Akiko Hirai - 2020

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spring 2020

These past months will go down in history. Everyone will have their stories to tell. For some, it has been a time of reflection and deep introspection. Here, Akiko has given us a generous insight into her own experience of lockdown as she plans for this show. She starts with her initial thoughts on the work she wanted to create, but inevitably, so much more pours out.

every morning tea bowl akiko’s lockdown story

“When the lockdown was just about to start, I was thinking of some ideas about this

bowls, but quite time consuming as each pieces are unique, and I pay a lot of attention to

exhibition at St. Ives. Yes, [it was] a very close date to the planned exhibition date, and I

the details. I add quite a lot of ‘playing time’ during making. I do not listen to audio book

know a lot of potters start planning at least a half year earlier, especially [since] pottery

while I am making tea bowls - my head is basically too busy to creating little narratives

making involves a lot of waiting time such as drying the pots. Over the years, I came up

that goes with the bowl. I mix large bits of granite or other materials in the clay and see

[with] the solutions how I fasten the process; I worked as a pottery teacher for ten years at

how [those] bits moves in my hand. There are basic forms that I throw, but the movement

college and time had been very precious, having two almost full-time jobs. I was very lucky

of the bits determines the asymmetry of the pots. I do not like the fast movement so

that most of the galleries have been very tolerant with me - perhaps I must have been

after the centring, I spin the wheel very slowly and repeat quite strong push and pull few

forcing them to be - but I do appreciate their patience. Anyway, first sign of lockdown

times. I also make handbuilt bowls. [They] are slightly thicker than the thrown one. As

was that several craft fairs in March were cancelled. Everyone was uncertain about what

they are coiled one by one sometimes coiling mark show up, depending on the clay I used.

happening now and near future. In the unusual situation like this, unless you are extremely

Plasticity, less plasticity, very coarse, fine, dark and light, create different character on the

mindful person in everyday life like highly trained monk, it is hard [to] live your normal

final outcome of the bowl. When I touch the clay, clay tells me what kind of shape they

life, you are completely absorbed by the topic of this unknown virus. I think my idea of

want to be, so I do not make drawing before making.

the exhibition was initially different, but I could not help connecting exhibition ideas and lockdown, although I do not particularly like to include current pandemic thoughts into

Some bowls come with the written short stories I write. I hope you enjoy the tea bowl.

my exhibition pieces. I usually include something new if it is my solo exhibition, but I could not think of Natural Disasters

anything. My head is just refused to think anything creative. I gave up and decided to make my usual pieces to begin with. Apart from decoration and firing bit, making the

I think most artists work in isolation without lockdown. I heard that some of the artists’

body of the jars are pretty much routine that occupied my mind for a little while. I also

studios in London have been closed completely. Pottery is not a kind of job that can be

made some bowls and cups to fill the gap of the kiln. I fired them as usual, and … unusual

done at home. Luckily my studio, the Chocolate Factory, has been utilised normally, as a

thing happened: all four pots collapsed completely, consecutively, and the base of the

lot of studio has single occupant and we can easily be self-quarantined. I come to work as

bowls sank down during the firings. It happened in the past, and I noticed it happened

usual, combining my daily exercise of running with commuting, bumped into some friends

more often since sometime last winter. I just thought I made the base too thin and

and say hello to them from distance, occasionally have some conversations. There is very

decoration got too heavy. Although I routinely made the forms, I made the body thicker

rarely a day without any conversation [but] there is a thing that is lacking - direct human

than usual, reduced the amount of decorations on the top part of the pots. When I saw the

contact. I have not touched another human being for more than a month. However, as a

ruin of my fourth big moon jar, that switched on my brain. It said, ‘Wake up!’ When you

Japanese person, we are not very touchy nation, at least in my generation. In fact it took

come across the problems that [you] cannot leave alone, in another words, when you are

me quite a long time to kiss on someone’s cheek like Europeans and give people a hug.

desperate, your mind gets sharper for some reason. Although I needed some break from

We usually have quite a large personal space. Street has less cars and people, but still not

this disaster, [in] the end I find a possible cause and found the solution. This is probably

deserted. The weather has been beautiful, the day gets longer and bright. I know that it is

something to do with my adrenalin rush; my creativity came back like when I had very

not appropriate to say that whole town is like being on holiday. I know there are a lot of

close deadlines. I [woke] up with several ideas that I cannot wait to get to my studio each

hardship behind it.

morning. This is the magic of ceramics. I have caught this strange feeling since I made a

I was not sure this is caused by the corona lockdown, but I was not able to work anything

pot first time over twenty years ago.

but my routine for a while. I love writing, testing and making new pieces, but the first few weeks of lockdown I had no motivation to make anything new. I was not depressed

I thought of coronavirus. Natural disasters happen. This is not avoidable, but this is also

or anything like that. My brain seemed to be ‘shut’ for a little while and refused to do

an opportunity to learn something new. So this is probably a lesson to learn, how we act

anything creative, or even just think. I was also working less hours than usual. I was not

[as] an individual and society as a whole. It was a coincidence, but a lot of books I was

driven by the strong motivation to come early and work late. Everyone said that the

reading just before the lockdown were talking about virusus. Actually, it was not about

business is slowing down and economic damage will be huge. I had an illusion of my work

viruses, these books are about humanities, human genomes, microbes, bacteria, fungi

slow down [but] I suddenly remembered that most of my shows and orders are still arrive,

and human consciousness, emotions and the brain. All non-fictions. So many things

have plenty of things to do.

surprisingly have odd connections - [my] choice of the book may be contributed by

The exhibition opening was postponed (due to the crisis) but my brain got a kick start. [One] morning I was having my matcha soya latte in my favourite tea bowl: I was feeling pretty happy and wanting to make some tea bowls to make someone else happy, like how I was on that morning. In fact, my everyday morning tea is one of my favorite time during my quarantine. In the past few years I made very small numbers of tea bowls. They are just

the computer algorithm. There was an outbreak of Coronavirus in China already. It was only [a] recent thing that I got into science and non-fiction books. I was reading more fictional stories when I was younger. The book that triggered my addiction [to] non-fiction books is called ‘The Brain That Changes Itself’. The book was about neuroplasticity, [and] completely overturned my common knowledge about our brain. [It] also gave me some explanation of what were very ambiguous

in psychology studies in the past centuries. I studied at the degree course in psychology in Japan. I must confess that I did not read enough books that I supposed to have read when I was a student. Their library service was not very good - there was my bad excuse - but more plausibly, growing up in a strangely overprotective family, I had a lot to learn from my real life during my teenage time away from my family. I was too ‘busy’. My major was Cognitive and Experimental Psychology, [and] my final thesis was about the basic study of eye movement. Quite a few friends of mine were into clinical psychology, but I have massive [skepticism] toward clinical psychology. I was also aware that I cannot argue anything against it because of my lack of knowledge and understanding of the subjects. My [skepticism] are more like a feeling of unconvincing trust for theories that seems to be difficult to prove. My book list has been improved [since then] and I have a better idea of what I was not sure at that time. Strangely, all these ideas pop up when I am working with clay and raw materials: these inanimate materials ‘behave’ like ‘animate’ things, and we pick up the cues from the language that inanimate materials are generating. This is initially a ridiculous idea, but the more I learned about the basics of chemistry and physics, I get the stronger idea of the connection between physicality of materials and our emotions. It is also quite interesting how our brain read cues from our experiences, and selects things. We make decisions before we consciously make choices (ref Free Will by Sam Harris).

Bizarre Elephant I became aware that my taste of ceramics were based on Japanese aesthetics - and Japanese aesthetics are not universal aesthetics - when I was studying at Central St Martins in London. Even though I was not purposefully [making] what I make, people always think I was making Japanese ceramics. This has a reason; I did not come to England to study ceramics because I was loving English pottery so much (I learned and I love it now), I hardly know about it [then] and I even did not know who Lucie Rie was when my friend took me to her exhibition. I happened to take a few [ceramics] workshops at adult education college in London. I liked it and wanted to continue, then I had a very good teacher who manage to send me to more serious course at university in the UK. I did not have courage to study something completely new at University if I were in Japan. I was nearly 30, [and] this ‘late’ stage of life change is not allowed in Japan, well, at least in my head. Naturally, I did not make English style pottery - instead I make something I choose to buy if I were a customer in Japan. There are some English potters who make Japanese style pottery [and] follow the rules of Japanese pots. Some of them actually study pottery in Japan. I did not have that kind of knowledge in making so technically their pots are more Japanese than mine, but my pot always appeared to be [more] Japanese than their pots. I am not sure if this is still true after living in the UK quarter of a century. Well, this is not a very strange phenomenon: an English painter friend of mine showed me his painting. He painted Japanese wood printer Yoshitoshi Tsukioka with his wife [at] his house. They are wearing old Japanese outfit [and pictured] in a traditional Japanese Tatami (woven straw mattress) floored room. Yet there is something strange about it: the background was my friend’s flat, [a] typical English council flat type of layout. Yoshihito’s room looks like a continuous room from his English flat, and they are waring Zori (Japanese sandals) [but] we never wear shoes nor slippers in Tatami! There is some strangeness about that painting. There may be something else in very minor details, but that is enough to make me feel strangeness in the painting. Another example: there is a painting of what it supposed to be an elephant at [the] V&A. It was an imaginary elephant drawn by the person who has never seen elephant in his life. The elephant look like a combination of horse and camel with long nose. It is a bizarre elephant. We try to make sense of things around us by judging from our own experiences [and] we usually do it unconsciously. You cannot overlook your living environment [or] your childhood education, [and] I mean education in many different ways. Human consciousness is a bizarre thing. The

good news is we are always learning new things and have an ability to appreciate something unfamiliar. At Central St. Martins, as it supposed to be academic study, you have to explain the concept of designs. The easiest thing for me to do is to use a common description that Westerners uses for Japanese, or some type of oriental pottery, such as ‘organic’. Yes, organic carries a very good connotation, very commercial and pleasant - it cannot go wrong. Then I come to the concept of ‘wabi’ and ‘sabi’: this is another word that sounds authentic and philosophical. It has originated from serious Japanese tea ceremony, [and] that cannot go wrong either, especially [as] it is used by a Japanese person! ‘Wabi-sabi’ supposed to be very ambiguous, so it had better not to explain too much! Well done, me. However, I was a bit more serious student, so I had itchy teeth when I talked about it, knowing that the word ‘organic’ and ‘wabi-sabi’ do not explain anything. Three years study at art school was just beginning of my queries. My dissertation teacher Alex Fraser (sadly he passed away from Covid 19 ) helped me awful lot, but my biggest finding at that time was an aesthetic that related to Animism, [the] ancient belief of borderlessness of animate and inanimate things. That also need much more expansion. Sublime In recent years, Art and Science has become a proper subject. I am very interested in it and try to figure out the psychological process of people’s ‘like switch’. A friend of mine organises a discussion group with a few scientists from different disciplines. I attended a couple of times. I [didn’t] dare to speak during the meeting as I was so afraid of saying something stupid, or [ask] question that missing the point. I am also a very extreme introvert and not very good in a group situation. This character has been improved over [my] ten years of teaching experience in pottery, but I still feel very fearful to speak up, especially among the people who I do not know well. I also have a tendency to make a massive discussion in my own head before opening my mouth, so by the time I get some kind of conclusion the topic is usually moved to something else. I am quite embarrassed myself [of] my slow processing of information. According to my husband I suddenly get very fluent in English when I get angry. I wish this can be the solution! The last time when I attended a meeting was a more than five years ago. The group were consisting of a physicist, a mathematician, a philosopher and a few artists from various discipline, talking about Arts and Science. They all come from recognizable institutions. We are invited to the mathematician’s lab and I was very excited about it, as combination of mathematics and art are new [area] for me. When we entered the room, [the mathematician] started presenting ‘chaos and infinity’. I can see he was explaining the mathematical term of ‘chaos and infinity’ but I was not quite sure [how] these related to art and what kind of art form he is talking about. As it seems that they had several discussions before this meeting, I thought I must have missed something from the previous meetings, but I did not want [to] interrupt their talk. So I was listening quietly and waiting, hoping that I would understand what they are on about a little later. The organiser of the meeting was a friend of mine, [an] installation artist. She kindly gave me some reading material that the mathematician wrote the day before. It was about Rothko and the Sublime. I was not familiar with Kant’s ‘categorical imperative’, moreover I was not familiar with the word ‘sublime’. I looked [it] up [in] the dictionary and also read some extract from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. I learned general world philosophy at high school - very shallow knowledge of who said what. My knowledge of Kant is basically it. Also ‘sublime’ is an unfamiliar word for me. There is a translation of ‘sublime’ in Japanese language, however the description is not quite accurate: one of the reasons is that the word probably comes from religious context. I did not grow up in a Christian society. This is not a very relevant to Rothko and [the] Sublime, but I started thinking ‘what is the different feeling of sublime between Christian and Buddhism?’. I was thinking about it for a little while and drew two circles. This is my very simplified version of understanding of ‘sublime’ with Christians and Buddhists: I do not practice Buddhism, but Japanese culture has been influenced by Buddhism and Shinto for centuries so my ethos and world view is naturally influenced by [them both]. The circle is a feeling of Sublime. I draw a

dot below, outside of the circle. I draw a dot in a circle. The circles are supposed to be something grand and mighty; the dots are us, who are feeling that grandness and mightiness from the circle. It is the same feeling, but the Christian is feeling mighty God from outside, the one who is unreachable and unaffected, while the Buddhist feels [the] Sublime from inside. The circle is still mighty and huge, but actually you are part of it. That makes the feeling of Sublime completely different and even less grand. I thought of Mandarah and temples, then I thought of grand Gothic European churches. This create a different world view, between the people who grow up in the environment of the Monotheism and in the Polytheism, and I think this is very relevant to what we see as a beauty. That I will talk about later. Back to mathematician’s lab: the topic was moving into ‘universal beauty’, I think. This confused me from the beginning. First of all, I do not think art and beauty [are] synonyms. Beauty can be a part of art, but art is not necessarily beautiful, and beauty is a very ambiguous word. Secondly, what is universal beauty and is there such a thing? I know the answer of the second question: it is yes and no. For example, like the theory of evolutionary psychology, we humans are attracted to the certain bodily features, like the symmetrical face [which] express [the] undamaged gene, thus we are often attracted by the symmetrical face. We are usually not sexually attracted by the close relatives, as single ill gene does not cause pathological abnormality to their children, but a pair does. Thus, biologically we do not attracted to close relatives in statistically significant value. There may be some exceptions, but if we talk about the exceptions, perhaps there would be no universality, especially [as] our judgement of beauty is not determined by single element but by complexity of elements. I probably do not understand Kantian theory, but from my little understanding of [the] categorical imperative, I [do] not agree with it in a scientific sense. This perception involves too much religious notion and definition. Then I started wondering if they were talking about the subject from more objective and romantic viewpoints, which is not really scientific but can be very intriguing, like some literatures. If so, I have been misinterpreting whole lot of their conversation from the very beginning. Who knows? The meeting started at 10am and ended at four in the afternoon. All these six hours, I sat and smiling and listening, like a little torture. Probably I was invisible person until I finally open my mouth. I don’t remember why I said [it], but I remember I talked about the fact that we learn to see, and possibly learn how to use all five senses, by experiencing as a child, with the example of two blind people who had operation to regain their sights: one was congenital blind and one lost sight when he was five years old. We all have the same receiver organs, like eyes, but we may not see the same thing. The environment regulates our abilities. We do have generalised language to communicate and work well as a society, [but] how boring it can be if art form is only this generalised language that everyone understand instinctively and effortlessly. I probably wanted to ask what kind of universality he was talking about, and I wanted to know more precise description of beauty, as [the] general term of this word is too broad. I could have said [it] more directly, but in a group, I was only the person who did not know what they are talking about. It [was] hard to say, and I was getting nervous more and more. This meeting has one more pitfall for me. At the end of the session, the organiser summarised that day’s conversation and talked about next meetings: she thought they should invite a psychologist. Then the physicist started to talk about one of the historically world-renowned psychologists and his museum. This was very ironic, as a few days ago I spoke to this organiser [about] how unscientific some of this psychologist’s theories were and how brutally [he] evicted these two theorists as he felt that his authority was threatened by them. These two also became very historic psychologists in modern psychology. He probably know that he was not right. Recent advancement of neuroscience reveals a lot about our brain functions, including the mechanism of our memories, which make the psychologist’s [theory] a slightly romanticized theory, very unscientific and probingly wrong, and toxic (Ref: The Memory Illusion by Julia Shaw, and Blackbox Thinking by Mathew Syde, also quite few neuroscience books). Another research revealed that the function of the dream is like a sub product of brain that [is] processing and sorting information during our sleep. It is like heat in the light bulb. (Ref: Why We Sleep

by Matthew Walker). ‘Meaning of our dream’ also sounds pretty romantic, but it may not be what we actually think it is. Anyway, long day was finally finished. The mathematician said ‘I don’t believe everything Kant said and I can explain mathematics (or infinity, I cannot remember) to you’. I wrote a long email to the mathematician, but did not know his email address, so I asked my friend organiser to forward [it] to him. I also asked whether the mathematician was talking about chaos and/or infinity as a form of beauty, or [if] chaos and infinity theory explain the beauty in some type of art. This seems to be a completely wrong sort of question: [my friend] quickly changed the subject and asked me if I really want her to forward that email I wrote to him. Probably that email was a terribly wrong sort as well. I have never [been] invited to their meeting again. It was a lack of my ability to understand the conversation, but if other occasions like that happen, I would appreciate the initial clarification of the topic, like TED talk. The audience require certain standard of general knowledge, but [in] breaking down the specialist’s terminologies, slightly more ‘idiot friendly’ would be very kind. When I think of the mathematic talk of ‘beauty’, it also reminds me of the two books written by the same author, Dean Burnett. The first book is called ‘The Idiot Brain’. It is a book about how our brain process information and why we behave or misbehave in the way we do. What I like about this book is that the author tell us what they know, as well as what they do not know about our brain. It suggest possibilities of new findings that can be game changing. It is written in easy language, very compelling and fair. The second book is called ‘The Happy Brain’: definitions of ‘happiness’ are very broad, like beauty. It is also highly objective. So my expectation was very big after reading his first book. This lead me to [the idea of] ‘Beauty Brain’! I was wondering how he categorise, classify, quantify the various feeling of happiness - how the scientist measured it. What kind of biochemistry involved with it? The book was good, but in a different way. It was less scientific than ‘The Idiot Brain’. My ‘Beauty Brain’ [idea] did not happen.

Chaos Prior to that meeting, I was informed that the mathematician was talking about chaos theory, so I also read a little about [that]. General term of chaos [that] we use in everyday life is disorder and confusion, but in physics, [it is] ‘the property of a complex system whose behaviour is so unpredictable as to appear random, owing to great sensitivity to small changes in conditions’. The key here is ‘appear to be random’. Each change occurring in chaos is actually deterministic, each movement and result are moved accordingly to the rule of physics. This is very familiar in my ceramic practice. Actually, it is exactly what it is in my practice: small content of mineral and metal in the clay react to the movement of heat and atmospheres in the kiln; speed of wheel in form making, pressure of the hand, plasticity and non-plasticity of the clay, what I see today, my mood, weather, temperature and humidity; when all the materials are naturally led to where [they are] supposed to be, it creates a balance. And amazing thing is that we know from experience that if all moves happen according to the natural rules, or something was forced to be, [it] means some imbalance has to be released and go. I am talking about this topic for the examples of factory made, perfect ceramic tableware and handmade ceramics.

Virus After the outbreak of coronavirus, people stop moving around. Most of passenger airplanes are stopped flying, less cars in the street. Despite the death of many people (direct and indirect course of Covid 19) and increase of domestic violence and mental illness and economic damage, you can feel the air in town is so much cleaner and the sky is bluer. The birds sing louder these days.

Akiko Hirai, May 2020

tea bowls stories from akiko

black shallow bowl with golden syrup

“Moth and Scale” If I am dreaming just before waking up, I usually finish off my dream. The beginning of dream isn’t controllable, and I cannot decide what will be in my dream. My husband gives me a wakeup call every day. Sometimes I am already up but some of the days I am still in bed and often, I am dreaming of something. Sometimes it is an odd story, like everyone’s dream, and sometimes it is a scenery. When the phone rings, the ring tone is a barking dog: I thought “Ah, this is Jason. Wait, I must finish this dream”. This is a dream of a moth in a dark. Big brown wings with eye like circular dots. It keeps bump into the light bulb and scattering golden powder around. I thought that I must open the window and let it out. Dog barked, Wait, Wait! I must let it out! I opened the window and direct the moth to the window. It went away. Now I can answer the phone to say good morning. On the same morning I opened the kiln door and the moth was there in my teabowl.

iron speckle shallow teabowl

“Kakko-yokunai” In Japanese language, there is a word “Kakko-ii (

)”. The Chinese character of the

word shows that the original meaning, “likable frame”. This word can be used for many things and basically it means “good style”, “good looking” “cool” (in one’s actions, or visual appearance). Having lived in England more than twenty years, my Japanese are quite out of date, yet this is a very common word for general use. Perhaps people still use it very often? white bowl with shino with crawling celadon

This is a very convenient complement word, and it is very empty, like many other convenient and overused words. Appearance is not everything. In a way, it is true. There are some reasons why the certain features of the person are

“The Girl”

particularly attractive. For example, the symmetry of the face shows the healthy genes that shows the signs of ill mutations. We do not know as a knowledge, but instinctively, we

This is a story of a girl I know. She said that she was a type of person who is waiting for a

know by having a good feeling from it. Our mind knows more than we think. Some things

prince on a white horse. All her problems would disappear when he comes and picks her

are innate like that, yet our frame are also formed and influenced by the environment. We


are very interactive in many ways. It even changes the bodily features and generate subtle

She got married and had a little baby. Everyone was smiling until the baby girl grew up to

impressions to others. We call it body language, it involves moves, postures facial expres-

a young lady. The young girl has problems and stopped talking to anyone. No one knows

sion and other numerous signs.

what her problems were. The object also have these features. We instinctively understand something warm or cold, The mother had a crush, but it was just one sided.

light or heavy, fragile or durable, rough or smooth.

The girl hates her father. The father left home.

This bowl is very gentle. Gentle in form, gentle in tone, gentle in touch. Not quite smooth as you can feel my hand pressing some part of it curve, you can feel some indentation, not

The young girl said that she was the type of person who is waiting for a prince on a white

a big pressure though. And the foot was finished on the potter’s wheel, so in contrast the

horse. I asked the mother “was he not the prince on a white horse?” She said “He had never

base is very neat. This bowl is not “kako-ii” (kakko-yokunai) Kakko yokunai mean “not

be the one.”

cool” but it does not mean “bad looking” (kakko-warui). Do not use the wrong word, this small difference is the key.

I hear you say. I made my eye soft and smile. It probably make other people smile too. That is the magic The rim of the bowl has little beds on the rim. It supposed to be a smooth celadon, but it

of body language. And when someone smiles, other people imitate the action, so other

crawled and the smooth water like surface become splashes.

also feel happy without any reason. This is the magic of impression.

It has never be the one, but it is the one.

This bowl is not “kakko- ii” but “Kimochi-ii” (feel good).

please see our website for akiko ’ s full collection www . newcraftsmanstives . com

Photography by Dan Fontanelli