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Okinawan pottery with American touch

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-09-09

Nicholas Centala is a specialist in Okinawan ceramics and pottery, living a life that straddles the centuries as he creates modern day artistry using the tried and true wood-fired techniques that have been passed down through the ages.

What’s more, the U.S. Navy corpsman-turned-artist does it exactly as was done centuries ago, mixing sand and elements of raw clay, then firing it in a wood-burning kiln at temperatures one-tenth the heat of the sun, 2,280F for four days. Where he does it is even more amazing; Centala lives alone on a remote mountainside in northern Okinawa, an austere site one-half dozen kilometers from the nearest village.

First stationed at Camp Kinser in Okinawa in the early 1990’s, Centala became acquainted with Okinawan pottery and the island’s famous shisa ceramics. He left the military with the intent of pursuing a pre-medicine degree, but found himself caught between his love of medicine and love of clay, which his mother says Nick began playing with at the tender age of four. A volunteer mission to the Amazon in 1999 put him face-to-face with a wood-fire kiln, and that was all it took.

He began studying at Waseda University and interned in Okinawa, then took a Fallbrook Scholarship for the Arts in San Marcos, California. It wasn’t enough, though; Centala’s love of Japan and Okinawa brought him back to Kagoshima, where his initial pottery efforts won accolades at both the 2004 and 2005 Kagoshima Ceramic Art Awards, and then an exhibit at the Tokyo Amateur Ceramic Arts Exhibit. He spent four years in Kagoshima studying Edo period art and pottery, working 16-hour days interweaving his pottery and his duties as an English teacher.

It led to his return to Okinawa, the island he loves, settling in the mountains northwest of Nago City. “It’s austere,” says the Chatsford, Pennsylvania native. “There’s no internet, no water or sewage here, but I love it, at least for now,” he says of his Spartan lifestyle in a jungle habitat. “If I don’t trim the brush and vines regularly, I’d be overrun within six months,” he chuckles as he says the peace and quiet allow his artistic streak to work well.

His artistic endeavors lead to creation of some 800 new pieces of art each year, while he “gives back” to the community with his teaching wood-fired pottery. He offers free courses for the handicapped, and his services at nominal fees for others wanting to learn. He’s a Regular Plan costing $25~40 for up to one kilogram of clay being molded, then fired and stored. He’s also a Hobby Plan for $100 that provides a 40cm x 40cm kiln space, and artisans pay $2 per kilogram of clay. Centala also has a group plan custom tailored to individuals, with a base price of $20 per person.

The efforts all lead to the massive hand-constructed kiln on his 500-tsubo property (about ¾ acre). He has fired up the kiln three times in the past 15 months, creating more than 3,000 pieces designed by himself and his students. “It’s a major undertaking,” the 38-year-old artist says, talking about the five-meters-long kiln built of 3,200 bricks “to do a firing takes 82 hours, adding wood to fuel the intense fire every 40 minutes.” The kiln handles approximately 800 pieces of pottery. He uses 16 tons of wood for the 3½-day firing. Once the fire dies down, the finished products sit in the kiln several days until the temperatures cool and the pieces can be handled.

Centala, who’s single despite “having had some requests”, says he’s looking to Tokyo and Hong Kong to give him new inspiration, and has an eye on China for a future site for a new kiln and pottery operation. “It will be time for a change,” he says, “and the labor costs should be cheaper.” For now, he’s worked an exhibition at Plaza House Global Gallery and placed in the Okinawa Times Okiten Contest. Only a year ago he won the Urasoe City President’s Award at the Okiten Annual Art Exhibition, participated in an ‘Industrial’ exhibition at Cotonoha Art Space, and joined the Tokyo Design Festival.

The artisan’s handicrafts cover the gamut of everything from plates, flower holders and cups, to more exotic body torsos, steer’s skull and distinctive bowls. The torso is one of his favorites, taking 60 hours to make. It sells for $2,000, but most of his products are in the $20~200 price range. He signs all products valued at $100 or more. Nicholas Centala’s pottery is available at the Seamen’s Club Gift Shop near Naha International Airport.

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