Today we are delighted and honored to share an interview with one of our favorite ceramists, Jonathan Yamakami. Jonathan has shown his work at Craft Contemporary’s annual CLAY LA event and Holiday Marketplace, as well as in the shop, and his exquisite and sculptural work is widely admired by a large and ever-growing following.
“My work focuses on handbuilt and wheelthrown vessels, drawing from the raw form and textural abundance of sea creatures, botanical life, and geological formations. Figures from my childhood in Brazil, occasionally intertwined with mythical characters, are also present in my pieces. While my background in graphic design informs my search for textures and forms, I prefer to embrace a more intuitive process of making and value the unexpected.”
Follow Jonathan on Instagram @jonathan.yamakami. View available works in our store.
How long have you been working with clay, and what drew you to ceramics?
I took my very first “introduction to ceramics” class in 2017 in Eugene, Oregon. I had just quit a job in Washington DC and had moved to the West Coast because of my partner’s work. I thought that learning a new activity would help me settle down in this new town while I looked for a job. The University of Oregon had an amazing Craft Center – which included a pottery studio – open to students and community. At that point, I'd been working professionally as a graphic designer for over a decade, staring at computer screens all day. Clay felt like the opposite of that: I could create an object with my hands, something that I could touch in front of me, simply for the joy of making.
What does your creative process look like – how do you develop ideas and techniques? Where do you draw inspiration from?
I usually work very intuitively, which stems from what I mentioned earlier, about having a design practice that was more “cerebral” and wanting my ceramics practice to be lighter in a way. More often than not, when I start making things, I don’t have a very clear idea in mind. Or that idea can be as vague as “I’d like to make something wide and short” or there’s a specific volume or curve that intrigues me. And sometimes, that’s how I arrive at a form that I like. Sometimes I get there by mistake… Once that happens I will try to make that form again and again, and then I try variations of it. A few things that I found useful:
• Paulus Berensohn’s book, “Finding One’s Way With Clay.” Particularly the suggestion that you can start pinching a “random” piece of clay (as opposed to a ball, which is how we usually start when we first learn to make a pinch pot) – that has led to many interesting discoveries, I think.
• I had a class with Nancy Skolos at RISD in which we started by making small collages out of cut-up magazines. The collage part was meant to be an intuitive process. Later on we were to look at our collages and then we would start zooming in and identifying areas that had something interesting going on. Maybe a certain shape looked like type, maybe it was an interesting juxtaposition of forms, etc. We would then apply this discovery to a new piece of work… Anyways, at least that’s one of the things I took from that class, which is to say that things may begin in a random, intuitive process but of course our eye (and hands in the case of clay) will lead us to a point where that becomes something else.
• I took as many classes as I could after that first “introduction to ceramics” class. Classes on wheelthrowing, handbuilding, surface decoration, etc. Last year I took a wonderful sculpture class with Carol Horst at Green & Bisque in Pasadena, and then a series of online workshops hosted by Gasworks, a studio in NYC. Sometimes you take a class and there’s one thing, a single thing that you learn, that has such a profound impact on your way of making. That’s pretty amazing.
Your work seems to be constantly evolving as you explore new shapes, materials, and techniques, yet you have a very distinctive style. How do you understand the development of your work over time, and where do you see your practice moving in the future? What are you working on now and are there any new directions you’re interested in exploring?
I appreciate that you feel I have a distinctive style. I also feel torn about the idea of having a style. I say that because I feel that it can become restrictive or repetitive – I fear getting stuck into working in a certain way, or making things look a certain way. Because there’s a comforting side to that as well. When you find something and you feel it “works,” it’s comforting to keep doing that (and of course you also learn by making things over and over again)… But right now what I’m trying to go back to is that lightness I mentioned earlier. Trying to explore more and being okay that certain things will “fail.”
I’m also interested in going back to the wheel and throwing again which is something I haven’t done in months. I go through phases when I only handbuild and other phases when I only throw – and the brain does work differently and in a way ideas come up differently too. I also would like to explore making objects that aren’t functional. I think I’ve always been committed to making things that were functional (even if they were impractically functional) and I’d like to let go of that.
You are also a book designer. How do you balance your graphic design work with your ceramics practice? How do you experience the interplay between these two modes of expression in your work?
I work as a freelance book designer. Being a freelancer gives me flexibility to organize my schedule to a certain extent. It’s a little hard to quantify, but I’d say 60% of my time goes to ceramics and the rest to graphic design. That said, the design work has stricter deadlines that I have to prioritize.
The design work is very collaborative. I’m working with editors, illustrators, authors, production, etc. It’s team effort, it depends on other people’s schedule, it’s slower. The ceramics practice gives me more autonomy and solitude – two things that sound (for me) great, but it’s not always the case. A year ago I thought that I needed to do ceramics full-time in order to be "taken seriously." I later on realized that that was absurd. I’m happy with balancing these two things now.
You grew up in Brazil, have lived in India, and spent many years living and working on the East Coast. Now you’re in Los Angeles. What is it like to be an artist here? How has LA influenced or inspired your current work?
That’s an interesting question. It’s true that I lived in these different places but it’s also true that I have only come to use the term “artist” here in LA. (To be frank, I usually use the words "maker" or simply "ceramist" to describe myself.) What I can say is that I’ve found a great community of artists here. I’ve found great studios and resources. Events like CLAY LA are really special – for many reasons, including sales opportunities, but also for bringing together makers in LA. I’ve met so many artists through CLAY LA and I’m grateful for that.
I should've mentioned in the answer about creative process, but I draw a lot of inspiration from nature (like most ceramists!). The richness of this part of the world – flora, fauna, geology – definitely inspires me as well.
Are there any local ceramic artists whose work you’re particularly excited about?
SO MANY! Carol Horst, Socrates Medina (from Perro y Arena), Maryam Riazi, Cary Lockwood, Liz Navarro, Rami Kim, Sarah Koik, Taylor Lee… and many many more!
Photos courtesy of Jonathan Yamakami.