Vendor Spotlight: Ryu No Sakebi
Traditional Japanese Ceramics From an American Mind
You might not be able to tell at first glance, but Matthew Richards with his flat military cut and baggy T-shirt, has lived about half of his life in Japan. He speaks Japanese fluently and rocks a mean beat on the taiko, the Japanese drum, aside from running his pottery studio Ryu no Sakebi at the Lake Erie Screw Factory in Lakewood. With aisles of dragonhead tipped coffee cups and wood-panel calligraphy, Richard’s adopted moniker— which means “call of the dragon”—seems rightfully chosen.
“Matthew Richards is just kind of boring,” he admits. “It just doesn’t stand out.” Something Richards is sure to do at local art fairs.
Working the Northeast Ohio flea and maker-scene since his return to the States in 2007, Richards’ art—from horsehair-decorated mini pots to wood planks detailed with Japanese characters—has made a place among fellow stoneware-crafters of his ilk. One of the area’s handful of potters in the Shigaraki tradition, Ryu no Sakebi is one-part Japanese homage mixed with another part, as Richards says, “whatever my mind comes up with.”
Stemming from a family of pottery-makers and graphic artists, Richards set out originally as a teen following an educational path into engineering. His grandfather, Philip Richards, worked for a time as a RCA engineer in Japan, turning to pottery only as he approached retirement. Spurning electrical engineering studies at Penn State, a young Richards took up Japanese on the recommendation of a close friend and intrigue with back-of-the-mind tales shared by his grandfather. Turns out, Richards discovered something that would lead him far away from his home state of Pennsylvania.
“I figured the best way to keep learning pottery and keep going with this was to actually move to Japan.” And so he did.
After graduating from Penn, Richards moved to Japan in 1989, a train ride away from Kyoto, near three hotspots ripe with ancient pottery culture. He relocated two years later to Yasu and studied for a time with Yutaka Tsuji, his self-taught, eccentric, mentor. He also worked as an English-speaking correspondent to Clinton Township, Michigan: Yasu’s sister city.
He would buy some of the best clay in the world in Shigaraki—wet, with red hues, light and dark, earthy textures—the oldest pottery village in Japan, one that produced roof shingles for Emperor Shomu in the 8th century A.D. Yasu’s culture was gold for Richards’ developing muse. The hobby eventually became his life’s work. He ended up staying for 18 years. In 2007, Richards moved back.
“It was a difficult choice,” he says. “Mostly due to my kids. In terms of the artistic aspect? To be honest, I’m not sure moving back was the best choice. But seriously, I thought I would just be dabbling, not doing it full out like I am today.”
Watching Richards work in his studio, it’s clear his time in Yasu hasn’t left him. Styles coalesce in his Halloween pumpkin figures or in postcard-size abstracts drawn with ultra-fine Copic pens. Claw-looking branches found on Metroparks walks are converted into centerpieces for spiraling dragon’s flight—a blacksmithing skill Richards has been incorporating into his clay-work ever since picking it up from a friend.
“People ask me, ‘Where do your ideas come from?” Richards says holding up a purple-glazed dragon bust. He shrugs his shoulders, “But I just say, ‘I don’t really know.’” His latest creation? A dragon’s head with steel earrings.
Working several of Cleveland’s markets for years, it wasn’t until the Fall of 2015 when Richards became part of one of his most prized sales venues. Sometime in the summer of last year, Night Market approached Richards at a small flea he was working. One look at his work and Ryu no Sakebi seemed ideal for the St. Clair- Superior based Night Market. But Richards, being a veteran of the business, was skeptical.
“Every show I’m at you get someone who wants to recruit you,” says Richards. “And it gets old. But when I met them, I thought, ‘Oh, these guys are really cool.’ I liked the idea of what they were doing. They talked me into it and I thought, ‘Let’s give this a try.’ And it was not what I expected.”
Richards says it’s the only market in Ohio that reminds him of those Kyoto bazaars—though not exactly. Living in Strongsville, he can only do so much to rekindle the authentic spark behind Ryu no Sakebi’s inception. Who knows, maybe he’ll be back to Japan with his two kids—a design student and a ballet dancer—in the near future.
“There’s good stuff about being here, good stuff about being there,” he says. “But the world around you in Japan is full of stuff to inspire you immensely. You can just go out for a walk, and there it is. Honestly, I miss it everyday.”
photographs by Breanna Kulkin