Posted:Feb 23, 2022

Yoko Kawada: Designer / Maker / Kintsugi Practitioner

The third article in a three-part series talking with Japanese-born artists based in Sydney, Australia

Yoko Kawada in her studio (Photo: ©Alana Landsberry)

I first met Yoko Kawada at an artist talk in a gallery I was working in at the time. I later contacted her, as I was interested to take a kintsugi class with her. She was a patient and skilled teacher to me as I worked on filing and filling pieces of a cracked plate. She advised me to see the break as an opportunity to extend the design potential of the repair. Her own kintsugi work is fine and detailed, combining traditional and contemporary knowledge and materials to not merely repair, but also to respond to the break in the object and its meaning and use to the owner. On an evening in November of last year when I met with her online, we each had a glass of red wine in hand. We talked for an hour, and this is just a fraction of our conversation.

 Lisa Pang: What was your journey to becoming a designer and maker, and specifically a kintsugi practitioner? 

YK: I don’t necessarily see myself as an artist as I didn’t go to art school. I prefer the term maker. I do have a family background with a lot of creative people. My grandfather was an architect, and I grew up in a house with a photography shop in front. People would come for their portraits and the film would be developed in the back. I learnt to develop black and white film as a child. My mother was also always busy making crafts, knitting, sewing and dressmaking.

 LP: And what was your journey from Japan to Australia?

YK: I was born in Tokyo, but I grew up in Niigata. After attending university in Tokyo, I left Japan in the late 1980s and came to Sydney for a working holiday. After that I moved to Portugal for a while. Then I lived in London for 10 years, where I attended a design school in Chelsea. By 2000 I was back in Sydney again, where I have lived ever since with frequent trips back to Japan (until Covid). 

 LP: Could you tell me about your practice and how you work as a designer and maker? 

YK: My practice involves designing, making, and teaching.  Art kintsugi is a design process that goes beyond mere repair. I have always been very interested in materials, and in learning about new materials and methods alongside traditional kintsugi techniques. I teach through kintsugi and maki-e (lacquer decoration) workshops. I also accept repair commissions and participate in exhibitions.

YK: I have a business called Square+Round creating mosaic tile items. It was through this that I first heard about kintsugi. In 2017 I met an artist duo who taught me kintsugi – they were very welcoming, and I started to develop a passion for the whole process and philosophy. As they themselves are unable to use the traditional urushi lacquer (due to its toxicity), I also learnt traditional methods from other urushi and maki-e practitioners in Japan. 

 LP: What are you working on at the moment?

YK: I am preparing for an exhibition at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens, called Transformation: Art in Recycle. It has over 30 artists working with a variety of recycled materials such as textiles, glass, plastics, and timber, and transforming them.

I also have a large amount of complex repair commissions and I teach kintsugi workshops six days a week. In recent times, I have been doing workshops online for families who have been separated due to Covid. 

Photo: ©Yoko Kawada

LP: How do you see the role of an artist in society? 

YK: As a visual thinker conscious of the power of a visual image, I feel that my Instagram account has enabled me to connect with many people. It is a quick method of giving and sharing inspiration, and I think that it contributes to the dialogue about repairing an object rather than disposing of it. Kintsugi is a traditional technique, but it has a place in current debates about sustainability – it shows that beauty can be achieved by recycling and reusing.

I find that people who attend my workshops – whether they are engineers, doctors, or something else – are able to connect to kintsugi because they don't see it as difficult art. It is very accessible. It’s a way of looking at the world that isn’t difficult, it’s simple – and it provides a transformation. People who come to my workshops often have that as an object or psychological purpose, and kintsugi is a kind of caring and mindfulness.

Kintsugi is a diverse and adaptable culture. I did wonder about insulting traditional practitioners such as my urushi and maki-e teachers, because I don’t see myself as a classic artist. Playing with materials is what I do. I recently completed a kintsugi line in green because I felt that gold would be too busy. My approach is to be led by the object as a functional aesthetic whole.

LP: Do you feel there are differences somehow in the way art and artists operate and are received within the cultures of Japan and Australia?

YK: I haven’t lived in Japan since the late 1980s, so I can’t really say.

LP: I recently saw an exhibition at the Mori Art Museum, Another Energy, which presented 16 women artists from around the world aged between 71 and 105. Do you think you’ve had a different journey, being an artist who is a woman?

YK: That’s fascinating. It made me think about my mother, who still makes and teaches craft and has exhibitions. She has just received a commission to create a hand-woven noren (shop curtain). I don’t feel that gender or age matters in what I do, I have travelled a lot and have been able to fit in to a lot of different situations.

LP: Given that travel has been so restricted in recent times, what do you miss the most about Japan – what would you do if you were here now?

YK: I just miss the energy of Tokyo. Sydney is peaceful and calm but then … Tokyo. I find inspiration in the attention to detail of things in Japan. When I’ve been in Sydney for too long I become very loose, but when I go back to Tokyo it’s the attention to the small things that I immediately notice.

LP: Yoko has repaired many things, but so often the value of her craft and what she does goes beyond mere repair. Rather than simply returning broken pieces to a whole object, she returns to people a memory of culture, place, time or person. Yoko has repaired (for me) a pair of lead crystal candlesticks given by a much-loved and now deceased family friend, in fine lines of gold. More recently she has been working to repair a traditional Maori jade amulet worn daily, experimenting with new materials and methods of repair to give it a  robust contemporary life. During the social isolation of Covid, Yoko’s online workshops have also created and nurtured community and familial bonds.

While the art of kintsugi, a traditional Japanese technique that can be traced back to the 14th century, is one of technical training in practical ceramic restoration, it is also a philosophy about the value of things and rituals that transcends materialism. As the lines of repair remain visible, kintsugi objects wear the processes of transformation on their surface.  That once imperfect object, now carefully remade, stronger than before, becomes a beautiful symbol of care.


Part 1 and Part 2 of this interview series

Lisa Pang

Lisa Pang

Lisa Pang is an artist, writer and curator living and working between Tokyo and Sydney. As an artist, she has exhibited in Australia and Europe and has a particular interest in non-representational painting, reductive and non-objective art, and alternative art platforms. Lisa writes exhibition texts for artists and has contributed reviews to various journals and galleries in Sydney, New York, London and now, Tokyo. She also curates, most recently of The Paddock: Posted; a postcard exhibition and Instagram project currently travelling the world on artist networks. Formerly a lawyer, a career change saw her studying painting at the Australian National Art School and she now likes to make, write and muse about art, art making and artists.