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The Manhattan art dealer who is putting Japan's ceramicists on the global stage

Joan Mirviss has spent 40 years helping artists reach the world

American art dealer Joan Mirviss was inspired to represent ceramicists by the work of Shinobu Kawase. (Photo by Richard Goodbody)

TOKYO Joan Mirviss has always appreciated beauty found in the earth. As a 5-year-old, she found a fossil in her yard in the U.S. state of Connecticut, and developed a love of geology. A simultaneous fascination with Japan eventually led her to a different treasure from the earth: Japanese ceramics. She is now one of the leading dealers of contemporary Japanese ceramics and fine art in the U.S.

Mirviss' passion for Japan grew from a childhood interest in copying pictures of Japanese kabuki actors and women in kimonos from a book. In the 1970s, while still in college, she traveled to Japan on a student trip. The only excursion available covered the art of Japanese ceramics, a subject in which she had little interest. She visited most major pottery centers in Japan, meeting young artists and masters.

"It was an amazing trip and the serendipitous program later proved to be a defining inspiration in my future career," she recalled over afternoon tea in Tokyo. Her subsequent journey has taken her from finding that fossil in the mud to a life divided between tours to pottery kilns in Japan and her elegant gallery off Madison Avenue in upper Manhattan.

Joan Mirviss (Photo by Mee Seen Loong)

After a graduating with a master's degree in Japanese art history from Columbia University in the U.S., Mirviss began selling 17th-19th century Japanese paintings, screens and ukiyo-e woodblock prints at fairs and as a private dealer in New York.

Mirviss was also drawn to contemporary Japanese ceramics, and quickly built a sizable personal collection. "I had developed an instinctive sense of the clay art form, and was most excited by artists who had their own very personal, yet very contemporary visions of ancient ceramic traditions," she said.

Mirviss was inspired to make ceramics a focus in 1983 when she saw works by Shinobu Kawase at the Japan Ceramics Today exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The pieces came from the Tomo Kikuchi Collection and Mirviss eagerly arranged an introduction to the well-known Japanese art patron, "Madame" Tomo Kikuchi, "who had a passion for clay that influenced me deeply."

"I shyly asked her to introduce me to Kawase-san, the master of celadon [green glaze], who became the first ceramist with whom I had a friendship," Mirviss said.

Several years later Mirviss saw a show at the National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo by Shoji Kamoda, a ceramicist whom she considers the greatest clay artist of the 20th century. "Here was an artist I wanted to introduce to America," Mirviss said. Prices for his masterworks were stratospheric, but when Mirviss' favorite piece from the show, "Purple Vase," became available a decade later, she was ready.

Joan B Mirviss LTD gallery on Manhattan's Upper East Side (Photo by Richard Goodbody)

"In a boundless leap of faith, I paid what for me was a great deal of money and I realized my mind was made up. My purpose going forward would include inspiring and infusing others with my conviction and passion for Japanese contemporary ceramics,"Mirviss said.

"The Purple Vase" by Shoji Kamoda (Photo by Richard Goodbody)

"Japan was fertile ground in which clay art could grow. At the end of the 20th century, new technologies, a depth of skill and a burst of creativity brought Japanese ceramics from beyond function to an art that happens to be made of clay."

REPUTATIONBUILDING "In the 1990s, as international attention grew around Japanese ceramics, younger artists took greater risks," Mirviss said. "Clay art was able to transcend the notion of kogei, or craft, in which vessels are appreciated for their form, surface and functionality. Together with traditional ceramics, independent clay artists pursued a sculptural nonfunctional approach to clay."

In the mid-1990s Mirviss began to organize solo exhibitions of Japanese clay art by recognized masters. She credits the emergence of global art fairs with making a difference. "Curators and sophisticated collectors in other media attended, and saw these new ceramics displayed with antique ceramics, fine art screens and ukiyo-e. Many curators and collectors who were already enthusiasts of ancient Chinese ceramics jumped on board. Academic and regional museums with limited funds realized they could start collections with a modest budget," she said.

After opening her gallery in New York, she began creating a venue for clay artists, with a minimum of five exhibitions each year. "Opening the gallery meant that I could curate exhibitions, both solo and thematic," she said.

A piece by Satoko Fujikasa (Photo by Richard Goodbody)

"Despite the downturn in the stock market in 2008, Japanese clay art was becoming the new hot area for collecting. Buying the work outright, rather than taking it on consignment, as was typical in Japan, not only showed my loyalty and support to each artist, but also assured me access to the best material."

She added: "Accelerated appreciation in the United States is reflected in the fact that in the 1980s there were only six museums that actively collected contemporary Japanese ceramics. Today there are over 50 museums in the United States alone acquiring in this burgeoning field."

Mirviss continues to advise and build collections. Among her clients are Carol and Jeffrey Horvitz, owners of one of the finest U.S. collections of contemporary Japanese ceramics.

"Joan Mirviss embodies all the characteristics of the great art dealers of the past and present: passion, expertise and honesty," said Horvitz. "We started buying Japanese contemporary ceramics in January 2008. Were it not for Joan Mirviss we would have had only a few nice pieces instead of our collection of more than 900."

In early December, the gallery finished showing the swirling ceramic art of Takayuki Sakiyama. "While my art is appreciated in Japan, the ability to show my work in the United States has enabled me to develop and grow beyond what I had expected," Sakiyama told the Nikkei Asian Review.

"I love Fujikasa Satoko. She is a sculptor whose medium is clay. And I am also enthusiastic about Kino Satoshi, whose handmade pieces are repositioning celadon and pushing the boundaries for porcelain. Both are under 35 years old and have huge careers ahead," Mirviss said.

"In one sense I feel that I have never had a choice in career path. It is quite possible that it chose me."

Personified by "Purple Vase," the spirit of a passionate collector is still a key motivating force. "[Although] it has greatly increased in value, it will always remain a treasured part of my personal collection," she said.

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