Meet the Artist: Mari Kuroda
Where are you currently based?
I have been living in a small town southwest of Cleveland, but unlike many small towns in the Midwest, it is rich with music, theater, and the visual arts thanks to active art communities. I am constantly inspired by my surroundings.
Tell us about your process-what materials do you use, what techniques?
I fell in love with clay when I was in college. My professor was a production potter before teaching at the college. It was fascinating to watch him throw a large lump of clay effortlessly and tap upside down leather hard pieces into the center of the wheel for trimming. I was lucky to find a clay class the city offered when I went back to my hometown in Japan. There I learned more throwing and handbuilding skills. When I came back to the States for an MFA program, I was ready to explore the conceptual side of my art with sculptures.
Where do you draw the most inspiration for your work?
Everytime I have gone through changes in my life, new ideas and images have emerged. I sketch them as quickly as I can to capture the essence of what I want to express. Using clay slabs, I construct small scale sculptures, some figurative and others architectural. Some of the figurative sculptures take the form of Japanese women in kimonos which are decorated in rich Japanese inspired patterns. I paint them in detail using small brushes and underglazes. Sometimes the design comes to me quickly and other times it takes weeks.
Along with sculptures, I keep making pottery to sell. I have two staple lines of work: Leaf (ginko and Japanese maple) and Cat. The former line is done by impressing real leaves onto leather hard clay, sealing the edges, peeling off leaves, then painting with underglazes like watercolor. Since I use real leaves, this line is only produced in late spring through summer. The latter line is done by painting cats in sumi-e style on one side and writing a Chinese character for cat on the other side. I also make one-of-a-kind pottery that is similar to my sculptures in a sense that after I construct pieces with slabs and fire them once, I paint intricate patterns. My Japanese-influenced designs are drawn from nature such as plants, flowers, insects and so on. I longed for spring last winter so badly that I painted plum blossoms on thrown pots. They made me so happy and hopeful that they have become recurring designs. Then came the abstracted dragonfly and now the layered leaves. To sum up my third “line”, I use the surface of pottery as a canvas, and my focus after coming up with images is color combinations, composition, and balance.
How did you become a full-time artist, is it something you always dreamt of doing?
I am actually not a full-time artist. I have part-time work at a local art gallery, teach pottery classes when asked, and spend as much time as possible working on my pieces. After receiving my MFA, I have had different jobs: artist-in-residence, adjunct faculty at a community college, ceramics teacher at art centers, studio assistant for a potter in town, and substitute teacher at K-12 schools.
Around 2001, I started working at a gallery, giving me a window to the outside world, for I don’t leave my small town very often and I treasure this experience.
In 2004, my husband and father in-law built me a beautiful studio where I can be creative, productive, and enjoy giving pottery lessons. Over the years, I have had many students of all ages (3-70 something) and enjoyed teaching every one of them. Unlike school, I can help with what they want to make and everyone is there because they want to. Best of all, there are no grades!
Having these two facets of my life provides me enough stimulation and motivation for my creative work. New ideas for pottery emerge from conversations with people. Improvement on my own pieces can be made upon customers’ suggestions. Not that I am easily swayed by what I hear, but I do appreciate and accept suggestions at my own discretion.
Though I didn’t plan my dream life, I am grateful that it happened.
How has your work/inspiration evolved or taken on new meanings over time?
My work has always reflected my personal life: memories from home in Japan, turmoil during the divorce, gratitude for my supportive community, joys and heartaches of raising children, and realization of existing as a part of the whole. The idea that we are connected to each other, to our communities near and far, and to our surroundings, has become the new inspiration of my next series. To be honest, it has been on my mind for a few years, but never materialized and I decided to put it on the back burner for a while. Now I feel the fog is slowly lifting and concrete images are emerging in my mind.
What do you find to be the most rewarding part of the process? The most challenging?
The most rewarding part is when I open the lid of my kiln after glaze firing and see finished work in one piece and colors are the way I imagined. I always tell my students not to get attached to their pieces until they hold the finished piece out of the final(glaze) firing and this leads to the most challenging. Working with clay takes several steps. In my case, they are; forming, drying, bisque firing, painting, glazing, and glaze firing. Something can go wrong at any point. Just to give you an example, if you attach a handle to a slightly over dried mug, where you attach the handle could crack. To prevent it, you have to monitor the drying piece closely. Things can also go wrong in firing such as glazes being too thick, silica sand getting stuck on the bottom of the piece, the lid gettting sealed shut because of a small amount of glaze left uncleaned, or something completely unexpected happening. The ritual that I perform at every firing is praying to my three kiln gods.
How did you start to find your own artistic voice? What advice do you have for an artist struggling with that?
My father laid a track for me to walk on. He wanted me to fulfill his dream of coming to America to study English. As a school girl, I liked English, music and visual art classes, so following his dream made sense to me. Our plan was that I would finish junior college in Japan and transfer my credits to a sister school in Ohio to receive a 4 year college degree. My mission was to graduate, go back to Japan, and teach English at my father’s tutoring school. Once I arrived at the college, I was free to major in anything of my choosing. I was fortunate to take a fundamental design class during the first term, because the professor persuaded me to be an art major and volunteered to be my advisor. I ended up graduating with a BFA. I did go home upon graduation and taught English for three years to complete my mission!
Looking back now, those years I spent learning skills from various teachers and visiting different pottery studios in Japan helped me find my artistic voice at the graduate school in Texas. I was able to concentrate on listening to my inner voice, for I had already acquired the necessary skills to execute my ideas. Long story short, I found my own artistic voice at graduate school in the late 80s.
My advice to young artists is to build a solid foundation in the field you are interested in. Because, unless you have good skills, it is difficult to convey your inner voice. In terms of finding your own artistic voice, I believe that everyone processes it, everyone has their own way to find it, and no one way is better or worse than others. My way was to be exposed to all sorts of art from all surroundings from museums to private homes, observant of changes in life, curious about the world around me, and listen to even a whisper inside me with care.