The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
In 2009, I moved to the UK to study textiles at Falmouth University in Cornwall with the goal of becoming a textile designer. In the first year, I enjoyed my course, but at the same time, I found myself beginning to feel frustrated with just designing and wanted to explore my creativity more in a completely new environment. So, I decided to transfer to contemporary crafts.
As I was trying out new materials and learning new techniques, I realized that ceramics and pottery have huge possibilities despite clay’s limitations as a medium. Clay shrinks and could crack as it dries, it can’t be manipulated further at certain states, it’s flexible but with little ductility, and one has to think about gravity constantly while working when it is wet. Despite these limitations, I felt that by using clay, I would be able to express myself fully, and the material could push me further as an artist. I couldn’t help myself in hoping to make a living at it.
When I was a student, I used slip casting and handbuilding as primary techniques for making sculpture. I still vividly remember the very first time I encountered slip-casting processes and the pure fascination of transforming simply shaped, slip-cast pieces into entirely new sculptural forms by carefully assembling them together in different ways.
To me, making sculpture is like having another voice, and it’s fundamentally about how I see and feel things through my senses and beliefs. My work is narrative in nature, though the pieces don’t always tell the whole story. This allows the audience to project their emotions and ideas into the pieces and interpret them in their own way. The excitement of making new molds and playing with slip-cast pieces to create new sculptural forms while thinking of how to tell a story with my work never seems to fade away. On the other hand, making utilitarian tableware is all about having balance between functioning well and being aesthetically pleasing.
The colors and textures of my pottery are hugely inspired by Japanese woodblock prints (ukiyo-e), natural-dyed fabrics/wools, and the beauty and dynamism of nature. Creating something that is quietly there but somehow catches your eye is all about balance. I use subdued color when the pattern is bold, and if the color and pattern are rather busy, then I use simple shapes.
I mainly use throwing when creating functional ware. The technique instantly mesmerized me when I was discovering new processes, and I desperately wanted to master it. A ball of clay constantly changes form while being thrown and it seems magical that it can be manipulated by just my hands into so many different shapes. It is a skill that I am always trying to improve on.
I’m also interested in creating a balanced fusion between contemporary and traditional designs, techniques, and conceptual styles. My hope is that my resulting work would fit nicely into any lifestyle, in terms of how the pieces are used and how they are valued in someone’s life as well.
Establishing a Practice
When I moved back to Japan after graduating from the university, I visited some local potters, seeking to rent space and facilities at their studios, but it didn’t work out as I hoped. While I was still struggling to find any place to make my own studio, my parents offered the option of using my uncle’s house, which had been left empty for quite a while. I accepted and set up my studio in my hometown in 2012. My studio space was sorted, but I didn’t have enough money to buy new equipment and furnishings for the space, so most items were gathered from my family’s shed and attic, second-hand shops, and internet auctions. It was more than enough for me to start my new studio practice. All I wanted was my own space where I could I work at my own pace and concentrate in peace, without interruptions.
I occasionally open my studio for studio sales, but it’s not that often, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’ve been in the house for about 10 years now. I use the sitting room and kitchen as my main workspace, and I use another tatami-floor room for non-dusty processes such as drying and storing finished work and packing.
Once I decided to become a professional potter, I chose not to look for apprenticeships or become another potter’s assistant. While I am very sure that working for a more established and accomplished potter would have greatly benefited me as an up-and-coming potter, I felt that what I needed, at that time, was experience and to find my own way by making mistakes, facing failures, and figuring out how to overcome issues while making as much pottery as I could in my own studio. I believe that I made the right choice.
There are countless potters around the world who generously share their wide range of knowledge and skills on the internet, in books, and through in-person demonstrations, and I have learned—and continue to learn—so much from them. I also find that chatting with suppliers and asking them questions is very helpful because they are experts on what they sell and are willing to share their knowledge.
From my previous experience as a ceramics student, I fully expected life as a full-time working potter to be busy and require my full commitment. However, since I started to out, I realized that it is also more physically demanding than I imagined and pretty much every process is very time consuming. I often wonder where all the time has gone when I reach the end of the day. Personally, the demands of being a full-time potter are not something I could juggle while maintaining another job.
A Day in the Life
I start with something simple to get in the mood for work, such as throwing small cups or vases, unpacking the kiln, or preparing slab parts for assembling later that day.
I continue throwing, assembling leather-hard work (such as mugs, teapots, jugs, and vases), glazing, loading the kiln, etc. These are all the things I need or want to get done that day.
I prefer to do something that doesn’t require me to use my eyes or concentrate very much (to avoid strain and fatigue), such as washing the dust off of unloaded work, packing parcels, etc.
When my work started to be noticed, people began to approach me with proposals, offers, and commissions. I used to accept pretty much all of those, naively believing they might lead to greater opportunities. However, things sometimes don’t go as anticipated, and I was often left disappointed, confused, and frustrated. At the same time, I worried that I might be the one leaving the customers feeling dissatisfied because I couldn’t meet their expectations, or I bit off more than I could chew.
Choosing which offer/commission to take or decline is probably one of the most difficult decisions I must make as a professional potter. I get excited and feel hopeful when a shop or gallery contacts me with an explanation of their brand’s story, including images, and a clear reason why they want to carry my work. For some, these elements might not be important, but I very much appreciate the effort and professionalism, and I am always willing to discuss the opportunity further with them. It seems that I tend to maintain good and trusted business relationships with those partners. On the other hand, if a collaborator does not listen to seemingly small requests, such as crediting my full name on their web shop, and offers no explanation as to why, I do not continue that relationship. Similarly, if a price-sensitive potential client sends a commission request that is too vague and drawings and further communication can’t provide clarity on the expectations, I decline the offer. I will probably continue to manage these situations the same way moving forward. Thinking back now, these were the lessons I needed to learn to understand my own capability as a potter and own brand for making the right choices regarding business opportunities. I will never know for certain that I actually made the right call, but hopefully I’m getting better at making these decisions.
One type of opportunity I feel I might need to take on rather than decline would be orders or requests that seem beyond my current capabilities and comfort zone. My rationale is that stretching my skills in this way could widen my experience as a potter and strengthen my brand.
New World, New Opportunities
Lately, I’ve been thinking that contemporary ceramic artists are lucky compared to past makers because we have such a variety of means to showcase and sell our work today, including galleries, retail shops, online shops, social media, studio sales, wholesale accounts, festivals, etc. Each of these outlets has slightly different demographics, and we have the luxury to choose which to focus on. However, not all of those options are available for every artist, and there is no guarantee that the source of income that usually brings fairly good sales will do the same next time. For that potential concern, I try not to rely heavily on one revenue stream and instead try to keep as many avenues open as possible (even those that bring in a lesser amount of income). As makers, we can minimize reliance on certain sources of sales and change the percentage of income needed from each outlet accordingly.
Nowadays, social media plays a big role as a platform to showcase work. It’s free, easy to start without a fuss, and is quite effective. Artists can tap into new business opportunities this way. That said, showcasing and selling online does have its disadvantages. What a buyer receives might be different from what they expected from images online, leaving them feeling disappointed. This is the exact reason that I suggest my new business partners start with small orders and see how the sales go, hoping that it leads to a long, trusted partnership. Pretty much the same goes for individual customers as well.
Advice from a Professional Potter
A little piece of practical advice from me, and this may sound silly, but if you are interested in becoming a professional potter and hope to have a long career, look after your back—especially if you are a wheel thrower. Apart from doing some exercise, do not throw continuously for long hours. It will tire out your back, so do something else between throwing sessions. When you need to carry heavy stuff, use your knees to lift. Take care to protect your body so you can extend your career.
YEARS AS A PROFESSIONAL POTTER
NUMBER OF POTS MADE IN A YEAR
hundreds (never counted)
Bunka Fashion College (Japan), Menswear course 1995–1998
Falmouth University (UK) Contemporary Craft course 2009–2012
THE TIME IT TAKES (PERCENTAGES)
Making work (including firing): 75%
carving, faceting, slip casting
WHERE IT GOES
Retail Stores: 45%
Craft/Art Fairs: 5%
Studio/Home Sales: 5%