It’s not every day that you encounter someone who has had a series of second chances in life, who also seems truly happy with their life choices, and is devoted to their work. Canadian ceramic artist Eiko Maeda is one of those people. Maeda meets every morning with enthusiasm and new energy that is fueled by her relatively recent passion for nerikomi—working with creating patterns with colored porcelain. Maeda was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. Her parents embraced traditional roles—her mother a homemaker, her father a company worker. Maeda’s initial love of art was passed down to her by her aunt who was a professional painter. When Maeda was thirteen, her aunt provided her with three key ingredients for a future life in the arts: exposure, guidance, and mentorship. Maeda took weekly courses in oil painting from middle school through high school. When the time came to select her major for university, she chose to study art. She equivocated over ceramics as a career path, but ultimately decided upon the study of urushi, traditional Japanese lacquer painting. It’s important to understand as Westerners that ceramics in Japan is revered at a level that is virtually impossible for us to comprehend, and choosing a life path in ceramics was, and still is, a highly competitive and high-pressure vocation.
Returning to Ceramics
Maeda married and worked as a housewife and mother until her daughter was ten. Then she took on part-time work in the banking industry—however, she chose to leave that life and arrived in Montreal with her 15-year-old daughter as a single mother and new immigrant in 2004. Maeda recounts that this was a difficult time of uncertainty and adjustments. Unable to work until she became a permanent resident of Canada, Maeda turned to her first true love, and found herself tirelessly consuming the ceramics curricula offered at the local visual arts school in Montreal. It was there that she first learned to throw and work with stoneware. She developed her own sense of style despite the constraints of a community school: a limited selection of pre-mixed glazes coupled with a lack of training in glaze chemistry. While in Montreal, Maeda found a new life partner and has subsequently resettled in the large suburban community of Woodbridge, Ontario, within the city of Vaughan, just north of Toronto. She set up her own basement ceramics studio and began selling her wheel-thrown stoneware at local markets.
Maeda had been returning to Japan regularly for visits and beginning to establish a network with ceramic artists in her home country. She was aware of nerikomi, but initially it didn’t appeal to her as it wasn’t wheel thrown, which was until then her preferred and only method of making. On one such visit, a friend introduced her to one of the early pioneers in nerikomi, master ceramic artist, Eiji Murofushi.
As an aside, my research uncovered the bizarre factoid that nerikomi pervaded popular Western consciousness in the mid 1970s when Japanese nerikomi pioneer, Yusuke Aida, was featured in a widely circulated Nescafé commercial. It turns out that Aida was Murofushi’s mentor and he continued to assist him occasionally until Aida’s recent passing in 2016.
Introduction to Nerikomi
Nerikomi is an ancient ceramic technique that, not unlike many artistic methodologies, is rooted in any number of cultures, from the time of the pyramids in Egypt to the Tang Dynasty in China, and permeated the Western world from the mid 1700s in England. Essentially, the technique involves the mixing of pigments, stains, or oxides with porcelain to create a color palette. Slabs or coils of the colored clays are stacked, folded, pressed into logs, sliced, and arranged to form a vessel. In this way, the numerous stacked layers of color appear as fine, undulating lines embedded in a surrounding color in the finished vessel. It is also known by many different names: in Europe and the West it is often referred to as agateware, or the marbling of clays, or as millefiori or cane work (borrowed from the glassblower’s lexicon). Nerikomi is a Japanese word that translates in two parts: neri means kneading, and komi means into. It is distinct from thrown agateware or marbling, or its Japanese counterpart, neriage, to the extent that it is necessarily handbuilt using molds into which the clay is pressed. Furthermore, the process is comprised of making and bundling canes or coils of colored clay into patterns, and subsequently cleaving off a thin layer of the pattern to be used in the construction of the vessel.
Maeda was immediately drawn to both the aesthetics and the cultural context of nerikomi. With the support of the provincial arts funding body, the Ontario Arts Council, Maeda undertook an intensive mentorship with Murofushi in Fuji. According to Maeda, master and student found an instant and easy connection. He decided to impart his tricks of the trade and invest in Maeda as an international ambassador of nerikomi in Canada. Maeda was a willing agent. As a new Canadian, Maeda challenged herself, “What can I do for myself and for Canadians?” Her response is her devotion to ceramics, “It’s not just a job for me, it’s rather that I want to show who I am.” In her artist statement she cites, “I strive to express the elegance, feminine beauty, delicacy, and modesty of Japanese culture.”
Murofushi espouses an open-source philosophy of teaching. He encourages Maeda and a handful of other international mentees around the world to teach his techniques to ensure a contemporary future for the tradition. With today’s technology, Maeda doesn’t hesitate to FaceTime her master when she has questions or encounters problems in order to resolve technical issues.
Expression Through Ceramics
Maeda began by importing Murofushi’s Japanese clay to Canada, but has found similar results in electric firing using Laguna’s Frost porcelain. The clay is formulated to be bright white and translucent. The materials required to achieve these properties make it harder to work with in comparison to other clay bodies such as stoneware or earthenware (I use it myself for my neriage thrown colored clay work), but importantly to Maeda, the pay-off in the quality of translucency is worth the loss of approximately 25% of her kiln load to cracking during the firing. When she makes her models for her plaster molds, she often adopts Murofushi’s undulating petal shapes for her bowls, which tend to camouflage porcelain’s propensity to shift or slump when fired to vitrification.
Maeda’s shapes are simple and elegant. She plays with the tension between openness and narrowness, and pushes the boundaries of the medium’s plasticity. At mid-life, clearly she feels she has nothing to prove, explaining, “I don’t like complicated things; life and the world are already complicated enough.” Some of Maeda’s patterns are copies of Murofushi’s, like the rose and asanoha that he passes down to his mentees. Her own patterns aren’t fussy or pretentious. Like her mauve five-petal flower pattern, they mirror the beauty of the natural world she finds herself surrounded by. “That’s how I feel at this moment, maybe it’s because I’m getting older. I just want to make something that everyone feels and thinks, ‘Oh it’s beautiful.’ I am inspired by little small beautiful things. I want to bring peace and feelings of relaxation to people with my art.”
Celebrated Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan famously stated that “the medium is the message.” For Maeda these words ring true. She continues to interpret and listen to ever evolving messages: “Nerikomi has taught me many different things—it has a lot of potential, and requires a lot of practice.”
the author Heidi McKenzie is an artist, author, and curator living in Toronto, Canada. Learn more at http://heidimckenzie.ca.