Sitting in her Oxford studio, ceramist Jynsym Ong reminisces on her two-year apprenticeship in Karatsu, Japan, a once-in-a-lifetime experience awarded to seven UK-based artists by the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation each year. It came after an intense but rewarding two-year stint at the renowned Clay College in Stoke-on-Trent – the epicentre of British potteries – learning first-hand from a coveted list of makers from all around the UK and abroad.
“I lived in a traditional Japanese house at the foot of Mount Kagami, which means Mirror Mountain,” says Jynsym, of the immersive experience. Each day she would cycle to the home and studio of her master, Mitoh-san, through verdant paddy fields and an ancient pine forest. “My days were 9am-9pm, six days a week, so I’d often be biking home in the dark and would occasionally meet wild boar that ran alongside me. My master told me that I was usually quite safe with the wild boars as they were cowards, but the monkeys were the ones to watch out for!”
Mitoh-san has been a huge influence on Jynsym’s craft. “She showed me how she lives and works in harmony with the seasons and her surroundings,” says Jynsym. “She would make and process almost all of her materials herself, by hand. I came to learn that the best time to look for clay was in the spring before the young perennials got too big.”
Together they would make rice straw ash after the harvest, going into the fields to bundle the straw left by the threshing machine, tying them into self-supporting cones to dry in the sun for a month before being burnt to make ash for glazes. “We had certain jobs to do at certain times of the year, we worked with nature and did not try to battle against it.”
That ethos of working with nature continues in her work today – albeit in the very different setting of Oxford. “My home is full of pots made by friends that they have given me or we have swapped,” she says. “I really treasure the Japanese pots that I collected whilst living over there, and hope to add to my collection one day. Those are pots by my Master Rui Mitoh but also Kota Tanaka, Toru Hatta, Shikamaru Takeshita, Tani Q and Yoji Yamada.”
Jynsym’s studio is tucked-away in a complex of artist studios in Cowley, a ten minute bike ride away from her home. It’s a beautiful space lined with Japanese exhibition posters and collected illustrations. “I have a postcard of Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn to remind me not to be too precious about things.” Also covering an entire wall is her collection of lawns for sieving glazes. “They are all meshes of different grades, which is why I have so many,” she says. “I like to explore mark-making in my work so have collected many brushes, of different materials, shapes and sizes. They are mostly from Japan, although some I have made myself out of rice straw.”
It’s from here that she creates her pieces for TOAST – a succinct collection of homewares all thrown on a wheel with her expert eye: a cup, vase, teapot and pestle and mortar. “I have tried to recreate some of the qualities that you get from wood firings,” she explains. She works her magic with glazes made from wood ash and local, high iron clays, applying slips with a rice straw brush she made in Karatsu.
Jynsym’s main inspiration for her work is the very people her vessels are destined for. ‘I’m constantly thinking about how people use and interact with objects,” she explains. “I like observing how people make use of the things they have, and the stories they tell behind them. How the objects become stories, and the stories become history.”
Interview by Vishaka Robinson
Photographs by Suzie Howell and courtesy of Jynsym Ong.
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