For Japan-born ceramist Hiroko Aono-Billson, life is in flux. She and her husband will soon leave their home for the last decade, a pretty Georgian property on the north side of Norwich, for a new life in Brighton. But tranquillity of her bijou home studio, where she typically spends five hours each day making, belies any changes. The light-filled space sits in the south-facing extension off her bedroom. “It is not that big,” she says. “It’s more the size of a walk-in wardrobe, but I have it as my workspace, with three tables and all my clay and equipment.”
It’s an enclave of creativity: layers of just-fired ceramics perch inside a wooden postal cabinet (a treasured find from Looses Emporium, a local antique shop); Begonias, Geraniums and a large fig jostle alongside colourful paintings on the walls, created when Hiroko studied for her Foundation course at Camberwell College of Arts. At the heart of the space is her constant companion – a 10-year-old, black and white cat Lionel who Hiroko calls ‘studio cat’. “He used to be very independent and angry, but now he has mellowed – that said, he is still a cat with an attitude! He will sit on my chair the moment I stand up and watch me carefully while I work.”
Growing up in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands, set the foundations for Hiroko's preoccupation with ceramics. As a child she would often accompany her mother on buying trips around the island. “Pottery is integral in Japan. We have lots of amazing potteries and my mother collected many pieces. When I was little she was a great cook – she always had beautiful pots to put food in. I think that is where my love of pottery comes from. Mealtimes weren’t just about food, it was the whole process: the beautiful plates, the rice bowl, the chopsticks. All these things are part of the joy of the meal. It becomes a ceremony each time.”
The trio of vessels Hiroko has created for TOAST are all hand-built. They take their cues from the Mingei movement, the Japanese philosophy of finding beauty within folk art and people’s crafts. Each is made made from her favourite earthenware red clay: a soup bowl, a plate and a pleasingly large ‘pomegranate jar’ - so named as it bears a striking likeness to the tropical fruit, and in homage to the pomegranate tree which grew in the backyard of Hiroko's childhood home. It is made by carefully coiling row upon row of clay. Each one takes between around 15 hours to build and decorate.
The pieces are then painted over with a white slip, then sgraffito patterns are applied using different tools and a painterly eye. The other pieces use an inlay technique where the lines are firstly coloured with slip, then the excess slip is removed to reveal the inlaid patterns. “The size and type of mark depends on how I want the piece to look. They are spontaneous – I don’t tend to make a plan, and they evolve as I work with each piece.” The final step is a coating of Hiroko’s signature honey glaze, which has been a constant in her work for the last four years. “It gives them this beautiful shine and transparent yellow colour. I think I love the warmth of it. When I look at it I'm reminded of the warmth of sunlight – maybe it’s to do with the weather here that I keep returning to it!”
Hiroko and her husband Nigel Aono-Billson (a graphic designer, who has recently begun a new role at Brighton University) are searching for a new home in the South but have grown hugely attached to this corner of Norfolk. Hiroko is a familiar face locally, having run her popular Japanese lifestyle store KOBO A-B, which sold a curated mix of ceramics, art, stationery and Boro textiles, as well as being a hub for creative workshops. She has no plans to reopen a brick and mortar space when the big move to the seaside happens, but plans for a twice-yearly pop-up, as well as continuing to run occasional mending workshops.
Always on the lookout for fresh inspiration, Hiroko finds much to admire during her yearly visits back to Japan and normally pays a pilgrimage to Okayama, where the Kurashiki Folkcraft Museum is based, housed within a 1940s rice granary. She also visits Barbara Hepworth’s studio in St. Ives, and the gardens at Great Dixter in East Sussex. “And I am desperate to get to Kettle's Yard in Cambridge one day.”
Her latest project is a tea ceremony set, for which she will make components, and collaborate with a woodworker. “My father used to take me to tea ceremony lessons when I was a teen every Sunday. I didn’t enjoy it! But as I grow older I appreciate the philosophy and ritual. It's all about inner peace and appreciating and respecting things and other people. It’s really fascinating and is something I think more of as I grow older.”
Interview by Vishaka Robinson.
Photographs by Suzie Howell.
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