Historically, if you were a Japanese boy whose father was a ceramist, you could sit by his side and learn the craft from him and become a ceramists yourself, carrying on the family business. But if you were a Japanese girl . . . Well, that’s a different story.
In Japan’s long tradition of ceramics, women have played a minor role. Regardless of talent or potential, women in general were relegated to administrative duties and not taken seriously as artists.
So what’s a woman to do if she wants to pursue her dreams in clay? Go to France.
Joan B Mirviss LTD introduces New York to five talented, independent women who did just that with The French Connection: Five Women Ceramists and Their Passion for France, an exhibition running through August 3.
The five artists – Chieko Katsumata, Yoshimi Futamura, Setsuko Nagasawa, Machiko Ogawa, and Yasuko Sakurai – range in age from 42 to 72 and all had formal ceramic art training in their native Japan. With the exception Nagasawa and Sakurai, who both grew up in Kyoto – albeit a generation apart – the women are from different cities with different ceramic traditions.
They didn’t know each other before furthering their studies in France, but they all felt the need to leave Japan’s strict art world and found refuge in France’s artistic openness and lack of gender bias. France gave them the freedom to pursue their creativity and growth as artists.
Of the five women, two returned to Japan after their studies (Ogawa and Sakurai), two remain in France to this day (Nagasawa and Futamura), and one maintains studios in both Paris and Kyoto (Katsumata). All of them have works included in permanent collections in museums around the world.
At a recent meet-and-greet before the exhibition opening on June 7, I had the pleasure of meeting four of the artists do discuss how studying in France guided them to becoming the artists they are today. (The fifth, Katsumata, had just landed at the airport and was making her way to the gallery.)
Ogawa, who resides in Kanagawa, straddles the blurred line between ceramist and sculptor, producing larger pieces of bold artwork as well as smaller, more functional items such as tea bowls.
Nagasawa, who once taught at a college in Geneva and currently runs a workshop in Paris, studied sculpture to add more dimension to her ceramics. “In Japan we’re taught to create things that are small, that can be held with two hands,” she says. “Studying sculpture allowed me to understand how to create something like [Ogawa’s layered works], but still apply the knowledge to something small.”
Although the artists received training in France and gained exposure to different styles and disciplines, their works retain a certain “Japanese-ness.”
“Oh yes, of course,” responds Nagasawa as she shows me her tea bowls, implying that these qualities are inherent because the artists are Japanese. But she adds a flare of color or a thick brushstroke rather than a thin one so that her works don’t look completely traditional.
Sakurai, the youngest of the group, has the most contemporary style, using white porcelain. She credits her time in France with sparking her passion for white porcelain, which she uses in all of her designs. While the other four artists have a certain roughness and a raw, organic texture to their pieces, Sakurai’s ceramics stand out with their sleekness and whiter-than-white surfaces.
Showing me pictures of her creative process on her iPad, Sakurai takes an architectural approach to her ceramics. She pours porcelain clay into tubes that look like a cluster of bamboo. After removing the extra clay and the tubes, she has a dramatic piece with elongated holes throughout, and the shadows they cast are almost a part of the artwork itself.
Art wasn’t the only reason one of the women went to France. “I met a French man,” laughs Nagoya native Futamura. Her asymmetrical pieces are roughest and most organic. “Someone told me this looks like French bread,” she says, pointing to a piece that does, indeed, look like bread, even down to the spots of flour. Incidentally, that work of art was already sold, three days before the opening of the exhibition.
Katsumata’s work most closely resembles that of Futamura’s, as she uses vegetation as her inspiration. She also paints the clay of her ceramic pieces, adding a brighter look than simple earth tones.
By further defining themselves in France, these artists unintentionally created a sorority of sorts. While they did not know each other before moving to France, Nagasawa and Futamura have studios close by in Paris. “We are like neighbors,” says Futamura. Twenty years ago Sakurai attended a lecture given by Nagasawa, and they spoke for the first time at the reception at Joan B Mirviss LTD. The four artists present discussed techniques and bonded over their shared experiences of the beauty and the constraints of Japanese artistic traditions and the freedom each of them found in France. Watching them interact and viewing their works was c’est magnifique.