Akiko Hirai has spent a lot of time thinking about how people appear on the surface versus what they’re like on the inside. Perhaps this is because sharing with the world what’s inside her own self has never come easily.
The Japanese artist who has lived in London for almost 20 years describes herself as an introvert (“I’m not very good at going to parties and making friends immediately,” she says with a laugh), but through making pottery, she has found a way to connect to people. Art creates a realm where she’s comfortable making conversation and getting to know others; it’s why she’s chosen to set up her studio at the Chocolate Factory, an artist collective in London, and why she taught for more than a decade at Kensington and Chelsea College, even though at first she was sure teaching wasn’t for her.
Even her work itself reflects her interest in humanity and forming connections with people: pouring white slip over black clay creates layers that refer back to the idea of a person’s outer self and inner self. The imperfections and asymmetry in her forms relate to the imperfections of people. And though she creates functional vessels, she draws inspiration from human posture and movement when forming her work.
To Hirai, the true beauty of functional ceramics comes out when human beings interact with these pieces. How a person chooses to arrange food on a plate or flowers in a vase is just as much a part of the art of pottery as the work she does to make her vessels.
“People are very important to me, but to be honest, I’m not very good at communicating with them,” she says. “So I think over the years, by doing ceramics, I’ve also learned how to communicate with people.”
A Winding Road to Clay
Hirai was born and raised in Shizuoka, Japan, home of Mount Fuji. She grew up surrounded by handmade pottery because of a cultural appreciation for the artform, but she says it never occurred to her that she could be one of its makers.
“We love pottery, naturally; we’re surrounded by it,” she says. “But you never think that you have an opportunity to make it yourself. It’s always something somebody else made, and you just buy it and use it.”
Before she began making pottery, Hirai studied cognitive psychology at Aichi Gakuin University in Nagoya, Japan. She earned her bachelor’s degree from the Department of Psychology there in 1993, but instead of continuing her studies in psychology, she began working in Japan and traveling internationally. In 1996, she went to London for the first time to visit her younger sister. She ended up staying for one year and studying English while doing work helping people facing homelessness.
Hirai loved London right away because of the diversity she saw—a stark contrast to her life in Japan. “I liked that environment, that rich cultural environment in the UK,” she says. “In Japan, especially in my hometown, I can only see Japanese people. I enjoyed the mixture of all different nationalities in England, especially in London.”
She may have fallen for London, but her first year there took a toll on her. Working in a hostel for the homeless was stressful she says, especially because she didn’t speak English at the time. When her work day wrapped up, she turned to pottery as a way to relieve some of that stress.
“Studying pottery was my relaxation,” she says. “That was the beginning. I liked using my hands, and I liked making things. In my first pottery course, I wasn’t actually taught anything; we were just given the clay and told to do anything we liked, so I was just making pots. That’s my starting point, and actually I find there’s nothing wrong with just finding your own way to make things. Of course decoration, firing, materials, you will have to know, but with the clay or making a form, you can just guess, you can just do it and make the shape you want.”
After one year in the UK, Hirai returned to Japan for a short time before moving to England in 2000 and never looking back. During this time, she considered going back to school for psychology, but she eventually shifted her focus to ceramics. She studied at the University of Westminster for her first two years before transferring and finishing her degree at the London Institute Central Saint Martins School of Graphics and Industrial Design in 2003.
In university, Hirai made tableware, and that hasn’t changed much in the 15 years since. She was drawn to functional pottery because of her own experience interacting with handmade objects growing up.
“I like the nature of tableware that can be used,” she says. “It can be very beautiful, it can be quite sculptural, but you use it every day, so you grow a special attachment to it. The beauty of tableware is not the tableware itself, but the interaction with an object or food or the people you use it for.”
The inspiration for Hirai’s functional pottery has remained the same for the 20 years that she’s been making work. She uses a technique called kohiki, which is working with a dark clay body and applying white slip on top, creating a layered, organic look. Her runny, imperfect application of slip complements her forms, which are also marked by imperfections and a lack of completeness. All of this creates an element of humanity in her pieces.
“My work is like people; something is hidden underneath [the surface],” she says. “You can actually see through to the darkness underneath, and that is quite ambiguous, and you can imagine all sorts of things from that layering.”
Hirai loves to make the viewer use his or her imagination. In addition to the light-dark dichotomy of her surface decoration, she also breaks the symmetry of her work by removing chunks of clay and forcing the viewer to fill in the gaps.
“Complete symmetry is a static state; it doesn’t have any movement,” she says. “But if it’s asymmetrical, people have something to do with it. If they see something imperfect, or something a bit broken, people try to complete it in their imagination to make it more balanced. I discovered that imperfection has to work in a balance of wholeness of the object.”
This idea of allowing the viewer to complete an imperfect work in his or her mind comes from traditional Japanese pottery, and in addition to drawing more engagement out of viewers, it also speaks to the relationship between an object and its surroundings, as well as how that object came to be.
“In Japanese tradition, the thing doesn’t exist on its own; it’s a balance between the environment and the object and the object and you,” she says. “So seeing the process of making and how an object was formed is very important.”
Given all the ways Hirai’s work exists to draw connections between the ceramic object and people, it should come as no surprise that she has turned to art and making for developing relationships.
For shy or introverted people like Hirai, sometimes what starts out as a hobby turns into a method for forming friendships as well as a profession. Ceramics can offer a solitary lifestyle, but Hirai has made a few choices that force her out of her shell and have resulted in important relationships.
First, her studio is not tucked away in the countryside like some artists tend to opt for; instead, in 2003, she found the Chocolate Factory in London and established a studio there. The Chocolate Factory is an artist collective with the resources Hirai needs to make her work—namely a gas kiln.
“I have never moved,” she says. “Number one, the landlord is very nice; he’s a painter, but he used to be a potter, and he appreciates pottery a lot. Number two is the people who are here. There are 20 other artists here, including painters and installation artists, photographers, jewelers, and typographical artists. If you want to be left on your own, you can just stay in your room. But if you want to talk to someone, you can always visit other people’s studios and have a discussion about their artwork. So I can be influenced by other things and other people.”
In addition to surrounding herself with artists in her studio space at the Chocolate Factory, Hirai made connections with others through teaching for ten years prior to becoming a full-time studio artist. Her time in education was far more fulfilling than she ever could have expected at first.
Hirai first started working as a technician at Kensington and Chelsea College in London in 2004 as a way to make money at the start of her career as an artist. A few years later, she was offered a teaching position there and was surprised by how much she loved it.
“If you’re just working in your own studio, your knowledge is very limited,” she says. “But I have learned a lot from teaching, and also I enjoyed the interactions with a variety of people. My students came from all different backgrounds, different nationalities, and they went on to get different jobs. By teaching, I have a lot of interaction with the outside world.”
Hirai served as the head of the ceramics department at Kensington and Chelsea College from 2013–15 before leaving to work as a full-time studio artist. Making work in the Chocolate Factory ensures she continues to learn and be inspired by people, and therefore the alluring humanity in her work will remain as prominent as ever.
All Photos: Toshiko Hirai.
the author Jessica Cabe studied arts journalism at Syracuse University and has been a clay hobbyist for two years. She lives in Chicago, and works as a freelance journalist.
Akiko Hirai’s (Non)Traditional Moon Jars
Akiko Hirai begins by throwing half of the moon jar form then coil building the rest (1). She says traditional moon jars are made in two bowl forms, but she prefers coiling to form the top to give a more uplifting effect. Her bases are substantial, to withstand the weight of the top of the form and the layers of texture she adds later. After making a symmetrical rim, Hirai gently “crushes” it to encourage viewers to complete the form with their imagination (2). It also makes the pot more imaginative because the viewer can see the evidence of events that have happened to the pot. Just like life, Hirai’s pots become more interesting as they become less perfect.
Next, Hirai adds various materials to a base slip to decorate her form (3). Her mixtures induce a chemical reaction in the reduction firing and give specific colors and textures to the pot. Some of the added materials are organic substances that burn away after the firing, some are metals and minerals that change their properties and react in the high heat and reduction process. She applies that mix in layers to the pot with a brush and her hands (4), balancing between dark and light slip.
When she’s done decorating her pot, Hirai puts it through a bisque firing. She usually lifts the base and puts three props underneath so the trapped moisture can escape.
Next, she applies thick white glaze to the moon jar. She also applies wood ash and potassium-rich slip to give the end result a more organic texture. During the glaze firing (5), she starts reduction around 1742°F (950°C). She operates the burner somewhat unevenly so that part of the kiln gets slightly cooler to make a diverse surface. Sometimes she heavily reduces the kiln to the end of the firing, and sometimes she lightly oxidizes the kiln atmosphere at the end, depending on her desired outcome.
Hirai says the final result may appear to be completely spontaneous, and though her intentions may not be overt, the finished pots represent her inner self and reveal her making process (6).