Uncovering Japanese Culture via Traditional Craft

Simone Bodmer-Turner is a potter and artist constantly on the go in search of inspiration. From Nepal to Cambodia to Japan, she has managed to capture colorful, candid moments of exchange through her camera lens, as well as share moments in humble potting studios across the continent that have welcomed her with open arms. Simone’s most recent trip took her to a small town in Japan where she spent 3 months focusing on clay hand-building and textiles; her works reflect a deep sense of observation and strong ties to the natural world. We sat down with the artist to get to know more about her time in Japan and her artistic process abroad.

Where are you now?

I’m in Cornwall, Connecticut at Cornwall Bridge Pottery working with Jordan Colon who does the dishes for a couple restaurants in New York City, including my favorite Okonomi. I’ll be staying for the week helping to glaze, load the kiln, and fire it. It’s morning now and has snowed overnight. I’m going to go on a walk in the woods before getting to work.

Tell us about your profession and how you manage to create your work abroad.

I’m lucky that the hand-building clay work and craft-based work (textiles, natural dyeing and carving) I do can be done anywhere and without many tools. The way I began selling my pottery is a way I am completely detached from now. I never want to do it again. It was through an online marketplace where someone could order any one of a set of pieces, then I would make them to order. I was doing pop ups and markets, too. Soon enough though I had to take a step back and think about what I wanted to be making, rather than making things that no longer felt true to me. My travels have really shifted this concept.

I choose places to travel to that hold a rich craft-based history and also seek out artistic opportunities in these places. Because of this I have been able to study the science of pottery and become an artist, on my own terms.

 

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You just spent the last 3 months in Japan, what drew you there initially?

I came to Japan in search of re-inspiration from a city that felt cluttered creatively, especially in the re-emerging art of pottery. I found myself asking, “what do people want to buy from me?” rather than, “what do I want to make”? Essentially I wanted to be able to work while I was traveling so I looked into residency programs which would be structured, cut the cost of living as a traveler and provide a studio and a kiln. I had also started a textile project on the first leg of my travels in Nepal and wanted to be able to continue this. The studio I found, Shiro Oni, worked with an anagama, a traditional Japanese wood burning kiln, something I had only researched, and also had sessions for other art forms. I wanted to explore my creativity in Japan in a way that was looser and more rooted in the natural world than I had previously done in New York.

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Recall for us any ideas/expectations you may have had before traveling to Japan.

I felt Japan’s culture to be deeply rooted in traditional craft. The Japanese craftsmen and women study with masters from the time they are young. They build their own practice, then teach it to a younger generation.

It is a beautiful way of handing down tradition and art. I also got a sense that the way the Japanese create was unpretentious and very much tied to listening to what the materials wanted to be, rather than forcibly shaping them into what an artist had envisioned. I came to admire this partnership, that way of working, and wanted to explore it for myself.

Tell us a bit about how you experienced Tokyo? Where did you stay there?

Since I was only a 2 hour train ride from Tokyo I took several day trips and stayed the night a handful of times at a guesthouse a friend recommended in the Ikebukuro area. I visited a wonderful boro museum housing very old garments and textiles in Tokyo called Amuse Museum. On another day trip I went to a kintsugi workshop where students learned how to use urushi and different pigments to mend broken pottery. The Tokyo Art Book Fair – a book hoarder’s dream -I blame for my overweight baggage fee at departure. There’s so much, it’s a wonderful city. You can really find whatever you’re looking for.

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What did you find out about Japan that surprised you?

What was universal, something I had an inkling about before I arrived but never expected the depth of, was the Japanese connectivity to the natural world. Sometimes to the point of superstition. It is the root of most thought and belief and is constantly honored. When we were firing the anagama, there was constantly flowers and a cup of sake on top of the kiln to honor the kiln gods. When the kiln was not getting up to temperature sake was splashed on the door. Honoring nature daily in these small ways is something I’m trying to bring into my own life

What is one of your favorite places in Japan and why?

A place that I hadn’t planned on going was Kamakura. It feels like the Montauk of Japan – south of Tokyo, on the water, with a surfer town vibe; lots of well curated shops and good restaurants. It was the capital of Japan before Kyoto (which came before Tokyo) so there are also many ancient shrines and temples; a really incredible collision of old and new.

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What advice would you give to someone pursuing a nomadic work life?

Save your money, in any fashion you can (I moved in with my parents for a summer and fall), then get on the road. Do your research and travel to places where the culture feels like an extension of a part of yourself you’re hoping to explore. Travel for as long as you can, and stay in fewer places for longer periods of time. I always find that the first month in one place is still such an adjustment period, you only really start settling in after that first month. It’s very important to get to know the local people, and it’s hard to do this if you’re only somewhere for a week or two. That being said, a little travel is still better than no travel at all. It only took spending one week in Nicaragua for me to make up my mind to quit my job and move home to save money so that I could prolong travel experiences. It can be hard to leave a place where you feel comfortable, where you have connections and creative relationships that support you. This sense of security can definitely be a deterrent in picking it all up and taking yourself away to travel. But I found that relationships only got stronger while I was abroad for a year and a half. I also formed new relationships with other creatives who were interested in the traveling I was doing. Good things will happen by opening yourself up to the world and what it has to teach you.

Photos by Simone Bodmer

www.simonebodmerturner.com

Make this life a wonderful adventure.

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