Mieko Okuda: Signs of Life in the Forest

Article excerpt


"Echoes of life in and around the mountains; forms of the forest--harbouring, giving birth to and recirculating nature."

THE CHANGING ATMOSPHERE, FRAGRANCES, BREEZES flowing water, and hints of forest life drift across large ceramic plates. White spaces between the abstract black lines, painted with a long-tipped brush, give us a sense of three-dimensional depth within the flat design. The brush speed, glaze-flows and overlaps add to the expressive language of the pottery, conjuring up a range of forest scenes. These could not possibly be expressed in painting. It is precisely the unique features of pottery--the glassiness of the glaze, and the glaze flows produced during firing--which add a shimmering quality to the colours, creating a mysterious depth which draws us in. In a one woman show at Okayama's Chuo Garo in 2001, Okuda exhibited her Green Series which employed this type of technique, painting on plates and other three-dimensional works.

The process involved in making the works illustrated here begins by making the clay plates from rough white Shigaraki clay, ladling white slip over a section of the piece and biscuit firing. Then an abstract design is painted in black onto the white ground. After that the artist uses a ladle and a heavily soaked brush to apply Oribe glaze over the black painted lines. This means that the black lines are blurred by the glaze, just as the lines of an ink-painting blur as the ink soaks into the paper. Oribe glaze fires to green in an oxidised environment, and to pale red in a reducing kiln. Sometimes Okuda fires the pieces at 1000[degrees]C in a reduced environment and then switches to an oxidising 1250[degrees], so both the green and the red colours are produced. She says that her work differs from painting in that the firing "makes the glazes glow, creating a sense of light in a natural setting, which gives Oribe pieces their special beauty". Okuda's earlier study of dyeing and traditional Japanese painting has made her particularly aware of the distinctive and specific appeal of pottery.

Okuda arrived at her current style after learning traditional Japanese painting at a senior high school specialising in the arts, and then majoring in dyeing at Kyoto Seika Junior College. After graduation she was involved in producing traditional kimono dyes for the design department of a Kyoto kimono company. Those experiences will have familiarised her with a traditional Japanese aesthetic and the spirit with which it is infused. She went on to participate in ink-painting classes with one of Japan's most prominent traditional painters, Hitoshi Komatsu. Her encounter with Komatsu, known for his unique and powerful style of ink painting, proved to be a turning point in her career.

Although in former times traditional Japanese painting stressed the spirituality of painting in line, the Japanese painting style that Okuda had studied to date favoured a thick application of paint over linear work, and she harboured serious doubts about this approach. Komatsu's method, which he demonstrated to his students, was to give a rough idea of shape and then continue painting directly onto the picture surface without taking one's eyes off of the subject. Okuda felt that Komatsu's powerful black lines had a life of their own. His description of "painting lines as though slicing the paper with a Japanese sword" provided Okuda with a solution to her long-standing conundrum of how to capture her subject in line.

Okuda's study with Komatsu was followed in 1989 by a trip to America with her husband Hiromu. Throughout the six months that they spent there she only made pots, not picking up a paintbrush once. After returning to Japan Okuda was struck, while out walking, by the beauty of moss-covered rocks in a river and started to dig up lumps of clay to make Rock Pots. She also began making plates with images of rocks and water painted in Oribe glaze. …