had actually turned out. Sometimes it was a pleasant shock, like one firing to use up his "garbage glaze" (a mixture of all his leftover glazes), which resulted in unforgettable pots with gold spots on a tomato red glaze.

Other results were not so pleasant but he had a wall behind his studio where he would smash the pots that didn't meet his standards.

His glazes were often inspired by Australian landscapes and his in-laws remember how he captured the pale yellow and mauve colours of wheat stubble in late afternoon light that he saw on a long drive to Gundagai.

In Australia and Japan, Shiga accepted students to work in his studio and often live with his family — believing it was important to provide a pathway between studying ceramics at TAFE and running a commercial pottery.

Shiga worked them hard, whether it was building shelves, packing pots, or decorating hundreds of pots exactly the same way but there were no secrets between a master and student and he shared his glaze formulae as well as his knowledge of potting techniques and kiln building.

He and his family returned to Japan in 1980 so Atsushi could grow up in Japanese culture.

Shiga's last studio was on a farm outside Tokyo and he worked there for almost 20 years, exhibiting and teaching until the area was rezoned and a satellite city built.

In 2008 he visited Melbourne for a retrospective exhibition at the Skepsi Gallery and was delighted to meet collectors of his work and see so many of his "children", as he referred to his pots. He could remember the time and circumstances in which each was created.

He and Alex retired to their home on the northern beaches in 2009.

Shiga's works are in public galleries and private collections around Australia. The Art Gallery of NSW has put its collection of Shiga's pots on show for the next few months.

He was farewelled at a Buddhist service in Sydney on February 18, conducted by Kouzen.

The service was attended by family and friends from the Japanese community, contemporary potters, former students, gallery owners and collectors.

Shigeo Shiga is survived by Alex and Kouzen.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 February 2011

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Citation details

Noni Rutherford, 'Shiga, Shigeo (1928–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/shiga-shigeo-1576/text1649, accessed 10 December 2019.

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