Reiko Miyagi North Carolina, USA - Ceramic / Jewellery Artist

East meets West and Reiko Miyagi produces new ceramics

Zoneone Arts brings Reiko Miyagi to you…


Can you explain about your pottery training and work in Japan?

My decision to be a potter came while I was attending college in Tokyo where I was exposed to great and pottery in galleries, museums and nearby pottery towns.

I studied, contemporary art and museum curation, wasn’t pottery related so after I graduated, I went to a ceramic school called Bunka-Gakuin. They had great teachers who had studied under National Treasure-level potters, so I was able to study a variety of outstanding styles and skills there.

At Bunka-Gakuin I learned functional pottery making skills for two years and I did an apprenticeship in the pottery town of Mashiko.  Mashiko had a very open and diverse atmosphere compared to other traditional pottery towns in Japan, probably a result of the folk-art movement there in the 1920’s lead by Shoji Hamada.  I enjoyed interacting with many excellent artists who lived independent life styles in Mashiko, including quite a few people from overseas who came to learn pottery making.

After my apprenticeship, I established my own studio nearby and started to make my own work. Unlike traditional Mashiko-ware it didn’t have the narrative imagery like my current work. Most of my work then had a simpler surface design on a dark clay body from gas firing with reduction cooling.

What were some of the most pronounced changes in ceramics that you found in the USA? 

Over all, I feel that the US ceramics community is very open, casual and innovative.  Pottery has been made in Japan since the Jomon period (15000 BCE – 2300 BCE) and many great styles were developed because of this long history.  But a long tradition can result in inflexibility at same time.

Ceramics in the US on the other hand has a relatively short history and so has no enduring, solid traditions so it may lack some of the great character that comes from having a long history.  But the upside, to being a young culture, is that it is very open, flexible and innovative.

For example the US pottery community is a friendlier environment for all levels of people who want to make ceramics.  Workshops are held everywhere and are mostly open to anyone who is interested.  Many successful and well-known artists here also have a very sharing spirit about their knowledge, too.

The tools, materials, kilns and firing methods are more innovative and diverse than in Japan. For example, the US has a variety of firing temperature ranges in electric firing, new styles of wood kilns and a wide selection of commercial glazes.

Expand on your move into Sgraffito Stoneware, and the technique for this work? 

I was always attracted to ancient pottery with the sgraffito technique, such as the Chinese Cizhou ware, but never explored the technique to the level that I do now when I was in Japan.  Partly because a gas reduction atmosphere firing didn’t require a lot of intricate design to achieve an attractive surface.  I liked to draw as a teen and in my early twenties but never drew anything so narrative as a potter. When I moved to the US I lost access to a gas kiln and that lead me to make my pottery in a different way.

The sgraffito technique makes it possible to achieve the expression that I like:  the texture from carving and striking images from a high color contrast. This combination of textured and silhouette images gives a bold yet warm and rustic feel to the work.


What special tools have you found to be the best for you to use in this technique?

I use all kinds of scratch tools, mostly made from metal, such as a needle tool, scratch board tools and an exacto knife.  It really takes them all to make my work but since I’m also a metalsmith I like to modify my tools.  For example, I like my loop tool because I was able to customise the shape for my needs by forging and filing.

‘Tabula Rasa’ in Latin translates to, an erased slate.  Discuss this in relations to your work.

I was first exposed to this expression when I bought the music CD, “Tabula Rasa” by Arvo Pärt thirty years ago.  I chose it for my new studio name when I moved to the US because I was making a completely new start.  I have interpreted the words in my own way which is, “every moment is unique and a chance for a fresh start,” just like in Zen philosophy.  We are easily distracted by thoughts of the past or future rather than being fully present in the moment but when I make my art and am having a good flow, I truly enjoy the feeling of this moment of “bliss.”

Discuss how important you feel having ‘handmade’ objects in everyone’s home.

I think handmade objects are a good way to circulate joy to others.  I certainly feel the joy when I make my work.  I feel so fortunate that I have fun with what I do, that result can make other people who pick up my work smile.

I also put a lot of effort into my work.  I always try to improve my craftsmanship and designs also choose my materials carefully to achieve unique colours and textures.  Handmade items could never compete in price with mass produced items but handmade has these values, artist’s effort, uniqueness and culture that is passed on from our ancestors.

Recently, a customer who bought my mug from my studio gallery said she’ll remember her Asheville trip every time she uses it!  A handmade object has the power to stimulate the user’s emotions and to change an ordinary moment into a little ritual moment.

Explain about your Black and White pottery that you feel represents your work well.  Discuss them.

I wasn’t making narrative works when I was in Japan. Shortly before moving to US I was traveling by myself to search my way for the future, visiting my friends on the West coast and Hawaii.  One night, when I was swimming in the ocean at a quiet beach in Oahu, I had an experience as if the wave came into my body and the feeling of uniting with the Earth. This experience seemed to open up some part of my brain. I didn’t have to sleep or eat much for a week and I came to many realisations. Eventually I moved to the SF Bay area and once I got access to ceramic making, I started to draw, draw and draw.  I felt that I had just become more fluent with the imagery without trying.

I draw a lot of animals, trees and flowers.  My culture has an animistic philosophy that all beings and objects have a spirit or godess within them.  We call it “yaoyorozu-no-kami,” or “millions of gods.” After my experience in the ocean, the concept that we are all co-existing to in order to be what we are became more clear.  Animals and flowers have complete beauty and it’s like having a universe within so I never get tired of drawing these “millions of gods.”  I also draw a lot of musicians, too. They’re also a symbol of “following the bliss and living in the moment,” the theme of my studio name.

This piece is one of my “Tree of Life”  plates.  It’s an image in use for a long, long time in many places.  I’m very interested in the patterns and imagery that you can see in the different areas of world and time periods. Some images have literally travelled through but some are very similar but it cannot be explained why they have this similarity without any communications between them.   Perhaps it comes from something humans are born with.  Either way, I love looking at images and patterns that appear in historic and tribal work and play with my imagination of what they went through to express these images.

Your glazed work is very different discuss the use?

My narrative work makes a bold statement than my glaze work and I surely enjoy telling stories through it. But as a functional potter, I also like work that is subtle and nicely blends into the environment.  I choose simple patterns and soothing glaze colours that people can imagine using to serve food or to decorate their walls as with an abstract painting.

Some of the geometric patterns might give a modern (and western) look but my intention is to use a Japanese aesthetic of organic shapes, empty spaces (‘ma’) and asymmetric images.  These aesthetics are more common now but weren’t traditionally used in Western craft and using aesthetics that I grew up with is rather natural for me.


Using similar patterns, you have evolved a jewellery series.  Expand on this and how you have become involved in enamel jewellery.

I had one enamel experience in elementary school but never had the chance to be exposed to jewellery making before I came to the US.  I imagine it is because a tradition of wearing earrings and necklaces didn’t exist until modern times in Japan so jewellery making as a craft wasn’t common.

Simply, I’m the curious type so new skills are attractive and it is exiting to learn something different.  Metalsmithing is a very challenging process and metal was new material for me, learning it was a stimulating experience.

On the other hand, there are some things in common with ceramics. Glaze is a glass on ceramic while the enamel is a glass on metal.  Both pottery and jewellery making are pyro-related arts. In away my enamel work is a bit like glazing on metal and playing with colours, I suppose.

Holes are as much a part of your jewellery as the enamel, expand on the use of holes to achieve pattern.

I use a drill and disk cutter to make each hole in the metal by hand. So each is one-of-a-kind and I can easily change the design by using a different hole size, number and positioning.  Dots and circles are a very simple design element yet so versatile and I think a lot of people are hardwired to like it. Sometimes it’s like a simple abstract painting, sometimes it’s like a starry sky. It lets light pass through and can represent a three dimensional space, too.

Reiko Miyagi, North Carolina, USA

Interview by Deborah Blakeley, November, 2018