by Caylie Warkentin
Vancouver-based potter and artisan Chihiro Uki of Potteruki handcrafts pottery and porcelain jewelry. Her work is recognizable for its natural hues and whimsical shapes - iridescent abalone shell trinket dishes and periwinkle blue whale pendants feature alongside miniature vases and sea urchin ring dishes.
Chihiro’s own experience with pottery began in 1998 when she took pottery lessons in Vancouver before going on to teach lessons at a local studio. She began to experiment with different forms of pottery during the COVID-19 pandemic when art studios closed due to provincial restrictions. Despite these restrictions, Chihiro’s creativity was uninhibited and she crafted miniature pottery on a small wheel she placed on her dining room table.
Chihiro’s work is deeply inspired by her love of the ocean and an ever growing shell collection she molds her pieces after. Though her pieces are imaginative in nature, they are also functional. She thinks often about the longevity of each of her pieces and prioritizes small-batch, mindful production in the hope that thousands of years from now her pieces will still endure.
This sense of whimsy and functionality work together to produce pieces that are both practical and captivating. Chihiro says that she’s “just trying to make something that's going to be used in everyday life, but with a little bit of joy.”
Chihiro’s work can be purchased through her Etsy shop.
Tell me about your journey of discovering pottery as a medium.
It was very organic for me. My grandfather was a potter. So I feel like it’s just in my genes to be curious about it. I first started taking pottery lessons when I moved to Vancouver in 1998. I knew nothing about the process of pottery – I called it mud. I started taking lessons in Vancouver and that’s how the journey began. After that, I taught at a pottery studio, and I learned a lot of Japanese pottery philosophy basics. I go clockwise [on the wheel]. In Canada, you go counterclockwise.
For the longest time, I kept it as a hobby. I didn’t decide I was going to make this a business. It wasn’t like that. I never really forced anything. I started doing markets, and then during the pandemic, people started shopping online more, so there was demand.
I always have had that desire to create. I’m a crafty person. So I wanted to make stuff.
What does the process of making a piece of pottery look like?
You need the clay, and then you have to wedge the clay very well. Some people skip the wedging process, but I learned pottery from a Japanese person who insisted wedging was the most important step. Once you throw it on the wheel, you dry it for a couple of days until it's firm enough. Then you turn it upside down and trim the bottom. After that, you dry it completely - it might take a couple of weeks depending on the weather.
Then it goes into a first firing which is called a bisque firing and then it becomes porous enough that it will absorb glaze. Once it comes out of the first firing, you glaze it again and then it goes into firing for the second time and it becomes something functional. If I wanted to decorate the piece with gold luster, then it goes into the kiln for a third time.
Your work contains many references to the ocean. What inspires this love for the ocean?
I think it’s just who I am. My father was a marine biologist. Both my parents are - they met at a national Marine Biology Research Institute. I have a really unique upbringing. My father was a researcher for abalone shells. He would collect shells from all over the world. In the summer he travelled to aquariums or to other institutes in Japan and sometimes I would follow and he would leave me while he was working. I would just wander around and look at the fish.
My dad travelled all over the world for his job, and whenever he came home he brought little shells in a bottle. There was this huge poster of whales that hung in my house, by the stairway. I looked at it every day. My dad would often bring abalone meat home after he studied the shells and we ate them. So as a child I played with abalone shells. I remember having shells in my sandbox. Shells were always around.
I think that’s where my love for the ocean comes from. But I really only recently just started to realize that’s maybe why I like it.
So you grew up witnessing your dad's love of the ocean.
Sometimes I would be on the boat with my dad and you wouldn’t believe it - but I would be a preschool child with my older sister - and my dad would take us on the boat and then he would go diving to collect samples, leaving me and my sister on the boat alone. Even where I was born I was by the ocean, in a port city. And then Vancouver, too. The ocean is just so beautiful. I go to Jericho beach almost every day. Even at Jericho, the types of shells are so limited - three or four species, maybe, but I still collect them.
When you make your porcelain shells, do you look at reference images or do you have real shells in front of you?
Wherever I went travelling in the world, I always collected shells. I never thought of using them for anything until one day I thought oh, I can use those for making earrings. And then all of a sudden they came to life and I was happy - I was glad I had kept them.
I made molds out of the shells I have collected. I press the shell into the clay to make an indent. It’s just like making a stamp out of it. And once that is fired, it becomes permanent, really hard, like a mold. And then piece by piece I squeeze the clay in.
Even though I already have lots of shells, I still collect them here and there, and I use them as displays when I do markets. I just scatter all of the local shells on the table, and then I display my earrings on top. I collect baby clams, purple savory clams, and occasionally oyster shells, and mussels.
It must be a beautiful starting point for conversation when people see your work. To see the connection between the land and your art.
Some people think that the actual earrings are made from shells - some people don’t know what porcelain is, and they go, porcelain made from shells? It’s mineral clay - it’s different from shells. It definitely starts a conversation.
It’s beautiful that you’ve turned something you stumbled across on the beach into a permanent piece of art.
It makes me happy.
This is going to confuse whoever is studying this shell because a lot of the pieces I use are not coming from Canada but are from Japan - and they will know then that we were going all over the place. I’m just kind of having fun in my imagination while I’m making it. I get so much joy out of it.
You’re doing a lot of miniature work. What inspired the transition from full-size pottery to miniature pieces?
When the studio was closed during the pandemic, I still really wanted to make pottery. So I found a really tiny wheel which I could put on my dining table. I was trying to make bigger things using the tiny wheel - but then I tried to challenge myself and see how tiny I could make a perfect replica of a cup. So I was just having fun for myself. One day I posted my work on Instagram and surprisingly I got a lot of messages from miniature enthusiasts.
What is the process of making miniature pottery?
Making miniature pottery is exactly the same process as making bigger pottery. It actually takes me longer to throw a miniature than the big thing because it's just so tiny. So even if it’s tiny I still put two or three glazes to get the same effect. It’s little but still authentic. I get joy out of achieving that. And people get joy out of like looking at it.
Do you find that your relationship with your pottery has evolved since the pandemic?
Some people just pick a theme or style and stick to it. I'm just constantly changing. I’m all over the place.
I had so much fun trying to make miniatures. It's just my personality - I get into one thing quickly and get really into it. At the same time, I get bored really fast, too. But still, it satisfied my desire to create.
What do you think your pottery is going to look like going forward?
I like blue. I like ocean-themed stuff. I also don’t usually plan things. Sometimes I tell myself, oh, I want to make this, and then I go into the studio and turn the wheel on and start throwing and something completely different comes out.
Now I can make stuff at the studio again, so I can make bigger items. I’ve been focusing more on making bigger cups because everyone needs cups. This year I told myself I’ll start making more functional stuff.
It seems like a theme in your art is this sense of longevity - though there is a whimsy to your pieces, they’re also, at their core, functional.
One thing I try really hard is to not make something that would end up in the garbage. I try to make something that is durable and would last a long time. So I take my time making each piece very carefully and I try not to mass produce items.
Even though I don’t know who it’s going to when I'm making a piece, I try to always imagine that whatever I'm making will last a long time. Instead of something cheap from a dollar shop that you’ll casually throw away when you’re done with it, I try to not make any more garbage.
You must feel proud when you see your pieces come out.
I look forward to the kiln finishing. That moment is almost addictive. I wake up, and think, oh today, I’m going to open up the kiln. It's either disappointment or oh, this came out! But that feeling of excitement has always been the same. It hasn’t waned for me.