Yuki Nara was born in 1989 in Kanazawa city, Ishikawa prefecture. He is the eldest son of Ohi Chozaemon XI, the direct descendant of a long line of renowned ceramicists making Ohi-yaki pottery, whose history reaches back to the Edo period (1603–1868). Having specialized in architecture as an undergraduate and postgraduate student at Tokyo University of the Arts, he is both a ceramic artist and an architect. We spoke to Nara to find out how he creates the unique beauty of form in his artworks and how he cultivated his singular perspective.
The Path to Architecture and Ceramics
“In a way, I was brought up with a laissez-faire approach,” Nara says, looking back at his childhood. “I was lucky. If I’d been told that ‘this is how arts and crafts should be’ when I was little, I wouldn’t have known any other way.”
Until his final year of senior high school, his life revolved around baseball. His family never pressed him to be a ceramicist. At one point, he aspired to become an architect.
The support from his father, who is also active as a contemporary artist, was a major factor in Nara’s decision to set his sights on architecture. “Just as I was starting to get interested in the field, he put me in touch with an acquaintance of his who works as an architect. It was encouraging.”
Even so, the environment Nara grew up in was undoubtedly full of the presence and the charms of pottery. When he was in his first year of postgraduate school, he visited back home and suddenly felt an awakening: “I might give pottery a try.” He took a leave of absence for two years and went to study ceramics at the Tajimi City Pottery Design and Technical Centre.
In 2017, Nara completed his postgraduate studies with the highest honours. Currently, he runs his own architecture office and is active as a ceramic artist. His approach to his work is influenced by what his grandfather, Ohi Chozaemon X, told him in the past.
“While I was at university, my grandfather would always tell me, ‘Look for something only you can do.’ He was also a student at Tokyo University of the Arts, so I felt close to him.”
What Nara gained from these experiences feed into his practice now, which combines the design methods of architecture and the traditional techniques of pottery.
“Bone Flower”: The Story Behind His Signature Style
Nara’s debut work, “Bone Flower,” received critical acclaim. The hard, delicate layers of the piece create an intricate interplay of light and shadow, shaping a form that blends naturally into the air and the space around it. It gives the impression of lightness and transparency, rather than the sense of weight that is common in ceramics.
At first, he was striving for a pure white artwork, but he gradually realised that using a colour that doesn’t exist in nature somehow feels out of place. He experimented with mixing in a bit of the Ohi clay from his family kiln and created a more natural tone, closer to skin colour.
He remembers the process of arriving at this ideal tone.
“My work has a rather delicate structure tapering to sharp points, so at first I was looking for a way to strengthen the material. In Ohi-yaki, there’s a technique in which you pull out the red-hot piece from the kiln right in the middle of firing and soak it in water. The Ohi clay has the durability to survive that process. So I wondered whether mixing in Ohi clay could make a material that is supple yet strong.”
While experimenting with the proportions of the clay mixture, Nara discovered that the “whiteness also changed.” In 2019, he arrived at his current style. Through all the trial and error, the foundation of his practice changed dramatically.
“When I was getting ready to apply for university, there was a time when I just didn’t get any better at drawing buildings no matter how much I practiced. I kept on repeating the trial-and-error process, and eventually that led to some discovery, a breakthrough. The memory of that experience is still fresh in my mind. Even now, I make time to create and deconstruct in turns.”
“Creating something is not always about steadily moving forward,” says Nara. “Retreating or deconstructing is one form of creation. I want to challenge myself to create like that.”
This insatiable thirst for exploration—always striving to deconstruct and reconstruct established methods—suffuses his practice and creations with their own unique personality.
Cultivating Multifaceted Perspectives and Multidisciplinary Activities Leads to Unfaltering Individuality
“I want to take ceramics to the next level,” says Nara. He is energetic in his collaborations with artists in other genres. To him, his practice isn’t just in the field of ceramics, but straddles multiple disciplines as a compound whole.
“It’s fun to explore—bringing in the essence of different fields, finding the right balance, and gradually refining my own technique. The history of pottery goes back for tens of thousands of years, and our predecessors have continually explored new forms of expression. In order to come up with innovations in pottery, there’s no way forward but to incorporate the techniques and ideas of other fields.”
Nara recently worked together with the flower artist Nicolai Bergmann for an exhibition in Minami-Aoyama, Tokyo (to be held from 15th December 2021 to 14th January 2022), and in 2022, he will hold a solo exhibition showcasing his collaboration with the furniture brand ROLF BENZ (from 23rd October to 3rd November). Crossing over disciplinary boundaries, Nara says, “My originality lies in having a hybrid view across various genres.”
Nara—who also works in the world of architecture, which requires space on a larger scale as well as teamwork—says that “There are things in common between the approach needed in architecture and that of pottery.” In the future, he is planning to focus more on creating spaces for installations or exhibitions.
Nara explores the art of ceramics and his creative practice with a broad perspective. He is sure to continue expanding his unique voice, enticing us with his innovative, eye-opening artworks.