New London to Japan and back again: Albert Sussler's ceramic art

“Village Fish,” ceramic art by Albert Sussler, based on fish caught in nets off the small coastal villages of Japan that are dependent on the sea for their livelihood.
“Village Fish,” ceramic art by Albert Sussler, based on fish caught in nets off the small coastal villages of Japan that are dependent on the sea for their livelihood.

When Albert Sussler, who was born in Norwich and raised in New London, traveled to Japan in 1982 to study ceramics after graduating from college in Minnesota with a B.A. in studio art, he expected to return home at the conclusion of the three-year program.

Thirty-five years later, Sussler is still living in Japan and still creating ceramic work, as well as teaching English and art in several schools.

Sussler returns to New London every summer, where his parents and sister live and where an exhibit of his ceramic art is now on view through September at the Custom House Maritime Museum.

Sussler went to Japan on the recommendation of his college professors at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he received his art degree. He did a pottery apprenticeship in Miyagi, studied at the Asahi Cultural Center in Tokyo, and then went to work in Tokoname at a factory that produced large-scale tile murals for train stations, gymnasiums, etc.

But he found that, by teaching English even once a week, he made more money than he made in a week at the factory and had more time for his own ceramic work.

Sussler didn't think he'd remain in Japan because of all the cultural and language differences.

"But my Japanese got better, and people's attitudes toward the outside world became much more open," he recalls. "I got married, and three kids (and a grandchild) later, I'm still there."

Asian influence on his work

"Japan has a rich, long history of pottery and towns that specialize in different types of pottery. It also (originated) the Mengei movement, (which is) traditional craft but used in our everyday lives," Sussler says.

He explains that there is very little commercial pottery in Japan. In homes and restaurants, food is served on original, handmade ceramic dishes.

"It's an important element of the meal — not just the food but its presentation," he says.

"In my house, all my dishes are either my own or made by my friends, so while you're enjoying a meal, you're thinking about who made (the plate or bowl). Their personalities are in the meal."

Even the clay used in Japanese ceramic works is integral. It is made of a mix of three: Seto kanu clay for its whiteness and strength after firing; Shigaraki koto for its strength in building and firing strength; and Tokoname Dabachi clay for its warmth of color.

In creating his ceramics, Sussler is drawn to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.

"Wabi-sabi is the Japanese sense of beauty that focuses on the imperfections of structures in our lives — asymmetry, roughness, irregularities, simplicity, intimacy, and appreciation of nature's endurance," he says. "Wabi originally referred to the loneliness of living in nature, remote from society, and sabi means weathered or withered."

He says of his tea bowls that are influenced by this concept, "Each cup, each bowl has its own personality. Each is imperfect and a little off balance — a reflection of nature, the balance of order and chaos."

He points out that Western or Greek art is always looking for perfection, but in Japanese art, what interests people are the things that make it look natural and give it character.

Today he incorporates in his work an ancient type of Japanese ceramic work called Jomon that goes all the way back to the Stone Age, produced by Neolithic women.

"It's a very unique style of ceramics, with lots of little symbols on the pieces — very elaborate and mysterious motifs on the figurines," he says.

"For me, the frontier of my art is reaching into the past for inspirations," he adds. "Weaving my imagination with threads of nature, brought from ancient Jomon and Chinese symbols. Clay has a long memory."

Sussler began bicycling as a supplement to driving seven years ago, and four years ago, he got rid of his car and now does all his personal travel by bicycle. His longest trek within Japan was 30 days, beginning in Tomakomai, Hokkaido, and ending at his home outside of Nagoya.

He says he finds inspiration for his ceramic work on his treks around Japan, observing nature, visiting museums, and recording ideas in his notebooks and then making pieces inspired by those designs and patterns.

"If a day goes by without creativity or without cycling, I feel the day has been wasted," he says.

 

A ceramic tea bowl by Albert Sussler inspired by the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.
A ceramic tea bowl by Albert Sussler inspired by the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi.
A ceramic vessel by Albert Sussler in the Japanese Jomon tradition.
A ceramic vessel by Albert Sussler in the Japanese Jomon tradition.

If you go

Who: Artist Albert Sussler

What: He will give a talk titled "To Go and Return" on the influence of Japan and America on his ceramic works

When: 6 p.m. Wednesday

Where: The Custom House Maritime Museum, 150 Bank St., New London

Admission: By donation

Exhibit: An exhibit of Sussler's ceramics is on view at the museum through September. Museum hours are 1-5 p.m. Wed.-Sat., and admission is $7.

For more info: (860) 447-2501, nlmaritimesociety.org

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