My fascination with the Japanese culture started in the 80’s between episodes of Shogun and Carl Sagan’s explanation of Heikegani on his Cosmos series. This mysterious and far away land with their samurai legends and their Wabi-sabi aesthetics has had a great impact on me ever since.
Therefore, it is not surprising that my very first post on this blog back in October 2011, was about my two favourite J’s: Japanese Jewellery. I was, however, pleasantly surprised when one of the artists I featured in that post, Yoko Shimizu, agreed to meet with me when I visited Florence last year. We met in my favourite cafe La Cite and the result of that meeting was a one-hour audio interview, which I have tried to transcribe and present to you today. I have been working on it for a long (very long) time mainly because it was my first ‘live’ interview and I hope that you will enjoy reading it.
Yoko is one of my favourite contemporary jewellery artists and if I had not read her CV I would never have thought that her first degree was in law. I was very surprized when she told me that she had been working at an investment bank before she left Japan to go to Florence. She graduated from Alchimia in 2003 and has been creating and teaching jewellery ever since.
Name: Yoko Shimizu
Born in: Tokyo, Japan
Contemporarty: How does a person who has studied law turn to jewellery?
Yoko Shimizu: I knew that what I was doing at the time was not something I would like to do for the rest of my life and also studying law at the University was not my dream. I did not always want to become a lawyer. However, it was while I worked for an investment bank, which was a very energy-consuming job, when I realized that I needed to do something creative. That’s when I started thinking seriously about it.
I started taking jewellery lessons on Saturdays, after work. I really liked it and one day I decided ok, I’ll try and do this seriously. I quit my job and I went to see a few schools in Tokyo. I think some of them are great but it didn’t feel right for me. I didn’t want to go to another University and I looked into a few private schools but I also liked the idea of going abroad.
So I found this school in Florence and I came here and looked at different schools. Alchimia did not exist at that time. I went to a small jewellery school. I was fascinated with the jewellery creating process. We did not use any electricity just old fashioned tools, soldering by blowing through a tube and so I learned a lot of techniques there. Nevertheless, there was not much room for my own creativity; it was more about technique. I went back to Tokyo for two months, you see, I was married to my first husband then. I did look for a job in the jewellery business in Tokyo but I wasn’t ready to open my own business so I came back to Florence in 2001.
This time I was more serious about this. Alchimia had been offering courses with Giampaolo Babetto and I loved his work, so I decided to join them. Then I took courses with Manfred Bischoff; both are completely different artists and teachers.
C.: How so?
Y.: Well, Giampaolo kind of opened my eyes into making aesthetic combinations more freely, not starting with an idea but experimenting, trying, retrying, redoing things. For me, Manfred was much more difficult to follow; he had a very different way of communicating with us in respect to what I was used to. Manfred was doing his first course at Alchimia. He would say a few words and then explain nothing. So we had to think about it and later we would understand what he meant. It was a little puzzling in the beginning but after some time I got it.
C.: Both Babetto and Bischoff have a different opinion on the wearability of jewellery pieces. Does wearability play an important role from the beginning of your planning process?
Y.: My starting point is the jewellery piece on the body. I think it looks different when you look at it on the table and then on the body and that is very important to me.
When I have an idea then I use the material to see the effect, if it coincides with the idea. If I start with an idea, the wearibility issue is not there yet in that stage. I’m more interested in seeing the effect of the material from an aesthetic point of view, so usually, my starting point is how the piece would look on the body. However, at this moment I’m using materials that I already know how they behave on the body and that is why I can start with a vague idea without worrying how they will affect the body.
C.: In your series ‘Arno at Night’ you used oxidized silver and gold and in ‘Transformation’ you used resin. How did you choose these materials?
Y.: For the first one, I started with this idea of the river with the dark water and the nothingness. I wanted it to look black with the reflections on the water. I wanted to reflect the light on the nothingness, on the water.
For the resin pieces, this is what happened. My name ‘Yoko’ in Japanese is the ideogramm for ‘leaf’. I think we discussed this years ago with Giampaolo, when we were supposed to draw something in the first lesson.
So, I started drawing leaves and fish scales. That was kind of my starting point and one day he said “Yoko, come here” and he showed me this shadow of leaves falling on the wall, which resembled the pictures that I was making. So, I started experimenting with materials that would have that kind of transparency like resin, paper and other materials. Paper in resin becomes a little transparent and so that is when I started becoming interested in resin. What I don’t like about it is when it looks glassy and shiny, or cheap and that is why I wanted to make the surface not look shiny.
So, the first pieces were made with paper and I somehow managed to get them not look shiny. Continuing from that, I was interested in the surface of wood, which is organic and warm and I was trying to make the resin surface into something more subtle so that is why I chose wood. I model the pieces in wood, mold them, then poor the resin into the molds and I also liked the idea that wood is a natural material which is transported into a material that is not natural and I can give it transparency.
C.: How did you go from one collection that is so dark to another with so vibrant colours?
Y.: I wanted to create colours that do not exist on wood. Also, after making all these pieces in black, my subconsious hungered for colour. I go from one thing to the other, so when I work a lot of time with resin, I need to go back to metal.
C.: You left your life in Japan and started from scratch in Florence. You have a family and a son, who was born here. Do you miss living in Japan? Or does it make you love it more?
Y.: Definitely. I miss things that I took for granted when I was there. For example that things work, there is organization and people are so polite. When people are polite and things work, you don’t even notice it. When things don’t work and people are not polite then you notice it.
C.: How did you adapt in this new country?
Y.: When I was 9 years old, my father, who was a journalist, was transfered to New York, so I am used to changes and this helped me adapt. I was forced to adapt to different situations. That makes me a little bit less afraid to take chances. In the end, the Japanese mentality is very strict. If you are used only to that then it is more difficult to live in different cultures but I had the possibility to learn new cultures as a child.
C.: Besides working on your pieces, you also teach. Do you teach regularly or not?
Y.: No, I’m doing various workshops but I don’t teach regularly now. I like teaching because the students in Alchimia are from all over the world and that is very interesting. It is also interesting to see the outcome of their works when they come from different cultures. I learn a lot but I also need time to work on my pieces and to be with my family.
C.: You work on your own and you also collaborate with ORIZZONTI. How did that come about?
Y.: ORIZZONTI was founded by Meiri Ishida and Karin Kato, all students of Alchimia. We wanted to promote Japan and our work. They were organizing an exhibition in Japan and I loved their work so when they asked me, I took the chance.
C.: Are you thinking about going back to Japan at some point?
Y.: It’s been 12 years that I’ve been here. There were times when I thought seriously about going back but I did not do it. Now, my husband is Italian and it would be more difficult to go back, but one never knows what happens. If I left Italy I would miss it too. Compared to the hectic life I was living in Japan, it is much better to lead a creative life here.
C.: Ok, my last question is something you have probably heard before but here goes. If someone told you “I want to become a contemporary jewellery artist”, how would you respond to that?
Y.: Do you want to make a living out of it? (we both laugh at that)
You have to be very patient and hard working. For me, I love it. There are still a lot of things to be invented and work to be created. And things change. For me, in the future, I would like to make small productions of pieces that would be accessible to more people because one-of-a-kind pieces take a lot of time and work and thinking and it is not possible to lower the prices on that.
Dear Yoko, thank you so much for spending time with me and answering all those questions. It was a real pleasure and I learned a lot!
“My approach to jewellery often begins with a focus on the relationship between the jewellery piece and the human body. I look for simplicity and harmony in this relationship through the process of making: experimenting with materials and forms, constructing one part at a time, pausing to see the effect on the body. In the end I feel the need to leave an imperfection or add or eliminate an element, so that there is something a bit off or unexpected, at times in search of tension, rigor, sometimes for a touch of warmth.” Yoko Shimizu
Thank you for reading 🙂