Akira Satake Blends Clay, Fire and Passion

“Ring the bells that can still ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” –Leonard Cohen, “Anthem”

Nestled in the heart of Asheville’s River Arts District is Akira Satake’s ceramics studio, a showcase of his widely recognized contributions to musical performance and visual art. The Philadelphia Museum of Art awarded him the National Award for Excellence in Contemporary Clay. His life and works were also featured on A Craftsman’s Legacy on PBS. While standing among his various wood-fired pieces, Akira described his transformational journey from musician to potter and how those experiences have guided and influenced his success today.  

Akira Satake was born into a family of artists and musicians in Osaka, Japan. By the age of 13, he was skillfully playing the banjo and Japanese shamisen. He moved to the United States 10 years later to further develop his musical talent and interests. As a music producer in New York City, he founded a successful production company and recording studio in the historic Ed Sullivan Theatre.

Publicly, Akira was gaining recognition in the music industry. However, privately, the mounting stress from a hectic lifestyle began to affect his sleep. He tried yoga, deep breathing, meditation and Buddhism to address the insomnia. Nothing seemed to help until he decided to enroll in a pottery class, which catapulted his transformation.

“The first day, I knew I wanted to do it as my lifework,” he says.

Since moving to the Asheville area in 2003, Akira devotes a majority of his time toward handcrafting artwork and operating a successful studio, which he shares with his wife. She is a professional baker and the former chief pastry chef of Market Place Restaurant. He still reconnects with his musical roots through composition and performance at solo and ensemble concerts with friends. His unique playing style and melodies combine the influences of American folk with a distinctly Japanese sonority while adding tones of other musical styles.

The studio is home to an elegant wall hanging of mixed media and a collection of his works lining the walls and aisles of the spacious room. The numerous functional and sculptural ceramics evoke a distinctly robust style and aesthetic, which pay tribute to the Momoyama period of Japan (1573-1615). His pieces speak to the beauty of integrating with organic processes. For Akira, creating art requires collaboration among the artist, clay and fire. He explained that it means “finding what the clay wants to be and bringing out its beauty in the way that the beauty of our surroundings is created through natural forces.”

Akira begins the process by creating his own clay, which compositionally is as close as possible to the medium that was used in Shigaraki ware. Dating back to the 12th century, these pieces were produced in the “six old kilns” regionally located in Japan. During the 50 hours of firing, a “dialogue” between the fire and his pieces develops. The unpredictability becomes a factor that Akira finds to be especially motivating.

“The fire is the ultimate random part of the collaborative equation. I hope the fire will be my ally, but I know it will always transform the clay in ways I cannot anticipate,” he says.

He expands his collection with pieces he has created from different clays or ingredients, testing the boundaries of what the clay and fire will allow and creating an art form that is uniquely his.   

Although Akira’s schedule makes it difficult for him to host local events, he leads workshops, lectures and exhibitions worldwide. He has been invited to Spain, France, Belgium, Israel, Australia and Bali. Next year, he will go to Hong Kong and Bali; the following to Barcelona and Tuscany.  

When asked if there was anywhere else around that his work could be viewed, he mentioned that he has a large project on display at the Grove Park Inn at the Edison. There is a work of art with many bottles of various colors, some with holes, and one bottle is upside down. He explains that some people see it as a metaphor about how it is OK to be different and stand out. His work can also be viewed and purchased at his studio in Asheville at 191 Lyman St., Studio 165.