In many ways, the inspiration for Handful of Salt came about 18 months ago when I walked into Velvet da Vinci in San Francisco.
My foot was barely over the threshold when I stopped short. There, on a narrow wall, facing the front door, was a vertical column of black forms that looked like a cross between flowers and sea urchins. Very cool. Graphical. Arresting.
It was up-close that my head began to reel a bit. Each of the forms was intricate, delicate, wild, utterly unique, and utterly perfect. As I touched them (surreptitiously), I was sure they’d move a bit, so alive were they. But hand-forged steel doesn’t tend to move a whole lot.
Delicacy and edge: I am a complete and unrepentant sucker for the combination.
But wait (as they say on bad daytime TV), there’s more.
Each of the forms – some spiky and exuberant, some tight and self-contained, some curvy and endearing – managed to relate to the ones next to it. The combination at once celebrated the individuality of each form, while enhancing and elevating the group as a whole, the way plants do in a perfectly landscaped garden.
It was the perfect example of the work I’d been dreaming of: a blend of fine (very fine) craft skills, the urgency and excitement of contemporary design, and the eye of an artist who knew how to make each of the delicate forms work together, and together tell a story, and send a message.
It was (and is) my “it” in contemporary craft. A shiver still runs down my spine at the memory.
So in the meantime, I got to work finding out a little bit more about the artist, Junko Mori.
Born in Yokohama, Japan, she received a degree at Musashino Art University, one of the leading art schools in Japan. She received a further degree at Camberwell College of the Arts in London (“in spite of my poor English” she says.) Since then, she’s been the recipient of multiple awards, (including awards from the Crafts Council) and exhibited widely. Her work’s been featured in gallery shows (SOFA, the Armory Show, etc) and at the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In addition to the black forged steel multiples I saw that day at Velvet da Vinci, she works extensively in silver, crafting achingly detailed (but thoroughly modern) renditions of pinecones and fanciful organisms (each petal or spike tipped in silver), candelabrum and larger (but still small scale) sculptures.
Nature, obviously, is her theme. Junko’s interest in organisms harkens back to her childhood, when she used to spend time looking through her brother’s microscope, and then later at school when she had what she calls the “spooky” experience of staring through the lens of a professional microscope, watching the cells of a micro-organism divide.
But, then, nature is a theme for so many makers.
What sets Junko’s work apart is her meticulous craftsmanship (all those petals are formed individually, and then assembled with the aid of a TIG welder), her eye for detail, and the energy and emotion that pulse through each piece.
Her principal dealer, Adrian Sassoon in London, (who also carries work by the wonderfully talented Hiroshi Suzuki) characterized her work perfectly. “Junko Mori’s work is insanely detailed and immaculately finished. The way in which she manages to make cold, hard metal appear to move, almost seeming alive, is testimony to her skill as both a maker and her understanding of nature.”
Junko now lives and works in Wales. (Sounds incredibly romantic to me.) She traced her journey for me via email.
Right after art school, you became a welder in a small factory. What was that like? Hard, but not too hard. I was the youngest, and all the workers treated me well. I enjoyed it a lot. Becoming a welder after art university was the most practical and important decision that I made in my life.
I’m going out on a limb here and guess that there’s a big difference between working as an artist in the UK versus Japan. Yes, lots of differences! The work I made for my degree in Japan was assessed by different teachers as craft, or as sculpture, or as an object etc.
I became fed up with this nonsense. (We hear you on that one.)
I believed that what I was making was not about answering those academic questions. When I researched metalwork in the world, the UK makers’ works caught my eye: works by people such as Amanda Bright, Chris Knight and Hans Stofer. It was a combination of variety and freedom of expression with a really great level of making skills. This was the reason for my decision to come to the UK.
I never worked as an artist in Japan, so I am not sure how different it really is between here and there. But I think there are many makers in metal who fit both in the traditional craft and in fine art sectors. I like the freedom in the UK to not have to categorize what I do as one thing or another.
How has your work evolved over the years? What are you most excited about now? Your statement from a couple of years ago talks about Uncontrollable Beauty (LOVE that). Is it still the same? Interestingly, I just decided to go back to the words Uncontrollable Beauty, and started making a new series under the same title. Having tried working in the public art sector, I realized that I should work as a studio craftsman rather than managing projects.
Then I moved to North Wales last year, which is very rural. So there are so many new ideas blossoming in my head. Living surrounded by nature and near the seaside has always been my dream. So now I use this opportunity to develop new work.
We’ve interviewed so many people for whom time in Japan changed their lives. You had a stint in Australia (a residency at the Canberra School of Art). How did that affect your work? Australian life was a turning point for me. I was a workaholic–a proud workaholic. It was the first time that I felt embarrassed about working so hard. Australians know how to enjoy life! (I’d never heard that.) Without that experience, I would not have moved to Wales.
Do you collect anything? If so, what, and by whom? And, if you can tell me….why? Succulent or alpine plants. They live with me everywhere. This is totally influenced by my childhood admiration of Nausicca (Hayao Miyazaki’s film and anime), and her study in the deep basement filled with collections of plants. (We can see that. Perfect.)
And who would play you in the movie of your life? Jennifer Beals / Flashdance, I wish!!
What was the best gift you received? What’s the best gift you’ve given? Best gift received: plants. But I don’t remember what I have given.
What’s the first thing you reach for in the morning? My son, Denis, who is 10 months old! Well, he is not a thing, but he is so cute!
Otherwise unattributed images courtesy of Junko Mori