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In conversation with Akiko Hirai Loewe Craft Prize Finalist 2019

Akiko Hirai in her studio.  Photo credit: Dan Fontanelli

Cavaliero Finn first approached ceramicist Akiko Hirai when we were planning our Beauty in the Everyday exhibition a year few years ago.  Staged in an old furniture warehouse in Brixton, the show explored how contemporary artists produced their own unique take on the traditional still life.  It was an exhibition that just cried out for an installation of Akiko’s Still Life bottles and we were delighted when she agreed to take part. Since then we have exhibited Akiko’s work in many of our curated shows and our clients have become great supporters of her work with many adding to their collections each time we feature her work. Like them we love the contrasts inherent in Akiko’s work, her ceramic repertoire includes a range of domestic ware; teapots, bowls, cups, storage jars, sake bottles, plates and vases and so on, and her more ornamental, large scale pieces like her moon jars.  It’s the simplicity yet complexity of Akiko’s work that leaves us open mouthed every time we see it. It appears both fragile and solid, glossy and raw.  It takes a highly skilled ceramicist to achieve this balance, and Akiko has skill in spades. This month, along with 28 other international artists (including Annie Turner whose work Cavaliero Finn also exhibits regularly) Akiko will be exhibiting her work in Tokyo as part of the Loewe Craft Prize Finalist Exhibition.  Her work was chosen earlier this year by a panel of nine experts from over 2500 submissions.  The Loewe Craft Prize 2019 winner will be announced in Tokyo on June 25th and awarded a prize of €50,000.  In the run up to this announcement we talk to Akiko about her work.

Still Life bottles, inspired by Italian painter and printmaker Giorgio Morandi (July 20, 1890 – June 18, 1964), stoneware, various sizes

Akiko, you were born and raised in Shizuoka, Japan, home of Mount Fuji and you studied Cognitive Psychology at Aichi Gakuin University in Nagoya, Japan, how did this pathway lead you to studying ceramics here in the UK?

Yes, it wasn’t the most direct route. I first came to the U.K. in 1996 after quitting my job in Shizuoka. I enjoy writing and I had been working at an advertising agency but to be honest I didn’t actually like anything about corporate life or the job itself, so I left. My younger sister was in London studying photography, so I decided to visit her. I enrolled in English-language classes and signed up with a volunteer agency to work at a homeless shelter, with my degree behind me, I thought it would be something I could do to help people.  This was perhaps a bit naive of me as at that stage my English was not as fluent as it is now and it was sometimes difficult for me to fully understand everything.  I was posted to Northampton, 110 km away from my sister, and although it was very stressful, it was very interesting. I met so many different types of people and I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t had that experience.  Living with somebody else and trying to help them through their problems is really tough, and at one point I just thought I’m actually not very good at dealing with people.  I lasted eight months in Northampton and decided I needed some rehabilitation from the mental fatigue of the past few months so returned to London and signed up as an adult learner in a pottery course at City and Islington College. I wanted to make things with my hands, and pottery was quite relaxing. 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 was 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.  When I was there, I came to realise that I had the right type of personality to work with clay and spend time alone working on expressing my thoughts. I had really found my calling and I would bring clay home each night to carry on working.

I studied my degree at the University of Westminster for my first two years before transferring and finishing it at Central Saint Martins, graduating with a degree in ceramic design. This was followed by 10 years of teaching ceramics at Kensington & Chelsea College.

Through making pottery, I have found a way to connect to people. I think over the years, by doing ceramics, I’ve also learned how to communicate with people and that’s why I set up my studio within an artist collective in London and why I taught at Kensington and Chelsea College, even though at first I wasn’t sure teaching wasn’t for me.

An installation of ceramic work by Akiko Hirai at Cavaliero Finn’s recent show, A Sense of the Familiar. Here, Akiko’s Still Life Bottles and Moon Jars sit alongside Kate Sherman’s painting, ‘Rendlesham 14’ as if they were made for each other.

In your range of domestic ware, you use a Japanese technique called kohiki, which, if our understanding is correct, is when you work with a dark clay body and apply white slip on top, creating a layered, organic look.  Why do you favour this technique?

Kohiki has always been my favorite ceramic ware even before I started doing ceramics myself. The whiteness is not harsh like porcelain, it is warm and gentle. I like the fact that something else is underneath covered by a white veil. I like the dark body subtly seen on the surface. My Kohiki is harder and greyer than traditional Kohiki as it has been developed to my own expression.

Dobin Teapot & Dry Kohiki beakers featured here basking in the sun on a Pippy Oak Bench by Galvin Brothers and shot at Cavaliero Finn’s exhibition, Form and Line in Dialogue at Dora House in Kesington, home of the Royal Society of Sculptors.

One of your moon jars was exhibited as part of the Things of Beauty Growing exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2017. In the exhibition catalogue you said you were attracted to the moon jar form by its seeming imperfections and the way that it wore its past.  Can you tell us what you meant by this? 

My original inspiration came from the 18th century Korean moon jar at the British Museum. It is chipped, has water stains on its white surface from ageing, iron spots that come from the lack of technology as they could not purify the material fully at the time the jar was made and it has the mark of the joint, where they have connected two thrown pots together. All these marks of imperfection were not intentionally created but these give the pot so much life and make the pot more tasteful. 

For me a pot is like a human. I love the diversity of people in London and their life stories. Events in life are not always pleasant but they give people individuality and beauty.  So I give my moon jars a lot of trauma and hardship. The wet and/or unfired clay is an undetermined condition. It absorbs all the information from its surrounding environment such as heat, motions and even my emotions in the making process and when it goes in the kiln, nature gives it a lot of marks. How it survives, in there and releases tension is how it becomes what it is, in the most balanced way.

I say ‘imperfection” but it is a perfection in our constantly changing environment.

Full Moon – Moon Jar* created by an unknown artist in the 18th century, glazed white porcelain 47 x 44.5 x 19cm.

*This Moon Jar was bought by British Studio Potter, Bernard Leach in 1935 at an antiques store in Seoul. It was stored for him by a friend in Kensington until 1943 when Leach wrote to fellow potter and friend Lucie Rie asking her to take a taxi to collect it and mind it for him as his friend was about to redecorate and needed the 2ft high jar to be removed from her house. The moon jar came to symbolise the strong relationship between these two leading British studio potters. In 1947 Rie was told to keep the moon jar in memory of Leach as the jealousy of his wife at the time over the two potters’ deep kinship had become intorlerable and Leach wanted to severe all ties to appease his wife. Rie kept the moon jar in her studio for over 50 years until her death in 1995 at which point it was bequeathed to Janet Leach, his third wife and later became part of the British Museum Collection in 1997, shortly after the death of Janet Leach. (Information compiled from research by Simon Olding as detailed in: Things of Beauty Growing edited by Glenn Adamson, Martina Droth and Simon Olding 2017)

What is it about the moon jar do you think that continues to inspire so many contemporary ceramicists?

I think it’s to do with the same attraction we have for the moon.

Rounded and generous in form, Akiko Hirai’s aptly named Moon Jars have thick volcanic glazes streaming down the sides or encrusted on the surface.

Talk us through the making of one of your moon jars?  What techniques do you use?

Using stoneware, I make the bottom half of the moon jar by throwing a pot on the wheel, I then make the top part by coiling. The original moon jar was made with two large thrown pots joined together but I like the feeling of growing the top part so I prefer not to join an upside down pot as the upper part. The base of the moon jar is substantial, to withstand the weight of the top of the form and the layers of texture I add later. When the rim of the moon jar is complete and the complete shape is made, I distress the rim. I do this in the same way as when something is broken, people tend to complete it in their imagination, so it is important that the form is initially made perfect.

The surface of the moon jar is made by applying a layer of dark slip and 3 different types of white slips and lastly fine bits of porcelain are applied on top. I then bisque fire the moon jar.

My glaze is basic white/blue. Finally I apply wood ash partly on the glazed surface. I only use one type of glaze but due to the chemical reactions in the reduction firing process which reduces the amount of oxygen in the kiln, it creates 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. 

During the glaze firing I start the reduction around 1742°F (950°C). I operate the burner somewhat unevenly so that part of the kiln gets slightly cooler to make a diverse surface. Sometimes I heavily reduce the kiln to the end of the firing, and sometimes I lightly oxidize the kiln atmosphere at the end, depending on my desired outcome.

Installation shot from Cavaliero Finn’s Pop up Gallery in Herne Hill last year featuring one of Akiko’s small moon jars positioned alongside a set of three ladders by fellow Loewe Craft Prize finalist, Annie Turner and paintings by Gill Rocca.

How much of your technique depends on your knowledge of the chemistry of the clay, glazing and firing and how much is dependent on chance or as many ceramicists refer to as “praying to the kiln Gods” during a firing?

I can not control precisely the detail of the pot as don’t want that type of consistency in my work. I can only say that the people who make the type of work I do have to have certain knowledge and skills to be able to create the condition that generates accidental occurences which make the work more attractive, you need to have ability to make good accidents all the time. 

You also have to know a certain knowledge of the chemistry and physics of glazing and firing knowing what is possible and what is not possible rather than doing things randomly hoping that something miraculous happen.  In that way, I cannot call myself a designer.  I think it is similar to how painters work. You know which combination of layers of colours create certain effects but they do not plan the detail like a product designer. 

A pair of Dry Kohiki beakers, hand-sculpted with a coarse matt exterior and silky gloss glaze inside. Shown here resting on the Perfectly Imperfect Oak Stool by Galvin Brothers at Cavaliero Finn’s exhibition, The Essence of Home, staged in Horton Manor, Somerset.

You talk a lot about imperfection in relationship to your work and the role of the viewer in making a form complete.  Can you elaborate on this?

There are a lot of elements that I can talk about it. I did some research on how we see things and what kind of elements create people’s attraction to things.

One of the very physical things about people’s perception is that if an object is lacking or imbalanced, people psychologically feel uncomfortable and in their mind they try to fix it so that it appears complete. This comes from the study of optical illusions. So if they look at something incomplete, they automatically correct it in their heads. In order to do this, their brain starts working harder to see the detail of the object and they begin to see things that people usually do not notice. However, it has been found that if the imbalanced object does not originate from a complete form, the human brain can not conclude the completion. In ceramics for me this means that good broken pots still look great when broken. In contrast, an initially badly made pot can never become a good pot in the mind’s eye as the viewer can never make a good completion and therefore they remain uncomfortable with it.

Therefore the completion of my work is done by the viewers.  My work is a creation on its own.

Two dry Kohiki bowls, stoneware, hand-sculpted with a coarse matt exterior and silky gloss glaze inside.

In her book Clay, author Amber Creswell Bell tells us that your passion for ceramics is connected to your love of writing.  How so?

I am very passionate about writing and have been since I was a child. Due to my family circumstances, I was not able to pursue it as a career, though I kept writing, initially without showing it to anyone.

When I am making ceramics, this is another means of expressing my thought, creating things, it comes internally from me. My ceramic work comes from my thoughts like my writing. I cannot separate the two. I also find my audience enjoys my writing in the same way as they see my pots.

Not Fully Awake by Akiko Hirai

Autumn has come again. The sun is still hot and strong, yet the atmosphere does not belong to the summer. When the wind blows, it brings only a sign of long night in winter. It is just a shadow of something. Not something unpleasant, it just a feeling of uncertainty, a feeling of swings. If you blow it, it is easily blown away. So you hold and stare it very gently. The feeling grows in your palms, it is slightly cold at the beginning then it gradually grows warm. Now you can see that ‘something’. It triggers your forgotten memory and unlocks the feeling of subtlety that you ignore in your practical life.  It is just like a feeling of shallow sleep or just before waking up from your dream. Not fully awake.
I like Autumn.

Large Moon Jar alongside painting by Gill Rocca

What does becoming a Loewe Craft Prize finalist mean to you?

I am just very grateful that many people have supported my work over the past years so that I have been able to continue working in the area I love and that makes me a very happy person every day. I thank everyone around me who has got me to the place where I am now.

Apart from the Loewe Craft Prize exhibition, what’s next for you?

My schedule has been booked up up to the end of 2021. I have numerous ideas that I want to develop. So each exhibition is a progression of my work and it is a gradual but endless thing. I cannot say, what is next. I am excited every day by my thoughts and experiments.

Thank you for speaking to us Akiko, we wish you luck in the next week and hope that you enjoy your time in Tokyo.

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