Akiko Hirai never dreamed of becoming a potter – yet in recent years, she has found herself one of the most sought-after makers of her generation. After relinquishing her post as the Head of Ceramics at Kensington and Chelsea college to tackle an unprecedented demand for her work, Hirai has enjoyed knockout shows throughout the country, even through COVID season. Her latest will be a landmark exhibition at the Goldmark Gallery, opening March 27th.
Born in Japan, where she studied for a degree in psychology, Hirai discovered her love of clay in the UK almost by accident. Arriving in her late 20s, she initially worked as a volunteer with the homeless. When the stresses of the job eventually took their toll, Hirai enrolled on a beginners’ pottery course under British ceramicist Chris Bramble. He encouraged her to apply to the University of Westminster, from which she transferred to Central Saint Martins. The last 18 years she has spent in the very same studio space she took immediately after her graduation in 2003.
Pottery is now Hirai’s first love: ‘It makes me happy,’ she says simply, but profoundly, though psychology still informs all that she does. For Hirai, everything is interconnected: language, thoughts, feelings and objects all come together in the everyday interactions of our lives. At the core of her practice is an exquisite range of Kohiki domestic ware, thrown and faceted pots made from dark clay with a rough veneer of white slip. In Japan, where it was first developed by 16th century Korean potters, Kohiki is considered a ‘soft’ ceramic: though high-fired stoneware, its surface is slightly porous. Like leather or brass, with use and age Kohiki changes colour, its delicate white skin blushing with an acquired patina particular to its owner. For Hirai, that connection with the user is vital: ‘My pots are not finished when they come out of the kiln,’ she says: ‘This is just the start of their journey.’
Wood ashes, often given by friends or specially sourced, are responsible for the extraordinary shifting colours across Hirai’s exhibitions, from deep olive glazes to palest blues, lending narrative and flavour to each new show. Among the many beautiful forms joining her domestic range are her Moon jars, contemporary versions of centuries-old vessels native to Korea, examples of which she drew inspiration from in the British Museum. Hirai’s relationship with Japanese pottery remains complex. Though much of her work draws upon a Japanese aesthetic, what she has channelled from the pots of her home country she has learnt from remote guesswork, analysis and emulation.
Though it was in Japan that Hirai was first exposed to pots, it is in the UK, away from Japan’s formal pottery traditions, where she has been able to find her individual voice. That distinctiveness has transformed into deep public appeal and institutional recognition. Collections holding Hirai’s pots include the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Fitzwilliam in the UK, the National Museum of Ireland, and further abroad Germany’s distinguished Keramikmuseum Westerwald and New York’s Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse. Goldmark, with its major international ceramics audience, hopes to extend that appetite for Hirai’s work.
‘My wife has been quietly smuggling pots home by Akiko Hirai for over a decade now’ comments gallery founder Mike Goldmark, ‘so I am delighted to be making our admiration of her work official with this show. I have seen some of the pots she has made for us emerging from her studio: I suspect this will be her largest, and certainly her most significant exhibition to date.’