Meditations on Clay

Ceramicist Kiyomi Koide Talks About Her Passion

By Maya Harris

I first met Kiyomi Koide when I was 14. My mother had taken me to her studio in Oakland not to meet her as a ceramicist, but rather, as a psychic. We sat facing each other in the light-flooded room, surrounded by half-worked pottery pieces and tables dusty with dried clay. She offered me a cup of tea, of which I drank little; in those days, I was quiet and shy. “ I won’t bite,” she assured me.

Koide became a clairvoyant reader by accident. “I didn’t mean to make it my profession. I wanted to heal myself. I did a reading on someone who was heartbroken, a friend, and she was so happy afterwards. She had a big mouth, she talked, and since then, the demand has been non-stop.” Now, she splits her time between working as a psychic and making pottery.

Koide’s interest in clay is rooted in memories of her youth in Yokohama, Japan, where she grew up. There, she saw handmade pottery used in everyday life and recalls memories of her mother choosing a cup and saucer to suit her mood. “I found it to be a tiny but great joy,” Koide says of these memories. “It’s like a meditation. You ask yourself, how do I feel? It’s communication with yourself.”

But opportunities for her to learn pottery in Japan were scarce. “In Japan, you have to go to a certain place. Casually, I couldn’t take classes.”

It wasn’t until she took a trip to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, in 1992 that she took her first pottery class. She originally intended to study Spanish for two months at a language school there. However, the school was run by Americans, and many of the students were also from the US. “Everyone was speaking English, so I didn’t really have a chance to learn and practice Spanish.”

She left the language program after the first month and decided to attend pottery classes at the Institute de Allende. “I just happened to find a ceramics class, which I had always been interested in.” It was her first foray into ceramics. “I fell in love with the clay, so rustic, earthy, basic. In Mexico, you go to a restaurant and they’re using this handmade pottery. The pottery made there was very much in its original state. A hundred years ago, people were still making pottery in this way. What I love about Mexican pottery is that, as you use it, it breaks or chips the edge, and it just shows the color of the clay, and it’s still beautiful.”

Koide explained that the ceramic pieces were Raku fired, which meant that the pieces were not meant to serve food. “But my interest, even from then, was in making something to serve food. So I made plates and bowls and cups.” This interest stems from her spiritual work and her respect for what food gives us. “Food is energy. Everyday we have to eat. What you eat is what you are, who you are. And even something bad like a donut, sometimes you have a craving for it. But if you think ‘donuts are bad, donuts are bad’ and then eat it, it only gives you damage because your mind thinks it’s bad. But if you think, ‘I don’t eat this everyday, but I need you now, I’m tired, I just need your power,’ if you make friends, it doesn’t do necessarily bad things to your body. If you eat too much, of course it’s a bad thing. But it’s all about energy.”

In 2001, Koide moved to the U.S. to get a bachelor’s degree in interior design. “I decided when I was twelve or thirteen years old to live in the states. I loved English, I loved American culture. I had kind of dreaming eyes. I was always watching American movies and listening to music. I chose the US because I thought it would give me more freedom to explore the possibilities in many different aspects regardless of age, gender, occupation, nationality, and religious beliefs. Moving to the U.S. definitely shaped me as an artist and ceramicist.”

In San Francisco, 10 years after her first foray into pottery, Koide had the opportunity to take more pottery classes at City College of San Francisco and the Berkeley Art Studio of the University of California. She learned the basic skills of hand-building and throwing on a wheel. After establishing this initial base, most of what she has learned has been self-taught. “Since then, Koide says, “I couldn’t stop.”

Koide completed her transfer studies for interior design at City College of San Francisco. “I loved it. I think community college is great here. People are willing to learn, they’re more motivated, I thought. Then I took one semester at San Francisco State University, didn’t like it. I transferred again to San Jose State. It was okay, but it wasn’t good enough, content-wise.”

When she graduated, Koide didn’t immediately jump into a career as a ceramicist. For some time, it remained a hobby. “Maybe 20 years ago, I showed my boss, who didn’t know I did ceramics, some of my pieces. And he said, ‘Oh, you’re almost professional.’ So almost. What’s the difference between a professional and an amateur? So I just asked my artist friends this question. Some people said, ‘If you think you’re professional, you’re professional.’ And another friend, he said, ‘If you can make a living out of it, even just barely, then you’re a professional.’ I liked that answer, so I decided to make my income that level. I set my mind.”

After she mentally committed herself to becoming a professional ceramicist, Koide went searching for opportunities. “I wanted my pieces to be used, in café s or restaurants. The same year, a restaurant purchased my pieces, and now I have more. So when you wish, it comes. But it’s a lot of work. It’s a little bit too much now, I may need to hire somebody. When I’m in Japan, that’s the only time I have a vacation from ceramics. So I thought, maybe if I become too physically busy, I can’t really focus on the spiritual aspect. So that’s something I need to think about, that’s where I am right now. I need to reorganize my intention.”

Despite the challenges of keeping up with demand, Koide is optimistic about finding a way to balance workload, while also maintaining her philosophy around the process of creating ceramics.

Koide’s mission is to create pieces of beauty that penetrate everyday life. “I really want to show the beauty of clay, I want to think about what naked clay is like, and how it blends in. If you eat something out of plastic or out of paper, or something you don’t care about, versus something where you know who made it or where it came from, something you have some affection for, you don’t enjoy the meal as much.”

Interestingly, Koide doesn’t draw inspiration from specific artists. “I am often asked who my hero is, and I don’t know. Probably because I don’t have academic training, so I didn’t really study ceramics thoroughly from all different angles. I’m just driven by what I want to make. But color-wise, I really like Gustav Klimt and Georgia O’Keefe.”

She currently has three collections on her website. The Shibui Collection features pieces that, for the most part, display the natural color and texture of the clay with imperfect, earthy forms. Shibui in Japanese has a very nuanced meaning. “Green tea is shibui. It’s bitter. It doesn’t really mean bitter, but it means chic, settled, not jumping around. It blends in, not popping out. Brown, black, gray, that kind of muted color.”

On the other hand, pieces from her Kawaii Collection (kawaii in Japanese means cute), are more worked, using the clay as a canvas onto which she has painted images rather than as the main aesthetic appeal. Most of them depict scenes of a black cat on various improbable adventures, including standing at the top of Sutro Tower and walking on the cables of the Bay Bridge. “It comes from my imagination, and playing with color. I like cats, I’m just pleasing cat lovers. I really like to draw something unreal. It’s kind of funny, silly. People ask me, ‘What is your real style?’ But it’s boring to just stick to one style, I need some change. I can’t get rid of this style, because the silly part of me wants to do this. I really think a sense of humor in life is really important.”

Lastly, the whimsical clay figurines in her Marionette Collection are both playful and peaceful. “It’s something I just enjoy so much sometimes. It’s just a totally different gear. I have to set my mind for it.”

Koide explained how her marionette collection was born. “Whenever I go to Japan, when I wake up, I remember some weird dreams. So one day, I woke up and remembered the body parts of the marionettes, the body, face, arms, and legs. Separately it just came into my mind. So I decided to make it. It’s good to follow what you dream of. And it’s so much fun for me, because as I make them, it doesn’t go as you wish. It just keeps changing, and then it ends up good. They’re very whimsical, very free-flow, organic. It’s so much fun.” She related the process of making and assembling the marionettes to kisekai ningyo, or Japanese dolls that can be outfitted with different clothing, shoes, and accessories.

Koide continues to live and work in the Bay Area, selling her pieces at seasonal markets and through her store on Etsy, bringing the beauty and joy of her pottery to the Bay Area community. In Berkeley, her pieces are used at the tea shop Teance on Fourth Street. She also distributes her work to several restaurants, cafés and bakeries throughout the Bay Area. Koide currently has a studio at the Berkeley Potters Guild, which is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Saturday from February through November.

Koide’s philosophy of life is a refreshing break from the distracted world we live in. “The power of thoughts — it’s really powerful what you wish for. Something you wish for, you set your mind, and you believe in it, it will happen.” Her steadfast belief that opportunities will arise if the mind is open to and ready for them is something we can all learn from.

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