Ryota Aoki is a ceramic artist. He’s just thirty years old. He wears a turban on his head and his slight body is swathed in fashionable clothes. At first glance, he looks nothing like your typical idea of what a ceramicist should be. The gap between his person and his beautiful works has left many people scratching their heads. How is he able to make such wonderful things at such a young age? The answer may be little more than lots of hard work – and a little bit of fairy dust.
Interviewed by Takafumi Suzuki
Translated by Claire Tanaka
Mr. Aoki, how long has it been since you became a ceramic artist?
I started when I finished school, so about six years.
In one sense I think you’re quite lucky that you were able to become an artist as soon as you graduated…
Yes. But when I was still in school I decided I’d become a ceramic artist once I’d finished my two years of training.
But at most kilns it’s not a simple matter of just going in and becoming an artist right away, is it? Plus, I heard you’d originally been studying something else. What experiences led you to pursue the ceramics path?
Uh, actually, I was at a university in Toyohashi City, in Aichi prefecture. It’s a school for really bad students. (laughs) I had lots of fun friends, and I played around a ton every day. (laughs) But one day I thought, if I go on like this I’ll be in trouble. I decided to get serious and learn a trade.
I see. You had a revelation.
Then, I figured I should go for the thing I like best, and I decided on fashion. I bought a Brother sewing machine and started making clothes. I spent about a year holed-up in my room sewing, and then I got a shop in Nagoya to sell some of my clothes on commission.
Wow, after just one year! I don’t think making clothes is such a simple thing…
But that’s all I did, twenty four hours a day. I gradually got more and more shops to take my clothes. But then the stores started putting in special orders, and that got to be a hassle. And then I decided to go into accessories. I started making them and I struck on a hit product with that. (laughs)
Was this all while you were in university?
Yes, I was just feeling my way around during my school days. Then when I was in my fourth year of university, the celebrity hairstylist fad came in. And I thought, “I bet I could get a lot of girls if I did that.” (laughs) So from that less-than-pure motivation I got a part-time job at a salon. I sort of figured I’d become a full-time hairstylist once I graduated.
That’s got nothing to do with pottery, does it?
No. And then, one day, I thought, “I’ve still got some free time.” So I figured it would be sort of cool to take a pottery class, and I enrolled in one. And more than anything, the sensation of mud running through my fingers was so comfortable and it just clicked. I thought, “This is it!” and it was like being struck by a bomb.
And so that’s how you finally decided to become a ceramics artist?
Yes, but my family knew how I was always switching plans, so they said “You go ahead and do whatever you want, but you won’t get any support from us.” And by the time I was that age, I didn’t have the option of enrolling in art school either. So I looked into things, and I found out that there are a lot of training schools out there. I entered the Tajimi City Pottery Design and Technical Center and studied there for two years.
So that was where you finally started studying professional ceramics techniques.
Yes. But I had misunderstood something. I’d been taking pottery class for two or three months before I started school so I figured, “I’ll teach my classmates a thing or two.” (laughs) But the people who had gathered at this school had already spent four years in art school studying pottery, they could do spiral wedging and use a wheel, they had lots of practical knowledge, and there was a huge gap between what I knew and what they could do.
(laughs) That must have made you feel a little flustered.
Yes. That’s why from that moment, it was all pottery all the time for me. I’d go to school from 9am to 5pm, then go to my job helping at the ceramics workshop until nine-thirty, and after work I’d borrow one of the wheels there and practice basic techniques until midnight or one in the morning. That was my life. I didn’t play around at all. During lunch break when my friends were outside playing soccer, I was busy doing research about glazes.
Listening to stories like this and the one about your foray into fashion, it sounds like you must have great powers of concentration.
But I’d decided that I’d make a living from it right after graduating school. That’s why I spent all my time studying ceramics. After about a year had passed, I thought “Ah, I’ve surpassed my classmates and my upperclassmen too.” (laughs)
During the process of learning to become a potter without any support from your parents, didn’t you ever feel your heart would break?
Oh no, not at all. I was really poor, I couldn’t even afford to buy a juice from the convenience store, and I lived in a slimy 20,000 yen per month room where slugs used to fall onto my face from the ceiling at night, but I was determined to become a potter, and I really enjoyed my work. Then, one of my teachers told me, “Make a suicide pact with ceramics.” So I took that advice to heart and made a “suicide pact with ceramics.”
Now, how did you actually wind up working as a potter?
When I was in my second year, I started bringing my works around to galleries. And then just one, the INAX gallery said “Well, you’re just starting out but what the heck.” And I had a solo show there right after I graduated. And at my first solo show I sold out the whole collection. Then my name started to spread, and I was able to have more solo exhibitions at different places.
Wow, you sold out right away! That’s incredible. But how did you manage to acquire your artistic sense?
I’d always liked fashion, and I always thought about how to express my individuality. I also used to go out and look at new architecture and stuff too, and finally with ceramics I was able to use those experiences. That’s why I already had my own style when I was in school and I’ve just kept going with it to the present.
I see. You used your past experiences as inspiration…
But since about two years ago, I’ve been getting inspiration from the clay. I don’t want people to think I’ve cracked up, (laughs) but it’s true. When I touch the clay, I’ve noticed that I feel “Ah, I should do what the clay wants me to do.” I put it on the wheel and let it throw me around, I let it move me. It’s like I’m helping the materials become what they want to be. Just like Japanese cuisine where you help the ingredients themselves to shine.
A sharp sensitivity and marvelous powers of concentration. Mr. Aoki, I’ve understood very well how you’ve been able to make such wonderful work despite your young age.
I hope to further extend myself out into the world as a Japanese potter. When I went to study abroad in Switzerland for six months, I realized what a high level Japanese pottery has achieved. But, Japanese pottery still isn’t well-known overseas. I’m thinking I’d like to take on that challenge.Ryota Aoki’s Kiln
Born in Toyama Prefecture in 1978. Ceramics artist.
Ryota Aoki will be participating in a ceramics exhibition called “Hyogemono-ten” in the Isetan Shinjuku Honten 5F Tachikichi gallery. The exhibition is held under the auspices of the serialized manga, Hyogemono from “Weekly Morning” magazine, and features an exciting lineup of young ceramics artists. The show is on from November 12 to the 25. Please pop in for a look if you’re in the neighborhood!