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
CF: 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?
AH: 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.
CF: 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?
AH: 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.
CF: 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?
AH: 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.