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Jen Kuroki (Jen E)

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Los Angeles based ceramicist Jen Kuroki (Jen E) has been a student and educator of ceramics for over 15 years, spending 3 years studying and living in Japan. Those years in Japan molded her into the maker she is today. Living in Yokohama and Tokyo, she studied under, and worked beside two Japanese potters, Kawaide Hisao (Nagoya) and Funakoshi Tamotsu (Nagano). She was trained to throw on a banding wheel and to man an anagama kiln (wood-burning). Jen's whimsical style was developed during this time, incorporating the vernacular of contemporary visual culture with a sense of tradition and history. She also became an enthusiast of the Japanese concept of shibui, which refers to a certain aesthetic of simple, subtle and subdued beauty.



Funakoshi Sensei loading the anagama kiln


Interior of the anagama kiln


Front of Funakoshi Sensei's studio in Japan


Hachioji studio in Japan


Jieitai exhibition in Japan


Salt and sake blessing altar for the kiln Gods



Jen strives to maintain relevancy and modern-day appeal through the ornamentation of her pieces. "When thinking about my work, I always go back to the words of Soetsu Yanagi: In the East the foundation is in the heart and its inspiration, which to the Western mind, with its emphasis on the intellect, must appear very strange, for the Eastern man jumps to his conclusions on wings of intuition.” Yanagi is the founder of mingei or the arts of the people in Japan. Jen takes this philosophy and creates functional forms that then organically develop and transform with decoration and whimsy. And although she usually maps out her designs, she always stays open to spontaneous forms and surface treatments. "I try to trust my intuition and as corny as it sounds, I try to think less and feel more".




So did Jen always feel drawn to ceramics? In the early days, she says she was hesitant to even touch clay. Being involved with graphics and computers as well as considering herself a painter, she felt the tactile nature of ceramics would be too uncomfortable.  When she started working with clay at UCLA as an undergrad, she even stayed away from the wheel and only did handbuilding. In those days, she produced art objects with concepts. Function was not a main concern. It wasn’t until years later that she was introduced to the wheel and started creating utilitarian ceramic pieces. Then, the tactile quality of the clay and the physicality of building and throwing had her hooked.


For Jen, functionality is now in the forefront of her thoughts. She prefers to make utilitarian pieces that are meant to be viewed, used, felt and heard. Although, coming from a graphic design background, she also likes to incorporate graphic elements and color in her pieces. Whimsy and function go hand-in-hand, as Jen creates objects that are not meant to be precious. "I want you to have fun with them…they don’t like cupboards".


Functional and whimsical Beastie Bud Vase



Blue Dot Vase



Being trained as a graphic designer, Jen spent most of her days on the computer which led to chronic back problems. Ceramic classes initially served as physical therapy as well as a respite from sitting in front of a glowing screen. Clay not only helped heal her body but it became a lifestyle and a means to producing art. Jen was also involved in painting and illustrating, so with clay, she was finally able to merge all her means of art production into her ceramic objects.


Polka Dot Vase


Black Rimmed Pod Vase 



What advice would Jen give to someone wanting to try ceramics? "I find that ceramics is a lot like snowboarding. The first time is always a disaster but the second time is exponentially better than the last. You can’t give up and you can’t cheat time. Your hands have memory, so at some point, they take over. They will start working on their own and feeling comfortable making certain movements."  She says most beginners have issues with seeing vs. feeling. For example, when centering, one of the hardest stages for beginners, she recommends closing your eyes. "Trust your hands, not your eyes, and you will be able to work with the clay, not against it. Breathe". And finally, she says "always remember that your two separate hands need to work as one solid tool - try to have them connected at all times".


What's Jen's favorite thing about being in the studio? "Sitting on the stool in front of my Shimpo wheel with a ball of clay is so exciting. The possibilities are endless. When I walk in my studio, I become fearless and although there are many pieces that don’t ever leave those four walls, I have fun just making. I’m not afraid to fail and in that sense, I never do. The process itself becomes very meditative and the satisfaction of throwing a new shape or even an old form is unmatched by very few things. I’m lucky to have my studio in my backyard and it looks out into my garden. It’s a little haven in the middle of the big city".



Jen's studio in Los Angeles


How does living in California affect her style and work? Jen says the one marked difference in her work today is that she incorporates so much color. Her parents had a lot of California Pottery growing up and she still feels a certain comfort when she comes across all those brightly colored ceramics. "I’m a California girl through and through and I think it’s reflected in my work". One of Jen's favorite activities is hiking: "I love to be physical and I love being outdoors. I try and find new trails all the time in Griffith Park, Palos Verdes, Altadena....there are a ton of places here in L.A".  She finds inspiration in the most mundane things, like dripping sap, patterns on different leaves, the patina of a water tank, river rocks. "You never know what you are going to see".


Griffith Park





Palos Verde






Tide Pools - Palos Verde



What are a few of Jen's favorite things to do in the neighborhood? "Scoops Ice Cream is just down the street - bad geography for someone with an extreme weakness for ice cream!" she says. And on Sundays, it's likely you'll find her at the Larchmont Farmers Market.




Kitchen Tool Canister