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Why We Love the Ethereal Pottery of Naomi Yasui

Her pinched porcelain vases—free from almost all surface decoration—are pure texture and form

Naomi Yasui

Yasui works a piece of clay to remove air bubbles.
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)

“In a lot of ways I don’t feel as though I’m in control of my aesthetic,” confesses Toronto-based ceramicist Naomi Yasui. “Or rather, I can’t take credit for the beauty that comes through.” Her works—pinched porcelain vases, free from almost all surface decoration—are pure texture and form, and worlds away from the clunkier brown-speckled pottery of the ’70s.

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Flattened forms fired in an electric kiln during Yasui’s recent residency in Denmark.
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)

Ceramic art is currently in high-​renaissance mode, if this spring’s T: The New York Times Style Magazine feature “The New Ceramicists” and Juergen Teller’s ceramic-tile-laden fall 2013 campaign for Céline are any indication. Sophisticated pieces have cropped up from a whole new group of artists, including Yasui, whose most recent works were shown at Toronto’s ESP gallery in November.

Pottery wasn’t love at first spin. Having studied at the Ontario College of Art and Design, Yasui, now 30, excelled in both jewellery and textiles but found herself frustrated by clay: “Clay teaches you what it wants to do, what it’s capable of. It shrinks, it moves, colours change in the firing.” She explains that with most art you are taught to conceptualize ideas and then put them into practice, but with ceramic art, there is a certain element of bowing to “process, form and happenstance.” This same unpredictability eventually drew Yasui into a “lifelong journey of learning to be open and experimental.”

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The ceramicist at the wheel.
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)

She starts shaping each piece at a potter’s wheel, using mostly porcelain (though she’s moving into stoneware). She prefers to keep the clay white, with clear glaze: “I love bare clay the most.” Then she fires it in one of her electric kilns for eight to 12 hours, allowing the same amount of time for cooling before she can open the kiln and inspect the results.

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Tools of the trade, including Yasui’s favourite sponges for smoothing.
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)

To get to her studio, Yasui pedals across Toronto to an industrial workspace in the Junction neighbourhood: a beautiful bright glass box that seems to hover above the west-end treetops and downtown skyline. “I’ve witnessed the most epic sunsets and snowstorms here,” says Yasui, fresh off a short residency at Guldagergaard International Ceramic Research Center in Skælskør, Denmark, which she describes as “two months of glorious experimentation with new materials and new firing processes.” As part of this residency, she loaded a wood-fired kiln (her first time using one) and revelled in the difference between hitting start and walking away from her electric kilns at home, and “being with the kiln for every second, listening to it, feeding it and watching the flames.” She shows me an ethereal pastel-inflected porcelain vase, turning it to reveal a cobalt-blue mark on the side. “That’s where it touched someone else’s work in the kiln. I love that.”

Naomi Yasui Pottery wheel

Manipulating a piece.
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)

Yasui, whose focus is on art, not functional pieces, has an artistic pedigree—her grandfather was a textile designer, her grandmother was a weaver, and both her parents are collectors—and credits her upbringing, during which the importance of “attention to detail, subtlety, craftsmanship and an ongoing love of learning” was instilled, for cultivating her fascination with objects and their meanings. (Unsurprisingly, her sister is an archaeologist.)

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A vase from a wood-fired kiln. “The porcelain went in with no glaze and emerged with lots of soft pinks, greens, blues and purples.” 
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)

Yasui lists everyone from painter Giorgio Morandi to Martha Stewart as influences (like the latter, Yasui writes, sews, bakes and gardens). She holds original DIY-movement leader Constance Spry—a Brit who rose to fame in the mid-20th-century, largely for transforming stiff floral arrangements into loose, dynamic works of art—in highest regard. Indeed, “Open your mind to every form of beauty,” a popular Spry-ism, also handily describes Yasui’s appreciation for the unexpected charm found in the cracks, folds and discolouration that occur in the kiln.

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A collection of test pieces Yasui fired in a soda kiln, which creates a distinct glaze effect.
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)

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By tracking the glazes she uses, Yasui can study the results to achieve similar effects in the future.
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)

Naomi Yasui Pottery

Brushes for fusing and smoothing clay.
(Photo: Kristin Sjaarda)