An interview with Teppei Ono

I. Youth

I think I was stubborn, emotional, and difficult to handle, even as a child. My father was a radiology technician at a hospital, but he had painted since he was young, and I suppose it was about his 50, he started actively engaging  himself in art, such as applying lacquer to wooden objects as his own works of art. My mother was also interested in art and craft, although she did not make things herself. Unlike my father, I was not good at art, nor did I like it. People often ask me why I started making ceramics if that's the case. When I was in junior high school and high school, I had a very strong feeling of rebellion against being strongly constricted in school education, or being controlled without knowing why, then I was thinking about how I could escape from that and live freely. We had Bizen Pottery at home, which my father loved, and when I touched that simple clay pottery, I felt I was able to make up for what I was missing, or rather, what I didn't have. That is how I came to think that I would like to live by making things with clay. Well, I say that as if I chose everything myself, but in reality, my parents led well their difficult child like me down this path. When I was in high school, I once told my father that I wanted to choose a normal job and live a normal life after graduation. I don't remember why I said that, but he said, 'That's a boring life.'  My father said so because he wanted to make a living from his works of art, I think.


II.About my master, Ryoji Koie

Before I apprenticed myself to Ryoji, I spent some time with a Bizen Pottery artist and a potter in Okinawa. Even though I was finally able to touch clay and fire it, I didn't feel anything exciting. I couldn't find people or things that I could relate to. What they valued was power, success, or money. I knew these were definitely not essential. This is not the kind of person or the kind of thing I wanted to see. Absolutely not. So once I understood that, I had to find something else ; the other one that is essential. I had to find out what I live for. Then when I was strongly seeking to find my reason for living in art, Ryoji Koie appeared.

I first got to know about Ryoji when I was apprenticed to a potter in Okinawa about 30 years ago. I happened to find him when I read an art magazine, and there was a feature on contemporary ceramics that introduced several artists who were working in sculptural ceramics, and Ryoji was one of them. There were some pictures, but his words impressed me more. They were very strong and easy to understand. It was clear the reason for what he was expressing. The work whose theme was Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or the works titled "Return to the earth". I thought that was what art was all about. I guessed he must be the person I was looking for. At that time, I didn't even know that Ryoji also made vessels, but I wanted to see him up close.

At Ryoji's place, there was no fixed start or end time. When Ryoji entered his workshop, I would go there too, kneading the clay when he was turning the wheel and helping him when he was loading the kiln. When Ryoji was not working, I was free to make my own things. I was excited, making shapes with clay, firing... I felt I was able to release my inner feelings. Every day was exciting back then.

Ryoji was usually drunk except in the morning. He was a man who spoke his mind clearly. When I expressed my feelings about something social, he would say, 'Why don't you act on it?'  He was always asking me, 'What about you? What can you do? I'm doing it this way.' Always like this. When you are mentally pushed into a corner like that, you have no choice but to go berserk. We quarreled every day. He never violently attacked me one-sidedly, but we grappled with each other sometimes. He even bit me on the ear. But, you know, you can't do something stupid like this without love and energy. I can't bite the ears of my apprentices... But with Ryoji, I felt I was connected with him by shared values and we trusted each other. I stayed with him for three years.

When I was there, he was about 45 years old. I think that was the time when Ryoji made his best works. What I regret, however, is that neither our generation nor the younger generation don't know what Ryoji Koie has done and how much freedom he has given us and next generations. Since I watched him closely, I want people to know more about how he broke down the authoritarian situation of the time, and I want them to see his works at his best.  So whenever I have the opportunity, I show them a collection of Ryoji's works and talk to them about him and how he made us free. But, you know, many of his words and artworks in the books are exciting and these are kind of works that are never-before-seen, and people tend to focus only on those kinds of works. But at the same time, he also could make ordinary plates or cups that make people naturally pick up often. I think that is the real power of his works. Without those three years I spent at his place, I would not be where I am today. But it wasn't given to me by others; I found that out by myself, I found Ryoji Koie for myself, and I chose to go there on my own. I don't think Ryoji Koie would have come to me if I hadn't sought it all out. The quote from Ryoji always in my heart is, 'Potter's wheel is a recording of emotions.' I still cherish this word very much. 


Ⅲ. Asia, Tokoname (Aichi prefecture)

Soon after I became independent, Yumi and I got together and Shohei was born. Neither Yumi nor I wanted to do anything else that would take our time away, so we didn't do part-time jobs. I still hadn't made anything uniquely from me at all, but I believed I could make a living from what I made anyway. I had a lot of frustrations, but I didn't worry too much about making a living. I thought we wouldn't starve to death, and we would be able to get by. Yumi has always said that daily life is important, and we wanted to make a life for ourselves. I think I was influenced by Yumi in that. Before being together with her, I didn't care much about daily life, and I wasn't a kind of person who would take care of the house, I think. We were both greedy for what we wanted to do, and after the birth of our son, we often quarreled over who would do the housework. We argued and talked many times, and gradually settled on the form we have now. So even now, it is my job to do the laundry in the morning and take it in in the evening.

When Shohei became one and a half years old, we took him with us to Thailand. After that, we often went to Asian countries and back to Tokoname while working. We first went to Thailand because Yumi knew people in a Thai band called the Caravan. There was a coup d'etat in Thailand in the 70's, and there was a resistance movement among students and people. Artists who fled from the government violence and hid in the jungle to engage in the resistance movement called the "Art for Life Movement," and the Caravan was involved in that movement. When Yumi told me about this, I was interested in these artists in Thailand who were fighting for freedom and who had a clear reason for expressing themselves, even under such difficult circumstances, and I wanted to meet them. So I went over there, and while socializing with these people, I was making artworks. One of them is a man named Vasan Sitthiket. He was from a generation close to ours. He painted, sang, and expressed himself with themes like social criticism that had a strong message. We were so moved by his work that we invited him to hold an exhibition in Japan. Eventually, my second child, Tai, was born, and while Tokoname was my base in Japan, we hoped to live and travel in Asia with my family as much as possible, earning as much as I could in Japan and then going back to Asia. I felt that there was something important in the rest of Asia that we Japanese people have lost.

Since that time, and even now, I have always thought that I would like to work for something that is close to our own and daily lives. Ryoji used to make objects or edgy unusable vessels, but we wanted to express ourselves in a way that was closer to ourselves, not intensely. Not in an authoritative way, but for daily life. Still, unlike now, I was making more edgy vessels back then.


IV. Taniai village (Kochi prefecture)

Even after the independence from Ryoji, I could not remove his influences from myself. I was making on his rhythm and groove, or rather, that was all I could do. I had not found myself yet. At around my 40, I was finally able to make something that was uniquely me. I felt a change in me and in my work then. I came to have a mind that maybe I could go deeper if I could have a feeling to enfold other people and could make my work hold the same feeling, rather than a strong, fist-raising expression like Ryoji and Vasan. I don't remember exactly when and what changed me, but when I began to feel affection, tolerance, and embrace toward others, the works I made changed little by little. It was the turning point when I was able to find myself apart from Ryoji's influence. After that happened, I felt that my relationship with Ryoji changed, or rather, I was released from the place where I had been struggling. I know that there is still a violent nature inside of me. But I think the reason I was able to control the fearful nature inside, or rather sublimate it was because I could choose this job. Making vessels is a way for me to dive deep into my own emotions.

I came to this Taniai village when I was 40 years old. Until then, my life had been centered in Asia, but I felt that we should make our own place in Japan. A friend of mine in Kochi City found this land for us. We spent the next three years building a wood-fired kiln, but for the first three years or so, no matter how many I made and fired, it never worked.  I was so frustrated and sad that I almost wanted to quit. I learned from experienced friends, and after gradually understanding how it works, I feel I'm going up. But there is still lots of unknown about the wood-fired kiln, so I really don't know what to expect. Since the kiln is that big, I have to work together with the help of young people, they can also gain experiences. Even now, I'm anxious until the vessels are out of the kiln.

I often tell my apprentices that it is not art if they are only made for themselves. You must think about what happens when you put your work outside of yourself, how you relate to society.  As long as you put it out into the world, it's shown what is the purpose of expressing it and making it. I want them to think about the meaning of their works. This is something I myself have been searching for. When I came into contact with what is called art, I experienced a tremendous shiver in my heart, and that experience helped me maintain my emotions, or rather, changed my emotions. That was a very big impact for me, and I think it is probably something in need for other people as well. That kind of thing happened to me, and I think it's very important. Now I believe I can do it to others. To make something moving the heart and hand it over to someone. To move the heart of someone else.

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