Working Potter: Mizuyo Yamashita

1 Mizuyo Yamashita in the studio. Photo: Nigel Wright.

My career as a ceramic artist started in the course of a series of events. I was in London after finishing my studies in domestic science and working for a few years in lifestyle shops in Japan, and was learning English when I saw and was struck by Grayson Perry’s pots. It was very shocking to see social issues depicted on the surface of pots, and I was intrigued with the variety of surface treatments he employs in multiple layers of color, carving, and imagery. I wanted to find out what goes into pottery making, so I enrolled in a local adult education ceramics course at Kensington and Chelsea College.

While in the course, I was introduced to a professional ceramic artist, Julie Goodwin, and worked for her for a few months. Her workspace was in a studio complex of many artists, makers, and designers. It was very refreshing to work in such a creative environment after the hectic routine of life in Tokyo.

It was surprising to see ceramic artists working in the city. A studio potter’s life, I imagined, would be something like working alone in the studio in the mountains. You’d dig clay, throw on the wheel every day, and fire the anagama kiln twice a year. You’d sell only a few pieces out of the hundreds in the batch. I don’t think my assumption was valid even 20 years ago; however, it didn’t occur to me that you could make pots in a city while also enjoying a variety of other cultural activities it has to offer. In fact, I don’t think I knew the studio-size electric kiln existed until I started working in that urban studio.

I helped Julie make modern and colorful bowls and beakers, which were fired in an electric kiln. I learned how to prepare clay, colored slip, and glazes, as well as how to use jigger jollying equipment. I enjoyed the whole experience and was inspired to become a ceramic artist.

2 Mizuyo Yamashita wheel throwing in her studio. Photo: Nick MacMahon.

Taking the First Steps

Through this experience, I got to know a few other ceramic artists and started renting table space from them. I also continued taking classes. Gradually I grew my collection of tools, materials, and buckets. Outgrowing my table space, I moved to East London to find a bigger and cheaper space. The rent in the East back then was much cheaper and there were a lot of studios available for artists. One day I came across an ideal space in a shared studio with partly open dividing walls and two kilns to share. There were four other workspaces, all for ceramic artists, and we could have a chat while making our own work. I just fell in love with the space and I continue to work there today. The studio is on the 7th floor of an industrial building with two freight elevators and high ceilings. I love the fact I can have my own space without being completely on my own and also appreciate the amazing city view from the studio.

By this point I was already taking orders from a few places as a result of a Christmas craft fair I participated in organized by one of my teachers at Kensington and Chelsea College. I was making simple, handbuilt porcelain bowls using subtle textural patterns and underglaze transfers with tints of colors. These didn’t require much skill to make, but were unique. I received great feedback at the show, which was overwhelming and very encouraging. This experience led me to think of pottery as my profession, even though I was only in my third year of ceramic studies.

My work started getting featured in magazines and I started working with prominent shops, which was enough to keep me going. Other suppliers found me through the shops that stocked my work. I was very lucky. What I was doing was completely immersing myself in making without thinking about other elements in life. I’m not sure if that was the right way to approach this business, but that was how it happened in my case.

When I started my porcelain work, magazines were a very powerful media, and this exposure connected me to more shops that wanted to carry my work. I feel social media is a very strong tool nowadays. Shops and individuals who want to purchase my work find me though other shops’ social media accounts of or directly through my own.

I like using Instagram, which automatically updates my Twitter and Facebook accounts, as I can upload images in a way I like. It is a great way to share my work and behind-the-scenes information. I don’t think I’m making full use of it as my English language skills are still a work in progress; however, I try to share good pictures, without repeating the same/similar photos or stories.

3 Carving the bottom design on Kiriko (cut glass design) cups using Japanese chisels for wood-panel printing, 2018. Photo: Nick MacMahon.

4 Mentori (faceted) teapot, 7¾ in. (20 cm) in height, stoneware, Matte White glaze, brass handle, 2018.

Expanding My Knowledge Base

While working from the studio, I kept on studying as my knowledge and skillset were very limited. When I started selling my work, a lifestyle chain reached out to me to work on their new range inspired by Japanese hotpot food. In a meeting with them on the project I felt I was in over my head, so I decided not to take it. After that experience and on the recommendation of my studio mates, I enrolled in the City Lit 2-year program to gain experience.

Going to City Lit, followed by the University of Westminster to study were good opportunities to explore different genres of ceramics. We were given projects with themes such as texture making, repetition, abstracting the vessel, etc. I was drawn to the format of installation and admired work by Clare Twomey and Pieter Stockmans, along with Antony Gormley’s Field installation. I was never keen on making large-scale or sculptural work, but I appreciate installation’s ability to make a big impact using lots of small elements. For my final project while at university, I made a cityscape consisting of minimal, house-shaped blocks and found objects. This project sparked ideas and forms I would work to develop in my own studio.

In 2008, I set up my business. I already had good relationships with a few galleries and shops, so I didn’t feel like it was a tough decision to make. It was more like going with the flow, but that does not mean there weren’t complications along the way. One of my biggest concerns was my uncertain residency status in the UK. I didn’t have a permanent visa, so I needed to apply for a residence permit every year. After eight years, I was running out of good reasons to stay in the country. My business was not established enough to categorize me as an entrepreneur. And on top of that, the investment banking company Lehman Brothers collapsed and ushered in the recession. The number of orders for my work went down significantly, which made my situation even more difficult. This was one of the hardest times of my career so far. Perhaps understandably, art was not perceived as a necessity by society at large during such a difficult financial time.

Luckily, after graduating from the University of Westminster, I was granted what was then called a two-year post-study visa. With that, my total stay in the UK reached 10 years, which made me eligible to apply for permanent residency. When I applied for the permanent resident visa, I had to show them two years’ worth of bank records and write a letter explaining my profession, the suppliers and shops I worked with, as well as my passion for staying in the UK. I was very lucky to receive the resident visa, as my income was just enough to live on. Since then, passport control and visa requirements have become stricter. Many countries have artist or entrepreneur visas for people who are established in their home countries. While the criteria differs for each country, letters from galleries and shops that support you, as well as proof that you can create jobs or increase cultural capital will usually help in the visa application process.

5 Core vases, varied sizes, stoneware, terra cotta, feldspathic stone, 2016.

Reframing After the Recession

This global financial crisis forced me to assess my work and business skills. I realized I was lacking the talking/selling skills that are important in the field. I also realized that I’m not the kind of maker who comes up with thought-provoking ideas constantly. I like repeating things, getting lost in the making process. I gradually shifted to making functional objects.

At the same time that I was reassessing my work and grappling with the financial realities of the recession, my friends and gallery connections gave me some work as a technician supporting artists whose backgrounds and training were not in ceramics. This was an exciting experience as I had a chance to glimpse their unique and different ways of working with materials, how they approach their subjects, how they see space, and how they build their ideas and sustain their creativity. I was also lucky to feel the artists’ increasing interest in clay as a medium. I still sometimes work for artists if requested, which happens less often now, but as long as I’m able and it’s not too far outside my specialty, I’m happy to get involved in something I’d never think of on my own.

During this period, my business was quiet, but I worked in the studio all day. I took part in a show every year to network with clients and other artists and tried to see how my new work was perceived. I was very shy at first. Although later I realized that when someone compliments your work, you should engage them in conversation, instead what I would say was just “thank you,” and shy away. I think many makers are introverted, but communicating with your audience is important, and you get used to it. People want to learn about the maker behind the work.

To gain business skills, I attended a couple of business mentoring programs. Pottery is not always a money-making business and I didn’t feel that many of the programs were relevant to me, but I learned how to behave in the business scene and gained some understanding of business economics, which I was completely missing.

Pottery making is very physically demanding and time consuming. You need passion and patience to endure hard times. I used to think the apprentice system in some Japanese potteries was just cruel and suppressed youthful energy and creativity, but now I feel it makes sense. You learn so much from seeing a master working. You waste less material as you don’t get your pieces fired until you practice for a long time and get better at various techniques. It is a worthwhile challenge if you have a strong passion to work hard.

If I were to start my pottery practice now, I would work for someone first. The knowledge he or she has inherited or gained through experience is much more than what can be learned in school. Selling is the most difficult and important part. Find your audience by trying craft, trade, and art fairs; shops; galleries; and maintaining a website and social media presence. Through trial and error, you will learn what works best, and where to focus your time and effort. While presentation isn’t everything, it’s important to take really good pictures. Most of the time, people see your work first through images online. And, most importantly, stay positive even when it seems difficult.

6 Kiku plate, 11¾ in. (30 cm) in diameter, white stoneware, pine-ash glaze, 2018.

Career Snapshot

Years as a professional potter
11

Number of pots made in a year
Approximately 2500

Education
Domestic science, domestic design, Kyoto Women’s University, Japan
3-D Pre-Foundation—Ceramics, Kensington and Chelsea College, UK (2-year course, followed by evening courses)
HE Diploma Fine and Applied Arts: Ceramics, City Lit, London, UK, Adult Education (2-year, part-time course)
BA Ceramics, University of Westminster, UK

The time it takes
Making: 80%
Promotion: 5%
Bookkeeping: 5%
Teaching: 10% (I run workshops on throwing, handbuilding, nerikomi, and kintsugi techniques)

Favorite Tool
wheel
wire tool
Japanese chisels for wood-panel printing

Favorite Process
shinogi, carving

Where it Goes
Retail stores: 50%
Galleries: 30%
Craft/art fairs: 5%
Studio sales: 5%
Other: 10% commission (café use, food styling props, etc.)

Where to See More
Flow Gallery www.flowgallery.co.uk
Tate Edit https://shop.tate.org.uk/homeware/tate-edit
Momosan Shop www.momosanshop.com
Maud and Mabel www.maudandmabel.com
Cambridge Contemporary Crafts www.cambridgecrafts.co.uk
New Craftsman Gallery www.newcraftsmanstives.com
Oriel Myrddin Gallery https://orielmyrddingallery.co.uk
Cavaliero Finn https://cavalierofinn.com
White Space Art www.whitespaceart.com
Stilleben https://stilleben.dk
The Stratford Gallery www.thestratfordgallery.co.uk
Wood & Meadow www.woodandmeadow.com

Learn More
www.mizuyo.com

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